How to help in the face of a sudden loss

Sudden death and bereavement

When we think of sudden and traumatic death, we think probably of deaths by murder, suicide or accident. We might think of a sudden heart attack that was instantaneous and completely unforeseen.

But of course, many different types of loss may be traumatic for the people left behind. Even when a death is ‘expected’, it’s not unusual to experience a deep sense of shock when it happens. It’s a natural human response, because in order to function, most of us go about our lives not really thinking about death much. We suspend our disbelief; we work and love and strive and potter about, we live, without regularly acknowledging the transience, the fragility of that life.

The downside of this is that when we have to, when death becomes suddenly present for us, it can be difficult to find the resources to cope. What’s more if someone around us is bereaved, especially in a sudden or traumatic way, we struggle to find the words to say, the actions to take.

At a time when death feels especially present, we all need to build our resources in relation to thinking and talking about death and dying. While every grief response is individual and unique, people who are suddenly bereaved can sometimes experience grief in a more acute and complicated way. It’s clear how this might be the case for people bereaved by Covid-19; not only might the loss have been very sudden, it’s likely that some of the comforts that are sometimes afforded at the end of life and after the death – being able to be with the dying person, for example, and experiencing an appropriate funeral – were not available.

If someone you know has been bereaved suddenly, you may want to reach out to them but because you can’t offer support in the usual ways – by your physical presence, by attending the funeral, by offering a simple hug – you feel helpless. However, there are resources that we do have.

Don’t ignore it. As with any bereavement, it is usually better to say something than to say nothing. If you don’t know what to say, ‘I don’t know what to say’ is honest and shows that you understand that was has happened is shocking and distressing. Acknowledging the loss with a simple ‘I’m so sorry’ is fine, as is sharing a memory of the person who has died.

Listen. It is the bereaved person’s choice if they want to talk, but let them know that they can if they want to, and be prepared to listen. Try to be comfortable with the fact you can’t fix this for them, but you can hear them. If the bereavement was especially traumatic, they may feel the need to go over events again and again. Leave space for this.

Be non-judgmental. This means not imposing your own spiritual or religious beliefs.

Ensure basic needs are met. In the early weeks especially, gently check that basic needs such as eating and sleeping are being attended to, and that the bereaved person is keeping themselves safe from physical harm. It is not uncommon to engage in risky behaviour following a sudden bereavement, when shock can cloud the judgment.

Use technology to stay in contact. Use whatever method works for the bereaved person. Little and often is probably best as their attention span may well be shorter than usual and they are likely to tire easily. Make sure you make the contact at a time when you won’t be disturbed, that you are relaxed and your surroundings are as quiet and neutral as possible; in short, try to recreate the environment you might have if you were able to meet.

Be alert to signs of traumatic grief and suicidal intent. Unfortunately, when someone is bereaved in a sudden or traumatic way, especially by suicide, this does present as a risk factor for suicidal ideation. This topic is covered in greater detail on other blog posts, but signs may include excessive feelings of despair and hopelessness, a desire to be with the deceased person again, intrusive thoughts and difficulty functioning, especially if this persists after a couple of months. Don’t be afraid to raise the question, and to get help.

Seek professional help. Traumatic bereavement is complex and sometimes friends and family support is not enough. There are professional individuals and organisations out there to help people struggling with grief and loss.

Written by Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling at Professional Help and SAIF Care.