Death is a natural part of life that is expected in due time and ultimately unavoidable. The immediate thoughts and feelings we have in the wake of a death, however, may be different depending on our relationship to the person we have lost and the circumstances under which they died.
While people who have very elderly or sickly loved ones may have time to prepare for an impending loss, death that occurs suddenly and unexpectedly can be a significant shock. Suffering the unexpected loss of a loved one can present unique challenges to a person’s healing process and cause an overwhelming amount of grief.
The unexpected death of a loved one can occur in many different ways—leaving friends, family members, spouses, children, and others left to process the emotional aftermath.
If you’ve suffered the unexpected loss of a loved one due to an act of violence, an accident or other type of unexpected incident, here are some ways to begin emotional healing after your loss. Learn what grief looks like after the unexpected loss of a loved one, healthy ways for processing grief, and constructive ways you may handle the aftermath of the accident that caused your loved one’s untimely passing.
How To Process The Grief Of An Unexpected Death
Grieving the death of a loved one is painful regardless of whether it was expected. But losing the opportunity to prepare for this type of loss or say goodbye to a loved one can pose additional challenges.
If you’ve lost a friend, child, parent, partner, or other significant person in your life as a result of an unexpected injury, you may be grappling with a wide range of emotions.
When it comes to the grieving process, there is no singular or correct way to cope with loss.
The most important steps you can take to help yourself heal involve:
- treating yourself with compassion
- seeking support
- gradually discovering what your healing process needs to look like for you
Ways To Heal From The Loss Of A Loved One
Grieving the loss of a loved one, and healing from that loss, is a process that looks different for everyone. There is no timeline for how long it takes to process this type of loss.
If you’ve lost a loved one unexpectedly due to disease, an accident, or act of violence—here are some steps you can take to begin your process of emotional healing:
1. Reach Out For Support
No one should be left to feel as though they should or need to grieve the loss of life alone. Feelings of depression, anger, low mood, and shame can be common emotions felt during the grieving process.
These emotions can make many people feel vulnerable and maybe even embarrassed to be in such a state around others, causing people to avoid others and retreat within themselves. Others may feel urged to isolate from others whom they feel won’t be able to understand their loss, or wish to avoid the exhaustion of simply being around or interacting with other people.
Needing some time to collect and process your thoughts in your own space and time is valid. However, it is important to be able to surround yourself with others who can support you, physically or emotionally, during this time.
Reach out to people who feel safe to you. Whether that’s others who have also been touched by this loss, or seeking the comfort of family members or friends who can hold you, talk to you, or simply be in a space with you as you navigate this loss.
2. Take Care Of Your Needs
Tending to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs during a time of grief is essential. Grief can take its toll on both the mind and body, causing fatigue, sleeplessness, and changes in appetite, among other physical signs of loss.
Although we tend to think of the mind and body as separate, when it comes to grief, the reality is that the two are inextricably connected, requiring that both are attended to with similar weight and compassion for holistic—or ‘whole-self’—healing.
Attend to your most basic needs, such as drinking enough water, eating a balanced diet, and simple tasks such as taking a shower. This can be incredibly important to keeping yourself well and preventing harm to yourself as you process your loss.
You might also find it helpful to try restorative activities such as meditation, yoga, taking a walk, or looking internally to your faith. Many people may find themselves experiencing a disconnect with their faith or spirituality in the aftermath of an unexpected loss, which can create even stronger feelings of loneliness or uncertainty.
Even if it doesn’t feel particularly good or helpful to ensure you’re staying hydrated or getting enough rest, caring for your most vital needs are some of the best ways in which you can show yourself compassion during this time.
3. Give Yourself Time And Permission To Process Your Grief
One of the most important parts of the grieving and healing processes is acceptance. Accept that the wide range of emotions you may feel throughout this process—from shock, to sadness, anger, and hopelessness—are valid.
Accept that you may not be in a mental space to return to your usual routine as normal, and it’s okay to adapt your activities according to what you’re needing emotionally and socially at this time. Give yourself permission to grieve, to be at a loss for words, to cry, to scream, and to feel happiness when it arises.
Grief is commonly discussed as happening in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, the grieving process is not always linear, and your grief might not look like someone else’s grief.
