How to Process an Unexpected Death
Death is a difficult, albeit natural part of life. It can be hard enough to deal with a loss of a loved one when there’s enough time to anticipate it. However, when a loved one passes away unexpectedly, managing the grief alongside the trauma can be overwhelming.
“Sudden death can be disorienting because there’s no time to prepare,” said Tracey Musarra Marchese, a professor of practice at Syracuse University’s School of Social Work, who teaches courses on trauma in adults, child and adolescent trauma, and on death, dying, and terminal illness. “It’s a shock to our systems physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This can cause anyone to develop a crisis in any one of those areas.”
Unexpected death can leave people, including children and teens, feeling particularly vulnerable, as if their world no longer feels stable and safe. But there are many ways to cope with the feelings of loss, trauma, shock, overwhelm and grief, and find the right support.
What Factors Impact the Grieving Process
Several factors can impact how a person processes an unexpected death. According to Marchese and bereavement organization Sudden, the intensity of grief from unexpected death can be measured differently in varying subjective degrees:
- Age: A child dying can be very traumatic and unexpected, compared with an elderly or terminally ill person, particularly for parents.
- Type of death: A heart attack may be sudden and awful, but an accident, murder, natural disaster or other versions of violent deaths can feel especially tragic.
- Relationship: If the deceased was a close family member or friend, this can be extremely painful. Similarly, a caregiver passing away can traumatize a child or teen who sees them as an attachment figure.
- Level of involvement with death: Witnessing a death in person or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, being absent from the death can weigh heavily on a bereaved person.
- Number of deaths: If there is more than one death, a bereaved person might feel overwhelmed with grieving for multiple people.
Symptoms of Grief Related to Unexpected Death
Navigating grief is a process, and along that journey, individuals may exhibit different symptoms.
“With unexpected death, you might see some typical reactions we see in regular grief, but you’re also going to have some of the things we might see in trauma going on at the same time,” Marchese said.
Processing grief and trauma means that people’s responses might reflect a combination of the two. According to Marchese, common reactions include:
- Mood swings
- Feeling stuck
- Feelings of helplessness
Trauma responses can also include flashbacks. These can be about what actually happened to the deceased or, if the person was not present at the time of the death, what they imagined happened, Marchese said.
Individuals may begin to blame themselves or search for answers, explains the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health (PDF, 25 KB). Helplessness may also look like displays of anger or immobilization. The gradual nature of preparing for death is taken away, so there can be feelings of distress, unfinished business, regrets and missed opportunities.
“When it’s a sudden loss, there’s no longer a chance to make reparations with the deceased,” Marchese said. “You can get lost in the ‘what-if’s’ in long-term grief, but they’re much more likely to occur after a sudden loss.”
How an Individual Can Process an Unexpected Death
Everyone experiences grief differently, particularly with unexpected deaths where they haven’t had ample time to prepare and accept the loss. According to Marchese, there are a number of ways to manage bereavement with an unexpected death:
- Give yourself permission to feel. It’s okay to experience and express your feelings, even when they are uncomfortable and unpleasant. Remember to withhold judgment and avoid suppressing them.
- Show yourself grace and patience. Each person has their own timeline for grief. You can define your own healing process. Instead of holding onto negative feelings, focus on the gratitude you have for the memories you shared with the deceased.
- Engage in regular routines and activities as much as possible. It’s important to have a gradual return to normalcy. Notice if you experience any changes in your physical and/or mental health and seek professional assistance as needed.
In a 2021 Counseling Today article on navigating grief after loss, licensed professional counselor Nichole Oliver asked her clients to think of their bodies during grief as a web browser that has too many open tabs. They pick two or three tabs they want to prioritize, so they can visualize how their bodies and emotions can feel overloaded.
She also suggested putting together a playlist of songs that reflects their current mood and feelings of grief. This may be helpful for clients and grieving persons who struggle to convey their emotions verbally. Then, they can journal about processing grief through music. Oliver says that this helps regulate the part of their brain involved with behavioral and emotional responses.
How Children and Teens Process Unexpected Death
Children and adults process death differently. However, unexpected death reduces or limits the ability to cope with what has happened. It’s not only about the nature and the cause of death, but the emotional responses from the adults around the children.
“If a child loses an attachment figure unexpectedly and the child’s other caregivers are also impacted by this sudden loss, their ability to assist the child may be compromised. This will affect how the child processes their grief,” Marchese said.
A Sudden blog post notes that bereaved children may struggle with the following issues.
- Poor academic performance
- Difficulty with concentration
- Sleep problems
- Aggressiveness or withdrawal
Regression in behavior
- Issues with attachment
It may also take time for children to process the death and they may not know how to react, according to Marie Curie, a United Kingdom-based end-of-life charity.
Here are how children in various age groups may respond to unexpected death, based on a compilation of guidance from Marchese, Marie Curie, and Sudden:
- This age group typically struggles with “magical thinking,” believing that the deceased can come back. Children who lose a primary caregiver around this age may not have many—or any—words for their experiences, although their bodies would know. – Marchese
- Children’s grief process can look like “puddle jumping,” meaning they are grieving one moment, then they are fine and playing around the next moment. – Sudden
- They may also ask the same questions repeatedly and require reassurance that death is not their fault. – Marie Curie
- At this age, children do understand that death is final, but they don’t necessarily have the full understanding because they can’t relate to it. – Marchese
- They are more aware of death and may be concerned that others may die as well. They might also try to put on a brave face and hide their feelings. – Marie Curie
- Children may take in the responses of adults at this time, who may say well-meaning but insensitive things, such as, “You’re the man of the house now,” or “You’re young, you’ll get over it.” However, children should not be expected to act as adults. – Sudden.
- The pre-teen stage is when children truly understand death and its finality. However, behavioral changes connected to bereavement may still occur months or years after a death. – Sudden
- Teens might prefer to talk about their feelings with their friends, or not at all. They may wish that death never happened to their loved one and wonder why it had to happen to them. Their emotions may be more intense. – Marie Curie
- Grief can take a long time, but it’s important to notice if a child’s or pre-teen’s behavior is out of character. – Sudden
Regardless of age, it can be important to encourage children to open up and express their feelings to a trusted adult, whether at home or in school. And adults can benefit from the same advice. Bereaved people often need strong support systems to lean on during their time of mourning.
“If you have experienced a traumatic loss, consider reaching out to others who have had similar experiences,” Marchese said. “This can be through connecting with relatives or with support groups for survivors.”
And while each individual has their own timeline for processing a death, she also says that individuals should let go of expectations about how the grief process will or should play out.
“Grief is not a linear process,” Marchese said. “Society has put parameters around what grief is ‘supposed’ to look like, but it’s more so a lifelong process that changes and becomes easier to navigate over time.”
Citation for this content: the online MSW program from Syracuse University.