Dealing with grief when loss is sudden

5 min read

Coming to terms with unexpected loss

  • Sudden loss can involve two parallel griefs, one for the person you loved and another for the way they died, and both need to be processed.

  • You will need to be especially kind to yourself and not judge your feelings or attempt to fit your grief into an expected formula.

  • Guilty feelings, while natural, may prevent you from fully coming to terms with what has happened. Remember this was not your fault.

  • Closure may not always be possible, and it is best to accept this rather than dwelling on it.

  • If you are unable to process these feelings on your own, do not hesitate to seek professional counseling.

Unfortunately, you can’t always plan or prepare for a loss. Sometimes our loved ones pass away suddenly, often as the result of an accident or another traumatic event, making the loss even harder to come to terms with. A loved one’s death is never easy, but losing someone under such circumstances can amplify pain, guilt, and other difficult aspects of grief. 

In many cases, you may find yourself not only grieving the person you loved, but also in pain over the way in which they passed, which can complicate the grieving process. Depending on the circumstances, survivors often struggle with the question of why this tragedy happened. Our minds have a need to make sense of the senseless, and so it is natural to wonder what you could have done to have prevented the loss. But there is no satisfying answer to this question; it was not your fault, and this line of thought it is really a response to feeling helpless in the face of unexplainable and uncontrollable events. Understanding that this is not something you will ever fully make sense of is an important step in dealing with the trauma a sudden loss causes.

Put your emotional health first

When a loved one dies, particularly if it was sudden, it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself. Yes, you are grieving a loss, but you’re also dealing with the circumstances of how that loss came to be. These are two different feelings that can complicate what you are going through, and they both need to be acknowledged and processed. 

Try to go easy on yourself and release any expectations for how you should be experiencing your grief. Remember that every grief is different and needs to be gone through in its own way. You have every right to lean into your pain if that is what you need; no one is expecting you to just snap out of it. Allow yourself to feel every emotion that comes your way and don’t fight them. Anger, sadness, shock, bewilderment—these all come with the territory of losing someone unexpectedly. Hold space for these feelings and know that they’re all valid.

It's also important to remember that a sudden loss can be debilitating, making it difficult to be present and make pragmatic decisions about things like the funeral or handling your loved one’s estate. Don’t hesitate to ask a close friend or family member for help. There’s a lot involved when it comes to tying up all the loose ends of a life. If you don’t have the emotional energy to do it, make use of whatever assistance is available to you. Don’t let guilty feelings or an unnecessary sense of responsibility force you to do things you're not ready for. Your mental health should take precedence right now, so if you can put the logistics on hold or depend on others, do so.

Do not be afraid to seek professional counseling

Treating yourself with the utmost kindness during this time and taking things day by day is the most productive way to deal with your grief. Even though your loved one’s passing was traumatic, and your pain or numbness or anger may seem correspondingly extreme, what you are going through is all part of the process, and will become more manageable in time if you let yourself experience it fully.

However, if you feel like you are not able to handle it yourself, or if are finding it difficult to perform even basic functions, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a grief group, a grief counselor, or a mental health professional. You will still have to go through all of the pain and challenge of grief, but having someone to talk to about it and guide you on that path can alleviate some of the roadblocks you may be facing in fully processing your emotions.

This is particularly the case if you have other traumatic experiences in your past; a new shock like this can bring earlier griefs and traumas back in very raw ways. This is normal, but it can be very useful to talk to a professional about it lest it become overwhelming.

Survivors’ guilt is also a very common reaction to suddenly losing a loved one. If you feel a need to blame yourself during this stage of your grief, feel whatever you are feeling. But you will eventually have to come to terms with the fact that their passing was not your fault and that your loved one would want you to find peace. If you remain lodged in your guilt and do not process what really lies behind it, this can lead to more serious issues, such as PTSD. In this case, it’s a good idea to seek the help of a professional.

Understand that closure may not come

Even if we internalize the fact that death is part of life, it may not always be possible to emotionally accept a loved one’s passing. When we lose someone in a sudden or traumatic way, fully coming to grips with these circumstances may simply be beyond us. While this is deeply unfortunate, it’s a reality that you will need to accept. The best thing, the healthiest thing, you can do for yourself and for the memory of your lost loved one is to move forward. This doesn’t mean forgetting or letting go—but moving at a pace that works for you into a future that no longer includes your loved one. 

Remember that there is no timeline for grief. Perhaps especially when the loss was sudden, you may find yourself processing it quite slowly. As long as you are staying safe and have the support you need, whatever pace fits your grief is the right pace for you. If the best you can do is get yourself out of bed each morning, then that’s where you are right now. Even the smallest movements toward more peace and less pain are important. Recognize your process; do what needs to be done and feel what needs to be felt, knowing that your loved one would be rooting for you all the way ●