Coping With Sudden Loss

Learn how to heal after an unexpected death or loss. Plus, learn what to say—and what to avoid saying—to those who are grieving.

Coping With Sudden Loss

Grieving the sudden loss of a friend or loved one can be difficult and heartbreaking. We spoke with licensed psychotherapist Julie Hanks, PhD, LCSW, about the right (and wrong) things to say to someone grappling with the death of a loved one, plus other tips on coping with death.

Why does the sudden death of a young person seem different from the death of an elderly person or someone who’s been ill for a long time?
Hanks: The biggest difference between loss due to old age or illness and sudden loss is the emotional preparation time. When a death is expected, there’s an opportunity to resolve any conflicts, to say final words of love, to express gratitude and to say goodbye. With a sudden, unexpected death, you are not only dealing with the loss, but also with an additional level of trauma. Those added layers—shock, guilt for unresolved relationship issues, regret for things left unsaid—may compound the grieving process.

When a young person passes suddenly there is also a sense of loss for the future life they could have lived and the contributions they could have made that will never be realized.

What are some things I can do to help heal?
Hanks: Let yourself feel whatever you feel without judgment and allow others to comfort you in your time of grief. Too often, stoicism is regarded as handling the situation well, when it can actually be a form of emotional avoidance.

I often recommend that grieving clients do or make something that is tangible. For example:

  • Get together with others who are dealing with the sudden loss of a significant person and write down memories in a memory book.
  • Make a collage of things that remind you of your friend or loved one.
  • Write down on tiny strips of paper anything you wish you had expressed to the person you have lost.

Many of my friends and coworkers are visibly upset about the loss of a colleague, but strangely, I’m not. Why don’t I feel worse than I do? 
Hanks: Everyone processes sudden loss differently, on different time frames, in different ways. Just because you're not visibly upset now doesn't mean that you don't care or are less affected. People have varying ways of expressing and processing emotion in general and mourning the sudden loss of a coworker is no different. Some people tend to process emotion externally through talking about it and displaying obvious signs, while others tend to process emotion internally. There is no right or wrong way. However, not feeling or not dealing with an unexpected death at all can negatively affect your emotional health.

Is it OK to do business as usual after a sudden death? 
Hanks: I think it's important to balance pushing forward with allowing the loss to have an impact. It's never a good idea to pretend that the loss didn't occur. It's important to allow for unexpected emotions that may interrupt the normal flow of life. In a work environment, flexibility and mutual support are key to coping with death and moving through the grief together.

How can you handle the loss in a way that feels appropriate for everyone?
Hanks: In a work environment, where there is the sudden loss of a colleague, or in families who are grieving, it's important to have time to process the loss as a group. Providing optional group grief counseling can be an opportunity for individuals to be heard, validated and supported by the larger group.

What’s the worst thing to say to someone coping with death?
Hanks: "Time heals all wounds" and "I know just how you feel" are two common phrases that are not helpful. Although well-intended, these phrases can invalidate someone’s grief and depth of sorrow. Instead say, "I am here for you. What can I do to support you during this difficult time?"

And if you truly feel at a loss for words, simply say, "I don't know what to say other than I care for you, I love you and I'm here to support you."

Medically reviewed in June 2021.

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