Grief arising from sudden and traumatic loss

by Good Grief

Although any bereavement is difficult to accept and process, it is well known that bereavement through sudden, accidental or traumatic can be a special case. This post aims to communicate a better understanding of how and why this type of loss can be particularly traumatic.

It is the sudden nature of these events that poses the problem. Examples of this type of loss include heart attacks, strokes, accidents, post-operative complications, allergic reactions and natural disasters. These events suddenly change our world leaving us shaken, unsure and vulnerable and with a sense that there is no order in the world.

For those left behind there may be special problems not associated with other types of loss. Specific issues may complicate and compound the level of grief and make the grieving process more intense. For example there may be unfinished business in that there was, most likely, no opportunity to say goodbye or to apologize for wrongdoing or arguments.

Sudden tragic events also tend to increase the vulnerability of those left behind. Fears of a repeat of the event that caused the loss or a general anxiety about unfamiliar situations may be present. A general pessimism about the future may also be experienced. Along with this may come losses of income or status which adds to the burden of the bereaved. In some cases the survivor may have experienced the traumatic event and may themselves be injured. This adds to the stress of the situation and may be accompanied by survivor’s guilt.

The article describes how grievers might react to various causes of death. This is useful in understanding our own feelings and in helping those we are close to deal with their loss.
Natural losses are illnesses and natural disasters—heart attack, stroke, earthquake or hurricane. With natural losses the resulting anger is directed towards the deceased or God. Human-caused losses include homicide, bombings, or acts of war and may be due to individual hostile actions. In human-caused disasters the survivor’s anger can be focused on the responsible person(s).

In accidental deaths there is no clear focus of intentionality. There is a high degree of intentionality with deaths such as homicide. Anger and blame for the death can be directed at a responsible person.
Illnesses like a sudden heart attack or ruptured aneurysm and natural disasters earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes may not be perceived as being preventable. Others such as homicide may be highly preventable. When deaths are perceived as preventable, there may be a strong sense of the “What if’s.”     Preventable deaths are likely to increase a sense of guilt, especially if one feels responsible or a sense of anger or if one holds others at fault.
With some losses, the death is instantaneous. Immediate death may leave feelings that the person who died had no time to prepare for the death. Many survivors find the knowledge of an instantaneous death to be comforting. In others situations, there is a question whether the deceased suffered pain or anxiety prior to dying. These memories, particularly if the person’s relative died in extremely distressing circumstances may dominate the person’s thoughts, rather than the memories of the person themselves. This can become a diversion from grieving for the deceased person disrupting the grieving process. Imaginings or memories of the traumatic death may cause so much distress, that remembering the person who died may be actively avoided.
The number of people affected by the loss can affect the intensity of grief. When large numbers of people are involved as with a devastating hurricane, the ability of others to offer support maybe limited, because of the extent of those involved. Conversely, highly public losses such as the September 11th tragedy, Littleton Shootings or losses due to war can result in a greater community response and demonstration of support, allowing survivors to bond and grieve together.
Some sudden losses are still somewhat expected, even if just retrospectively. The heart attack of someone at risk or the sudden loss of someone struggling with a life-threatening illness, frequently do not come as a total surprise. Other losses, such as accidents or random acts of violence, offer little to no forewarning and are a shock to the survivor.


6 Responses to Grief arising from sudden and traumatic loss

  • I am coping with the loss of my mother, my friend. There is such a void in my life and in my heart. The bitter taste of loss never seems far away…

  • Whenever there is a sudden loss what holds the grief is the lack of knowledge as to the “why” of it. I was held for 5 long years following a loved ones death. Then finally I was set free with the answer. We all must truly know that the answer comes with our patience to wait for it.

  • Some of this hit the nail on the head with me. My dad died mid-January this year of a massive heart attack. Even though his physician told me that he was gone before he hit the floor, I struggle with “what was he feeling right before he had the heart attack?” “Was he afraid that he was all alone and knew he couldn’t get help? Was he in pain? Did he want to talk to us just one more time?” Even though I know I will never have the answers to these questions, they plaque my mind nonetheless, and then the fact that we didn’t find him for 4 days (he lives in another town)makes all of us feel horribly guilty. With his birthday coming up and the holidays, I find myself horribly sad without him. It was this sudden death that sent us all reeling in the aftermath. And if one more person tells me he lived a good, long life, I am going to scream. Why can’t someone say, “I bet you miss him a lot” instead.

  • Today after reading this a lot of things about the night my husband died came back and I wanted to die with him. From the time he stood in our kitchen not being able to breath to his death was less then 4 seconds and I started CPR. MY grandsons were so upset but managed to get my son and the EMT”S called. IT TOOK THEM 46 MIN TO GET TO US WHEN I only live 8 min. from the hospital. Being an Rn I was giving it my all -I had been trained to do CPR but when they arrived they did not start CPR. Stood and watched … I knew in my head he was dead but in my heart I could not understand why God had taken this gentle man who gave so much of himself to us and to others.
    I do not remember much about how I managed to get through the funeral I know it was GOD who carried me then and now.
    My children are all mad at me and only one grandson has let me cry and has not run away. He was the one that the others always SAID never amount to anything but he is GODS LIVING ANGEL TO ME. I thank GOD everyday for him.

  • It’s necessary that suicide is included in this topic. It
    is the only traumatic death you didn’t address – which needs great attention as we see everyday that the suicide rate in America is on the rise – especially with teens – those who are bullied and teased – especially those who are of different sexual orientation.

    The stigma and silence of mental health issues and suicide needs to be ‘talked about’ or else those suffering will remain suffering in silence – and some, eventually taking their own lives…. I know, I lost my beloved Jeffrey 2 years ago – he was only 16 years old and one month to the day…. please TALK ABOUT IT! It’s the only way we can help those who cannot help themselves…..

  • My husband was walking across the living room, and dropped, just dropped, groaned once, and was gone. GONE! I called 911, ran back, started CPR, to no avail. He did have heart disease, and this sudden cardiac arrest slew him down, but the surprise, the shock, was still there. He was 55, and seemingly in good health. He followed doctors orders. It obviously didn’t matter. His genetics were against him, ultimately.
    However, my life, my children’s (all grown) lives, changed in those few horrific minutes. It has been two yrs, and my children have moved on. I guess I have too, but it is still a struggle. I am doing things, I am trying to rebuild our business (a huge challenge), but I am far from happy, content, comfortable. I fear, I will never arrive at that point in life again. Every day is a struggle, and no one knows it now. I put on a good mask. I have no desire to start a new relationship. No desire for another man in my life, nor are there any interested in me, and not much opportunity to meet anyone either. I am almost 60, so it is a good thing I am not too interested, as it would be a severe blow to the ego.
    So, every day is an effort.


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