Grieving Unanticipated Losses

The sudden death of a family member, friend, neighbor or co-worker can trigger physical, mental and emotional reactions beyond normal grief. Even after an anticipated death, survivors might feel “in shock” and be quite unprepared for the intensity of their grief. When a death is sudden and especially if it is violent, your sense of order and safety/security can be disrupted – even if you did not have a close personal relationship with the deceased.

Physical reactions might include: sleep disturbances such as insomnia, restlessness or nightmares; fatigue and low energy; appetite changes; “hyperactivity” or feelings of agitation; headaches; gastrointestinal problems; heart palpitations or chest pains (should be checked out medically); and possibly muscle soreness.

Mental or cognitive reactions might include: a sense of unreality or disbelief about the death; poor concentration; difficulties with decision-making; lapses of memory; and a tendency to make mindless errors.

Emotional reactions might include: feelings of sadness and despair; emotional numbness; generalized anxiety or panic; fears for the safety of oneself or loved ones; feelings of irrational guilt; anger or irritability; a tendency to be easily startled; and intrusive memories or “flashbacks” relating to the sudden death.

Factors that help determine the intensity and duration of one’s grief reaction might include:

  • How long and in what capacity you knew the deceased person
  • Your proximity to the situation in which she or he died
  • Unresolved grief or trauma from similar losses in the past
  • Other life stressors you are contending with
  • The strength of your support system
  • Your “psychological resilience” and general coping ability

Coping Options

Healthy Coping

  • Focusing on basic self-care (food, sleep, exercise, relaxation)
  • Maintaining a normal routine, but recognizing that you might be functioning below your normal level for awhile
  • Delaying big decisions and avoiding stressful situations as much as possible
  • Talking about the loss with supportive others
  • Writing about your feelings or doing other expressive activities such as art
  • Drawing on your spiritual beliefs and religious community
  • Being alert to signs that you need professional help, such as severe or persistent depression, anxiety or stress-related symptoms

Signs of Unhealthy Coping
(might indicate a need for counseling and/or medical consultation)

  • Denying the impact of the loss – pretending things are “normal” and therefore
  • Missing opportunities to get needed support
  • Extreme withdrawal from other people or your normal activities
  • Eruptions of anger, irritability; taking things out on people close to you
  • Staying constantly busy, taking on too much as a distraction from the loss
  • Substance abuse or other compulsive behaviors (e.g., spending, overeating)
  • Over-relying on caffeine and/or nicotine to regulate your mood and energy level
  • Neglecting your physical needs for food, sleep, medical attention, etc.

Helping Resources

Crisislink (Northern Virginia) Hotline (24 hours)703-527-4077
Grief Program, Springfield Community Mental Health Center 703-866-2119
Hospice of Northern Virginia (grief counseling) 703-538-2065
National Mental Health Association (counseling referrals) 703-684-7722
Woodburn Emergency Mental Health Services (24 hours)703-573-5679