How to Cope With a Sudden Death

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

Grief is painful no matter what, but coping with a sudden death is often disorienting, shocking, and can make processing the experience more challenging. With an unexpected death, you’re not just dealing with a loss. You are also coping with the trauma of how that person died, which can make it difficult to make sense of the situation.

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Sudden death includes death caused by accidents, violence, suicide, heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, overdose, or any unexpected end to someone’s life. This even applies to people who are terminally ill. It may be evident someone is going to die soon, but it can feel sudden if it happens faster or in a way that is not expected. Unexpected death adds a new level of grief that may include a loss of meaning and a greater struggle dealing with the practical aspects of bereavement. Coping with sudden death requires a different approach than other types of grief.

What Makes Sudden Death Grief Different

Though every death is unique, there are some common experiences related to sudden death. Each of these experiences can be traumatic for the person grieving and add an extra layer of grief to the process. Sudden death trauma may be related to:

  • Personal involvement: If a person witnesses or is involved in a sudden death event, such as an accident, they often blame themselves and replay the incident in their minds over and over.
  • Not being there: Hearing secondhand news about the sudden death of someone you care about can add stress from imagining what happened.
  • Violent death: Many unexpected deaths are due to violence, which can be traumatic and hard to make sense of.
  • Multiple deaths: Sometimes with sudden deaths, the bereaved person may be grieving multiple losses, such as in the case of a car accident involving multiple family members.

Coping with these types of sudden death is shocking and can result in disbelief. When there is no opportunity to say goodbye, there may be mixed feelings, things left unsaid, regrets, and guilt.
Many people who are grieving an unexpected death feel helpless and confused about why it happened. There’s often a loss of meaning, which can lead to anger, depression and numbness. Some unexpected deaths may have a social stigma attached to them, which can lead to feelings of shame and the desire for secrecy and isolation.

If you’re grieving a sudden death or supporting someone who is, it’s important to consider all these unique factors and look for specific ways to help heal from the trauma while also grieving and mourning.

Tips for Coping With a Sudden Death

The first step in dealing with an unexpected death is acknowledging you may need to cope with the initial trauma before you can tackle more common bereavement issues.

  • Consider crisis counseling to get professional support for the initial shock of an unexpected death.
  • Ask for assistance with unplanned needs, such as financial help, mental health counseling, and legal aid.
  • If you can, take an active part in making decisions about the funeral, memorial, and other activities honoring the person who died.
  • Look for agencies and services that work specifically with people grieving the same type or cause of sudden death.
  • Share your feelings and thoughts with in-person and online support groups and other people  with similar experiences.
  • Remember you can join a support group at any time, from immediately after the death to years later.
  • Keep an eye on your physical and mental health, because the trauma of a sudden loss can affect them, such as fatigue and mood swings, respectively.

Coping with a sudden death, or any death, means discovering what healing looks like for you. If it helps, think of grieving as self-care and do exactly what you need to stay mentally and physically healthy. Keep in mind that what you need could change by the hour, day or year.

As you resume your routine with family, friends and work, it can be helpful to set aside personal time to grieve. Grief is a wild ride and it’s impossible to schedule your emotions, but it can be comforting to know that you have a few minutes alone before work or during lunch to express what you are feeling that day.

Many people try to push loss out of their mind because it is painful, but the grief experience is important for your healing. In addition to your private grieving time, it could be helpful to have a public display, like placing photos of the person who died on your desk, creating a space at home with mementos of them, or carrying an object that reminds you of them.

Know that there is no right way to heal or grieve and whatever you need to do to cope is perfect for you.

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  1. Why sudden bereavement is hard. Sudden. https://sudden.org/help-for-friends-and-communities/sudden-bereavement-challenges/
  2. Suicide survivors face grief, questions, challenges. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/suicide-survivors-face-grief-questions-challenges-201408127342
  3. Grief following sudden or unexpected death. GriefLink. https://grieflink.org.au/factsheets/grief-following-sudden-or-unexpected-death/
  4. Dealing with sudden or violent death. Hospice UK Dying Matters. https://www.dyingmatters.org/page/dealing-sudden-or-violent-death

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Dec 15
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