The grieving process can often be more intense, complex and take longer to process in the case of a traumatic loss which is sudden and unexpected. This can include a death by:

  • suicide
  • accident
  • homicide or act of violence
  • sudden ill health like a heart attack or allergic reaction
  • cot death or stillbirth
  • a natural disaster like a flood, hurricane or earthquake
  • act of war
  • terrorist attack

Such losses give family and friends no opportunity to prepare for, or, to say good-bye to their loved one. A sudden loss can also make no sense and be very difficult to accept or process, leaving the family to question ‘why?’ Experiencing such a shocking bereavement can make people start to question the safety of the world we live in and start to feel deep fear and anxiety that other disasters might happen. If those grieving were involved in the disaster themselves, they may experience distressing memories or flashbacks and feel some ‘guilt’ for why they survived, and others didn’t. They may also need to go over the events that happened many times as they try to make sense of the events that happened.

The grieving process may be further delayed if there’s:

  • a police investigation, trial, inquest or legal/financial affairs which take months to complete.
  • intrusive media interest
  • no one found to be responsible in the case of a homicide, terrorist act or where the death is due to negligence; leaving unresolved feelings of anger 
  • unfinished business (such as work-related business or property) left which needs to be sorted
  • a missing person who is presumed dead but hasn’t been found (leaving family and friends to continue to search and hope)

Losing someone through suicide often comes as an earth-shattering shock.

  • Relatives and friends may initially appear dazed, disorientated or numb but may later be overcome by a range of confusing emotions including deep sadness, anger, guilt, rejection and shame.
  • Some people may also show signs of trauma including mood swings, nightmares and flashbacks.
  • It’s common for close family and friends to keep going over the things that happened before the death of their loved one. They’re also likely to ask difficult questions which sometimes feel impossible to answer: ‘Why did they take their own life?’, ‘Could I have done something to prevent it?’, “Why have they left me?”
  • Many people who are bereaved by suicide can feel isolated. Their friends and colleagues may not know what to say or how to react and hold back from making contact. The stigma that can sometimes surround suicide can mean they feel less willing to seek help or mix much for fear of questions like “how did he die?”
  • Family tensions and conflict can also surface. Family members can blame each other and the circumstances of the death may be concealed from children or not spoken about which can affect family relationships.
  • There may be police visits, investigations and in some cases media interest – making it harder to grieve in private. Family and friends can feel very exposed and vulnerable at a time of deep distress.
  • Many practical issues may also need to be dealt with as well including unfinished business (could be work-related or property), sorting out legal and financial affairs and closing social media accounts.

Some people who experience a sudden bereavement can feel very high levels of distress and become ‘stuck’ on the traumatic nature of their bereavement. In such cases it can help to have professional counselling or therapy to help process the loss.

Finding support

You can find support that you can access directly, in the MindWell Directory: