What Survivors of Sudden Loss Experience

Grief and Sudden Loss

When a loved one dies unexpectedly, feelings can overwhelm the grieving and be difficult for them to deal with.  The widely known “five stages of grief” introduced by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler in their book, On Grief and Grieving, do not necessarily include what survivors of sudden loss experience.  Dr. Therese Rando, PhD, says, “They’re not just dealing with loss.  They’re also dealing with personal traumatization.  It affects the ability to get on with grief and mourning, to bend your mind about what transpired.”  This may bring out these reactions and feelings:

  • Heightened emotional reactions
  • Distress over not being able to say goodbye
  • Obsessing over the events and conversations leading up to the death
  • Self-blame for the death (even when it is out of anyone’s control)
  • Intense feelings of disbelief

Responses can range from total numbness to hyper-agitation.  “This doesn’t mean they have to stay like this forever and they are never going to make progress.  But they are given challenges right from the get-go that people who’ve seen the death coming don’t go through,” says Rando.

How does one process all this?  There are ways to cope.  It doesn’t mean you let go of a loved one and move on.  You can turn to trusted family and friends for a listening ear and shoulder to cry on.  Create a special way to honor the memory of your loved one.  Seek professional guidance if needed.

If you are the trusted family or friend, what are some ways to provide support?  You can make sure meals and other necessities are taken care of.  And you can simply be with the grieving.  According to therapist Paul Yin, “You have to be very gentle and patient.  Be present without judgment.” 

Give those who grieve time to accept the death and mourn their loss.