Unique Concerns When Grieving for a Sudden Loss

IMAGE "There are always two parties to a death," famed British historian Arnold Toynbee said, "the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved…and in the apportionment of suffering, the survivor takes the brunt." Any loss of a loved one is tragic and painful. When death occurs from a sudden, unexpected cause such as an accident, natural disaster, suicide or murder, however, the reactions of the survivors in coping with their grief are more intense and varied than they may be following a death that occurs after a prolonged illness.An unexpected loss brings with it factors that do not normally exist when death is anticipated. Not only must the survivors cope with feelings of grief, but they may also have to cope with intrusion into their mourning by the media or with the technicalities and slowness of the criminal justice system. Other factors adding to the burden of an unexpected death are the lack of an opportunity to say goodbye or to plan for the financial future of the family left behind.

No Time to Prepare

Donald Mossman, PhD, director of graduate studies at Concordia College in Michigan and teacher of a college course on death and dying, identifies another factor, which is often overlooked by sudden loss survivors and their caregivers. Regardless of the cause, a sudden death deprives the survivors of what Mossman calls anticipatory grief. This is the grief that begins when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness. It helps prepare the survivor for the coming loss and reduces the intensity of the psychological reaction to the eventual death.

Violent Death

The mind has trouble comprehending sudden, violent death. Deaths involving violence engender frightening feelings in the survivors, ranging from terror to anxiety to powerlessness, making them particularly traumatic. Often the violence of the act resulting in death arouses strong feelings of hostility in the mourner, causing severe internal conflict leading to guilt, shame, or depression.


Family members of someone who has committed suicide also face special burdens. According to Judith M. Stillion, PhD, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, many family survivors of suicide have higher levels of guilt, shame, and anger than do survivors of sudden loss from other causes. Persons grieving a loss through suicide are often left with questions, such as why their loved ones killed themselves, and what, if anything, they might have done to prevent the suicide. These questions are often unanswerable and can prolong the process of grieving and coming to grips with the loss.

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