Dealing with sudden or violent death
Bereavement is frequently difficult to come to terms with. However, sudden, violent or traumatic death can be particularly hard to accept.
- Around 765 people are murdered in the UK every year.
- Around 1,500 women and 4,500 men die by suicide in the UK each year.
- Around 2,000 people are killed on UK roads every year.
- Heart attack is the biggest cause of sudden death and the second highest cause of death (cancer is first)
This section provides guidance and information on the impact of sudden death, and how to provide help and support in such circumstances.
It’s difficult to know how to be with someone who has experienced sudden bereavement. The person will often experience:
- Overwhelming shock manifesting itself as numbness, anger, despair, disbelief, guilt, anxiety, sometimes even relief.
- Denial – this is not happening
- Sometimes guilt for being alive, or self-blame
- Yearning to see the person or child again.
- Restlessness, loss of concentration, loss of confidence, loss of interest in life
- Inability to sleep or eat
- Anxiety and panic attacks, nightmares and exhaustion.
- Extended periods of crying and sobbing
- Irrational thoughts and actions.
- Some people are terrified of being left alone. Others shun help.
These grief symptoms tend to change as the person slowly comes to terms with what has happened. However, life can never be the same again.
Here are some guidelines than can help you to support someone who has suffered sudden bereavement (copyright: Sue Brayne, The D-Word: talking about Dying)
- Even if you don’t know what to say, rather than crossing the street or walking out of the room, make a point of saying something as simple as, I’m sorry to hear what has happened.’ Then leave it to them if they want to talk about it. Or you could text them with the message, or send a card. Nothing can make the situation better. It’s about being there to listen when needed. And being willing to cope with someone who is either completely traumatised, or numb and in extreme shock.
- You may feel helpless around the person - a perfectly usual reaction when we are unable to ‘do’ anything to fix things. If you can learn to sit with your discomfort, you will be the support that they need.
- Don’t pretend you know what the person is feeling or experiencing. Or indeed ever will. You can’t. That’s why no-one can judge how a person is coping. Everyone deals with trauma in their own way and in their own time.
- Don’t tell the person what to think or what to do, or offer your own spiritual or religious beliefs. This can make the situation worse, especially when someone’s life has been thrown into turmoil. Instead, do something practical to help such as putting food in the freezer, or leaving casseroles on the kitchen table, or taking children to school. But don’t take offence if your offer of help is refused. Just be on hand to help out when asked.
- It is not unusual for women to make themselves available to men who are suddenly bereaved. Do be sensitive around this. Of course men need support - so do women - but not necessarily the emotional complexity of romantic involvement at such a vulnerable time.
- Be sensitive to the fact this person’s life will never ever be the same. Nor will they ‘get over’ it. But they may in time find ways to cope with what has happened. This can take years if not the rest of their life.
- Don’t be embarrassed to mention or talk about someone who has died. If you are not sure, ask the bereaved person if it’s okay. They will often be delighted.
- Finally, be aware that hearing of sudden or violent death can throw up traumatic emotions in all of us. If this has been triggered in you, and you are finding it difficult to cope with it, do consider finding help.
When a person takes their own life, the shock of their action can feel like the force of a tsunami. It often leaves even those on the periphery of the person’s life shocked, shaken and helpless to know what to do.
Suicide carries a stigma, partly because it is hard to take on board the extent of despair and hopelessness that could make someone kill themselves. Partly because there is always police involvement and a coroner’s inquest (often reported by local media) into the cause of death, so it becomes a public story. Partly perhaps because many friends and relatives, even neighbours and acquaintances, can feel outraged at such a ‘selfish’ act, or find that their religious or spiritual beliefs have been affronted, or perhaps they feel guilty for not ‘having done enough’, ‘spotted the signs’, or said something that could have stopped it.
So knowing what to say to someone whose relative or friend has died by suicide can be very challenging.
- Be available and be there.
- Be willing to listen.
- Do not push your own beliefs, religious or otherwise.
- Give the person space to tell and retell what has happened.
- Be aware that the person or people left behind often feel extremely guilty, and are fearful of being judged and misunderstood.
- Family relationships can shatter, and blame can become a vicious weapon
- If you are concerned about the person’s welfare, encourage them to find professional help.
- Coping with bereavement
- Self-help strategies for bereaved people
- Finding professional support
- Further information and support
This content has been funded by Macmillan Cancer Support. It was commissioned as part of Find Me Help, Dying Matters' new online search tool which gives access to a comprehensive database of national and local organisations providing support and advice for people coping with death, dying and bereavement.