If you skip over one of these stages, or return to a stage of anger after a period of depression, this does not mean you’re moving backwards. Reactions to loss can vary and may be influenced by a variety of personal and environmental factors.
4. Consider Seeking Professional Help
Surrounding yourself with friends, family, and others who bring you comfort is important in the wake of loss. However, there are some aspects of grief and healing that may be best explored with a professional grief counselor.
A professional grief counselor may be able to offer new perspectives and insight for individuals who feel lost, confused, or are suffering psychological troubles such as depression or trauma flashbacks after loss.
A counselor may also be able to offer guidance on finding healthy ways to cope with certain thoughts, feelings, or other hardships that are troubling you as a result of your loss.
5. Find Outlets For Meaning And Expression
Dealing with grief and embarking on your process towards healing can be the most challenging experience of your life—and it can also be a time for self-reflection. In recognition of this, some models depicting the basic stages of grief have begun including a sixth stage—finding meaning.
Finding meaning can be defined according to whatever feels most true to your needs and your experience. This can mean finding meaning from your loss, or finding outlets for expression or activities that give you a sense of purpose as you consider your future without your loved one.
For many, the healing process can be a time for exploration, experimentation, and an opportunity to truly reconnect with your own personal values.
These are concepts that can be explored with a counselor, with loved ones, or on your own through activities such as:
6. Determine What Your Healing Process Needs To Look Like For You
Everyone has their own needs when it comes to what they need to heal from a major loss. The healing process of a parent who has lost their child may not look the same as that of a sibling who has lost her sister. Even couples may not grieve the loss of their child in the same way.
People can need more or less time to grieve, benefit from different coping strategies, and may have different ideas about what steps they feel they need to take to fully grieve their loss.
For instance, under circumstances where a loved one’s death has occurred suddenly and violently due to an accident or act of violence, seeking justice for this loss may be identified as an important part of a person’s healing.
List of Common Reasons People Pass Away Suddenly
Unexpected death is, unfortunately, a common occurrence. This is why it’s helpful to understand both ways you may be able to deal with grief after an unexpected loss and what options you may have for recourse if your loved one died in an accident or incident which could have been prevented.
In the United States, the three leading causes of death in humans are heart disease, cancer, and unintentional injuries.
Although most individuals who have conditions such as heart disease and cancer are generally aware of their risk for a reduced lifespan, those who die due to unintentional—or unexpected—injuries are not. And neither are the people they leave behind in the aftermath of a fatal injury or accident.
Some of the most common ways people die unexpectedly include:
Thousands of people in the United States die by suicide each year, leaving suicide survivors—those who care deeply about the deceased—to grapple with the emotional aftermath of their loss.
While the assumption is that most people who die by suicide are outwardly depressed or suicidal, this is not the case for everyone. Many people who are suicidal will try to hide the extent to which they feel depressed, lost, or trapped within themselves from their loved ones by deflecting or pretending they’re fine on the surface.
Suicide can also be circumstantial, with some people feeling driven to suicide as a result of significant trauma, symptoms of mental illness, or a loss of their own.The risk factors for suicide vary across different cultural contexts, age groups, and other identifying characteristics.
Medical malpractice is a term that refers to the negligent action or inaction of a medical professional that violates medical standards of care and results in patient injury.
According to a 2016 study out of Johns Hopkins University, medical errors are the cause of an estimated 251,000 U.S. deaths each year. This exceeds the number of deaths caused by conditions such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes.
Common causes of medical malpractice-related deaths include:
- missing, delayed, or wrong diagnosis
- surgical errors
- defective medical devices
- pharmaceutical errors
- anesthesia errors
- failure to properly address pregnancy complications
- neglecting vital signs
- neglecting patient history
The fatal effects of a medical error, or instance of medical malpractice, may be sudden, or occur days, weeks, or even months after the instance of mistreatment occurred.
Loss Of A Newborn
Infant mortality is a significant tragedy that impacts a startling number of parents in the United States each year, largely as a result of pregnancy and birthing complications.
Losing a newborn due to birth injury or other disease that develops in the early stages of life can be a traumatic loss for parents, especially when the death is sudden and unexpected. The most common causes of death in infants include deaths due to birth defects, injuries (e.g. suffocation), maternal pregnancy complications, sudden infant death syndrome, and preterm birth.
