TW for mentions of suicide in this article.
While death is an inevitable part of life, sudden loss is not. Sudden loss due to suicide, accidents, unknown illnesses, miscarriages, or unnatural causes can be extremely painful and difficult to process. It is often accompanied by complex and prolonged periods of grief. Why? Because sudden loss feels like a sucker punch. It is shocking, often traumatic, and leaves the survivor with no opportunity to process emotions beforehand or, more importantly, say goodbye. In a 2021 study on grief after a traumatic loss, Kristin Alve Glad, Ph. D., states, “Grief is a normal response to the loss of someone close, but traumatic losses may severely harm survivors for years.” She notes that individuals who experience sudden loss are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When someone you know and love dies, you aren’t just mourning a loss; you are also dealing with the trauma of how they died,” said Ricki Ray, MTS, CBC, a Banner hospice bereavement counselor. “Whereas with an anticipated death, we can make sense of the situation and brace ourselves emotionally.”
Five Tips to Help Loved Ones Cope After a Sudden Loss
As your friend or family member navigates life without their loved one, there are many ways you can help support them physically and emotionally.
Check In Frequently.
As others’ lives seemingly return to normal, those grieving often feel alone and forgotten. Set a check-in schedule using the 3-3-3 Rule. Laura McGladrey, founder of Responder Alliance, developed this tool as “an operational approach to recognizing and mitigating the predictable nature of acute stress” after significant trauma exposure. The 3-3-3 Rule provides a basic template that individuals can adjust according to their loved one’s unique situation and needs. Start by reaching out three days (or within a week) after loss to help provide basic needs and remove any external stressors from their life. Then, check in again three weeks later to listen, help anticipate any needs, and continue to remove what stressors you can. Finally, connect again three months after a loss to offer additional resources and to support secondary losses. Secondary losses are changes resulting from the first loss, such as adjustments to holiday celebrations or birthdays, fluctuating finances, or new routines.
Help With Daily Tasks.
Are there things you can do to help take something off of your loved one’s mental plate? In what ways can you check “done” on their to-do list? Cleaning around the house, mowing their lawn or weeding the garden, filling the car with gas, or preparing meals are all ways to shift some daily chores and stress off their shoulders.
Sometimes, people just need to vent, cry, or be still without judgment or conversation. Be there if your person needs to talk, and try not to “fix” the situation.
Be Their Resource Navigator.
After a sudden loss, choices can feel overwhelming. Take research off your loved one’s plate by offering to find resources such as local support groups, grief literature, or therapists.
Understand That Grief Isn’t Linear.
Grief happens at different paces for everyone. Expect your loved one to have delayed reactions or have new emotions surface as they work through the grief process.
Grief is messy, and sudden loss is often stressful and traumatic. It is essential to let your loved one know they are not alone. Grief does not have to be lonely! Many resources are available to navigate this new, challenging chapter in your life. The other side of grief is a bright one!