Sharing news about a sudden, unexpected, or traumatic death

5 min read

Things to keep in mind when your loved one died of suicide, violence, or a traumatic accident

  • Take extra care of yourself and others as you inform family and friends.

  • Get as much help as you can find in spreading the news.

  • Decide how much detail you want to share ahead of time, so you can maintain those boundaries.

  • Grief and shock, as always, can be expressed in a number of ways. When news is especially shocking, the reactions can be more extreme.

  • Be prepared for some well-meaning people to ask questions that feel intrusive to you, as they try to absorb the news.

  • Be aware that learning about someone who has died of suicide can lead to suicidal thoughts, as you care for yourself, your family, and your friends.

Finding out that someone you love has died is one of the most wrenching experiences of life, made even harder when you have to break the sad news to others. And when your loved one has died in a violent or unexpected way, it is even more difficult.

Whether your loved one died by suicide or drug overdose, or was killed in a fight, an attack, or an accident, the job of sharing the news with others may be a daunting challenge.

As with any time you are informing family and friends that a loved one has died, there are best practices to get you through it with more ease: things like breaking the news in person or on the phone and keeping it brief and to the point.

But when the death is particularly traumatic or unexpected, you’ll want to take extra care in delivering the news, since the feelings that come up can be overwhelming. Take some time to absorb the news yourself. Then, seek out the help of others to help you carry this heavy load.

Enlist as many people as you can

The reason that informing others that a loved one has died is so painful is that, as each person reacts, you are reminded of how shocking the news is. In a sense, you are reliving the awful moment when you found out, again and again.

To minimize your own sense of being overwhelmed, ask other family members and friends to help you get the word out. The faster everyone knows, the faster you can focus on collectively dealing with what may seem an unfathomable loss.

It is best to deliver news like this in person or on the phone, and give yourself plenty of time with each person.

With a shocking death, you may have moments where it is hard for you to believe that it actually it happened. For this reason, preparing what you'll say ahead of time—at least the first sentence—can make the process easier on you.

For example, if you know you are going to begin by saying, “I’m afraid that I have some very bad news,” you can then express what happened in a direct and compassionate way. After all, they’ll see in your face or hear in your voice that something terrible has happened. A lot of preamble, or understandable fumbling for words, only increases anxiety for everyone.

Maintain boundaries

As you share the news, be prepared that people may try to make sense of the unfathomable by going over the details again and again. You are under no obligation to share every small detail, especially if you do not want to rehash them again and again with well-meaning but insatiably curious (and inadvertently hurtful) friends or family.

At the same time, “keeping up appearances” is not going to help you grieve, long-term—so releasing as much of the full truth as you can may lift a huge burden off your shoulders as you deal with this painful loss.

Whatever approach you want to take, prepare yourself with the facts you want to share. You may even want to write them on a piece of paper, if a checklist is comforting. That way, you know what your boundaries are—they’re right there in black and white.

Be ready for a variety of reactions

Grief after losing someone to suicide, violence, or a deadly accident can feel like a roller coaster, full of intense ups and downs. In addition, an unexpected or shocking death can make it difficult for people to take in the reality of what has happened.

For example, instead of reaching out for a hug, they may need physical space to take in what you have said, and may not want to be held. Ask them if there is someone they can call to sit with them in the first hours: a neighbor, or family member or friend who lives nearby.

As much as you may want to sit with them, it is better to call in support from others. You are tending to your own deep wounds, after all—and the sooner you can finish the job of informing others, the sooner you can focus on your own grief. The more you have enlisted help in spreading the word and in supporting others, the less likely it will be that you will be overwhelmed.

What to know about suicide

Suicide has some particular risks associated with it because news of a loved one’s suicide sometimes brings up suicidal thoughts in others.

You may want to include information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or their number (1-800-273-8255) in the obituary, and mention it as you share the news. Families are often in uncharted territory in comprehending suicide and feeling comfortable in talking about your loved one’s death. This kind of crisis support can help you and your family members understand more about suicide and dismantle old, harmful myths.

Understanding PTSD

An unexpected death brings up especially strong emotions because it catches us off guard, and a death by tragic means magnifies those feelings. For these reasons, hearing the news of a death like this—and having to share the news with others—can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

According to a 2014 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, “unexpected death was associated consistently with elevated odds of new onsets of PTSD, panic disorder, and depressive episodes at all stages of the life course.”

Symptoms of PTSD include heart palpitations; sweating; hyperventilating; problems sleeping; feeling angry, tense, or jumpy; and dwelling on what the person might have gone through in their final moments.

Granted, there is quite a bit of overlap between these symptoms and the different ways that grief can be expressed. But PTSD may be a factor when the symptoms dramatically affect your day-to-day life and do not ease up with time. You may also be experiencing what is known as complicated grief, or “prolonged grief disorder,” which describes an acute state of grief that does not change, even months or years later.

Either way, the help of a good therapist can help you work through these intense feelings and processing your grief. Your loved one’s sudden death may have been the most harrowing day of your life, but it does not have to define you or torture you forever.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.