Drug And Alcohol Overdose
Substance abuse and addiction are a significant health problem in the United States, contributing to tens of thousands of overdose deaths each year. In recent years, the majority of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have involved opioids such as fentanyl, OxyContin, and hydrocodone.
The opioid epidemic has taken a tragic toll on the lives of millions of Americans, particularly in rural America where access to opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment and affordable medical care is scarce and lacking.
In addition, many overdose deaths involve the use of multiple drugs or substances, such as alcohol, prescription drugs, methamphetamine (meth), and the illicit opiate heroin.
Motor Vehicle Accidents
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that many motor vehicle accidents involve the influence of drugs or alcohol, driving at excessive speeds, and failure to follow traffic laws, which can have costly and life-threatening consequences for all motorists involved. Behaviors such as texting and driving have also been associated with a large number of motor vehicle deaths.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a total of 5,250 fatal work injuries suffered in 2018—a slight increase from the year prior.
Workers in industries such as construction, agriculture, machinery, and agriculture experience some of the highest rates of workplace accidents and deaths, leaving partners, children, and other loved ones to grieve this loss in the wake.
The majority of fatal workplace injuries in the United States occur due to falls, vehicle accidents, violence by other injuries or persons, and exposure to harmful substances such as harsh chemicals, and the non-medical use of drugs and alcohol.
Natural disasters such as hurricanes, fires, typhoons, and other storms can have devastating consequences to individuals and affected communities, often leaving the loss of more than life in their wake.
In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the loss of a loved one may often be even further compounded by property loss, injury, and broader effects within the local community and economy.
Unexpected Death Due To COVID-19 (Coronavirus)
Over the course of January to April 2020, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has claimed the lives of over 56,000 individuals in the United States alone—more than any other country worldwide.
One of the most troubling aspects of COVID-19 related deaths is just how suddenly and monumentally the pandemic has radically hit the nation, leaving the country on unstable grounds economically, and causing an immeasurable level of grief for individuals who have lost their loved ones due to complications of the life-threatening disease.
As the globe continues to experience devastation from the coronavirus, surviving loved ones may be grappling to identify their emotional needs and access the support they need to cope with their sudden and unexpected loss.
The Difference Between Unexpected Death, Accidental Death, And Wrongful Death
There are different terms when it comes to unexpected deaths, and knowing the difference can help grieving loved ones compartmentalize what happened. This in turn will help them process grief and, perhaps, guide them in how to move forward.
Accidental deaths are a form of unexpected death that occurs due to accidental causes, such as a car accident, motorcycle accident, fire, or other event that was not considered death by natural causes. While accidental deaths are always devastating, they may have been either preventable or truly accidental.
Preventable accidental deaths can also be called wrongful deaths, meaning the death was caused due to another person’s or party’s carelessness, negligence, or failure to act. Wrongful death occurs when a person dies due to an incident that could have been avoided, such as a drunk driver crossing the center line and killing the person in the opposing car.
As frustrating as it may be, accidental deaths may be no one’s fault. In this case, processing grief will be focused (at least in part) on accepting this fact. Wrongful deaths include a responsible party, and healing from grief in the case of a wrongful death could mean bringing that party to justice.
How To Begin Emotionally Healing After A Loved One Dies Unexpectedly
If you’ve just lost your loved one, you’re likely overwhelmed, both with emotions and grief and with not knowing how to cope with what you’re feeling. The best thing you can do first is give yourself grace.
Be gentle with yourself and others affected by this loss as you each come to terms with the loss and begin to handle your grief. Since emotional healing is not a one-size-fits-all process, it’s best to understand that you will have both good and bad days as you adjust to life without your loved one, and that this is both acceptable and expected.
When you are ready, reach out for support. But before you do, know that doing things as simple as maintaining conversations with others, especially those not affected, can be emotionally draining after such a loss. Give yourself time to adjust, and focus solely on your most bare, basic needs until you are ready to handle more.
Most importantly, confront your grief, find ways to express it, and find healthy outlets for managing it. When the time is right and as you regain your emotional strength, you may be ready to pursue justice, deal with life decisions, and take on your own life goals again. Until that time, find ways to honor your loved one by taking care of yourself, those closest to you, and allowing yourself the space and resources necessary to heal.