Helping Yourself After a Sudden Death

By Charles A. Corr, Ph.D


Any death of someone you love is a significant loss in your life. You will be challenged both by the loss and by the spontaneous grief reactions you have to that loss. Your bereavement may be more complicated when a death is sudden.

You may have been forewarned that the death of a loved one might come suddenly at any time. For example, someone you love might be living with a life-threatening condition that could lead to a sudden, massive stroke or heart attack. If so, you may have had opportunities ahead of time to discuss the possibility of death with your loved one, although many people do not choose to do so because the very idea of talking about the death of someone they love is too painful for them to consider. In any event, no matter what was or was not done ahead of time, any sudden death is bound to be a harsh blow.

When the death of your loved one is both sudden and unexpected, you will have had no opportunity to prepare for it in any way. And when the death is also traumatic, it may be accompanied by other complicating circumstances, such as violence or mass destruction.

Coping suggestions

What can you do to help yourself after a sudden death? You cannot alter the fact of the death or the circumstances in which it occurred—even though those might be the very things you would most want to change. But there still are many things you can do to begin the process of transforming yourself from a mere victim of the death into a true survivor.

1. Anticipate common reactions that are likely to follow your loss.

Expect to experience many strong and often surprising reactions to the death. Shock, pain, anger, confusion, sadness and guilt are common.

2. Honour your reactions.

This is your loss and these are your reactions. You have every right to experience these reactions. You have them because you loved the person who died and because you’ve been hurt by what happened.

3. Accept that this will be a difficult experience.

When your loss occurs suddenly—and perhaps also unexpectedly, as a result of carelessness or deliberate, intentional behaviour or as part of a large-scale disaster—it is likely to hit you hard and complicate your mourning.

4. Be aware that losses rarely come alone.

A single death can bring many losses, some of which may not become apparent for a while. Typical losses included the presence and companionship of the person you loved, some aspects of your own identity, physical and financial security and perhaps even problems with your own health.

5. Recognize that death and loss affect different relationships in different ways.

Because each individual had a unique relationship with the person who died, each person will react differently. Because each individual fills a different role in a family or other small social group, the impact of the loss is different for each person.

6. Expect special challenges.

Sudden deaths, especially those that are unexpected and involve violence or trauma, may challenge your fundamental beliefs about yourself, society, the world or religion. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself time as you work to fit what has happened into your belief system or to modify the most basic assumptions that you might have previously held.

7. Pay attention to the work of mourning.

Mourning is the process of trying to cope with a loss. In your mourning, you will try to find ways to live with your losses and your reactions to those losses. It can be painful to engage in this process, which is partly shared with others, but mainly personal and private. Work to establish new routines so you can go on with living and loving.

8. Keep a journal.

At first, this will help you focus your reactions and articulate what you’re experiencing. Later, it can help you recognize and measure your progress in coping with your bereavement.

9. Meet your basic needs.

It’s essential to satisfy your basic health needs. Drink plenty of fluids, eat nourishing meals and get adequate rest and exercise. Stay active; don’t let yourself slip into chronic lethargy.

Connecting with Others

Some mourning is best done in private, but seek help from others when you need to do so. Your friends and family members may not know how to help you or may be afraid of the intensity and duration of your grief. Sometimes, in their helplessness, they may just withdraw from you.

Be tolerant, but try to be clear about what kind of help and support you want. Ask for help when you need it and be as specific as you can. Often, your friends will be quite willing to help when they know what you need and are guided toward concrete, practical tasks.

In addition to established friends, seek out others who have encountered similar losses. Understanding, support and guidance are often best provided by people who have suffered similar losses. Bereavement support groups can be a great resource.

Fighting Fears

It’s normal to be afraid as you confront your losses and all the changes they bring. Here are a few common fears that you needn’t worry about:

1. Don’t worry about “losing your mind.”

Encountering a sudden death is an unusual experience. Of course, it seems strange; you may feel funny or worry about not being able to focus. Typically, that will pass.

2. Don’t fear that you won’t survive.

You may never be the same as you were before. And you may experience unexpected surges of grief occasionally. But at some point, you will feel better than you do right now. Until then, just do the best that you can. Take each day 1 at a time.

3. Don’t worry that you’ll forget your loved one.

Many people worry about losing the memory of a special person. Most people find that the happy memories gradually unfold to create a positive legacy. Ask others to share their memories of the person who died as a way of enlarging this legacy.

Finally, remember that you matter and your future matters. The person who died would want you to live the remainder of your life as well as you can.

About the Author

Charles A. Corr, Ph.D, is professor emeritus, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and former chairperson (1989-1993) of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement. Dr. Corr’s professional publications include 22 books and more than 80 articles and chapters on a wide variety of death-related topics.