Grieving an Unexpected Death: Common Reactions and Ways to Cope

Recently, I had the opportunity to provide grief counseling for a group of people who were grieving the loss of someone who died unexpectedly.   Being with the group reminded me of how powerful and important it is for people to gather together and share their pain, feelings, and memories about the person who has died.  The group energy provided a healing container for the tears and sadness, as well as a place to share memories, laughter and stories.  It brought the group together and felt like a wonderful way to honor and celebrate the life that was being mourned.

Any death can feel devastating.  Especially, when the death is unexpected.  When a death is sudden or unexpected, you may be left with many unanswered questions.  You may be feeling guilty about things you ‘could have’, or ‘should have’ done differently.   You may second guess yourself and some of your actions.  You now realize there is no time to say goodbye or to let that person know one more time how much you loved and valued him/her. Maybe there was unfinished business and you are thinking, “I wish I had”, “If only I had”.   Maybe your last interaction was troubling and now you have no way to repair and apologize.

The manner of death may add additional complexities, as in cases of suicide or if the person was young, as in the case of children/teens.  Children, young adults and people in mid-life are expected to live long healthy lives and when that doesn’t happen, it can add layers to the grief.  Whatever the cause of death or age, an unexpected death alters your life.

Grieving is a complex process, with many twists and turns, and it can be helpful to understand the common feelings and reactions that accompany this emotional process.   It won’t take the pain away, but it can help to know that your reactions are normal.   It’s also helpful to know that while your reactions are normal, there are things you can do to aid in the healing process.  We will talk about ways to cope and find your way through the grief.

Everyone will grieve in their own individual way.   There is no right or wrong.  Some people may not experience any or all of these reactions.  Some people may feel so disconnected from their feelings they won’t feel anything, for a long time.  Give yourself time and permission to grieve in the way that is right for you. 

Common Grief Reactions

Shock and Denial

Shock is a very common reaction when learning about an unexpected death.  It can be very traumatic to hear; it can shake your whole being.  It can feel as if your whole body is hit with a frozen, paralyzed feeling.  Everything is altered.  You may feel completely separate or far away from your body.  It may seem like you are living a dream.  You may have a sense that the World around you isn’t real.   You may have flashbacks of the person or have distressing dreams.  Your vision may be altered and you may feel numb.  All of these reactions are completely normal.  Hearing about a death is a traumatic experience.  It’s hard to wrap your head and heart around it.   Our psyches provide us with a natural defense mechanism to protect us when something is too overwhelming.  We can go into dissociation or denial and shut out the awareness that this has happened.  This is the body’s natural way of helping to protect you.  It is completely normal.  Allow your psyche to process this in the way it does.  Over time, you will slowly begin to acknowledge the loss and begin to process your feelings.  It will help you move through the pain if you don’t worry too much about how you are reacting or judge yourself harshly for it.

We feel our reactions to any experience, including grieving a death, in 5 areas of human experience: Physical, Emotional, Cognitive, Behavioral and Spiritual.   

Physical Reactions

Our bodies hold all of our experiences.  When you are grieving, your body feels it.  You may notice an increase in headaches, stomachaches/IBS symptoms, heart rate, blood pressure, numbness/tingling, aches and pains, tension and fatigue. Your body is processing stress chemicals that flood you when something traumatic occurs.  Your body is doing its best to deal with it.  Expect for your body to have some reaction.  Everyone’s reaction will be different.   If you are having symptoms that are ongoing and distressing, please make sure to check in with your doctor. 

Emotional Reactions

The top three emotional reactions to death are sadness, guilt, and anger.


Most of us live with the assumption that we are in control of our lives.  When someone dies unexpectedly, it shakes our whole World view.  It breaks us out of our illusion that we are invincible.  We are confronted with our own mortality.  This will inevitably bring up feelings.  Oftentimes, as the shock wears off and the reality sets in, you may find yourself crying ( or not ), either all throughout the day or off and on.  You may feel totally consumed and overwhelmed with sadness.   Accepting the loss will take time.  You will be constantly reminded and triggered by things that remind you of the person who has died.  Each time you are reminded, you may feel extremely sad.  You may have trouble getting through the day.  It may be hard to get out of bed.  You may feel depressed and a loss of hope that your future can feel hopeful again.  All of these reactions are normal and understandable when you are grieving of the loss of someone.


Feelings of guilt are common.  It is natural, in trying to make sense of what has happened, to question whether there was something you could have done differently.  There may be an assumption that if you had done something differently, it may have changed the outcome or altered the event.  This is a normal reaction, but it’s not helpful if it goes on too long.  Remember that you are reinterpreting events now knowing what the outcome turned out to be.  It is more helpful to remember the context of the information you had at the time.  Nobody can predict the future. 


Anger is also very common.   When life doesn’t go as planned, anger is a natural response.  We have the illusion of control over something that we are powerless to control and that can make us angry.  We may need to blame someone when we feel this way, either ourselves or other people, even the one who died.  We can even blame God, if that is part of our Spiritual belief system.  In the case of suicide, survivors may feel particularly conflicted in their feelings.  Anger is common because the death feels so senseless.

Cognitive Reactions

Initially, you may notice difficulty concentrating, have memory problems, slowed thinking and impaired problem solving abilities.  You may feel confused and have trouble remembering how to do things you normally don’t have trouble with.  You may have intrusive thoughts and memories.  You may have distressing dreams or flashbacks.  What is happening here is that you are trying to make sense of what has happened.  Your mind is trying to understand it.  It can feel fragmenting, at first, so give yourself time and be gentle with yourself as you notice these reactions.  Your mind is trying to assimilate and integrate the information and it will take time.

Behavioral Reactions

When something traumatic happens, you may have a sense that you need to do something, but don’t know what to do, which can leave you feeling hyped up.  You may find yourself pacing, feeling restless, anxious, and hypervigilant or you may feel a need to avoid people or places.  You may reach for substances, drugs or alcohol, which have helped you cope in the past.  Your sleep may be disturbed and you can feel exhausted.  There may be an increase or decrease in appetite.  You may turn to ways that helped you cope in the past, even if those coping behaviors are not as healthy as you would like.  You may lash out in anger to those you love or you may withdraw and isolate.

Spiritual Reactions

Whatever your spiritual belief system, you may experience a crisis of faith when you experience the loss of someone unexpectedly.  Everything about your World view comes into question.  The injustice and unfairness of life are acutely felt.  You may lash out at God, or whomever you worship.  You may question how a loving God could allow something like this to happen.  You may lose your belief in God entirely.  You may feel a loss of security, a loss of safety in the World and you may wonder who/what you can trust in.  It can bring you face to face with your own mortality and you are confronted with the fact that ‘this could happen to me’.   All of these reactions are completely understandable given the loss you are feeling.

Self Care: Ways to Cope

As you go through your various reactions, it is important to make a self-care plan.   There are things you can do to help yourself as you go through this.  

Healthy Nutrition

The last thing someone who is grieving may want to do is worry about eating in a healthy way.  It’s enough just to get through the day sometimes.  It’s important to help nourish your body so it can support you in the recovery process.  You will do best to eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins.  Limiting your consumption of fast food, high in carbs and sugars, will help prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar.  Drink lots of water. Hydration is essential for repairing your body on a cellular level.   Limit your caffeine intake, at least initially, as caffeine adds adrenaline to your nervous system.  Your system is already overloaded with stress hormones so we want to prevent any further spikes and crashes. 


Our bodies need 6-8 hours of sleep a night to help repair the normal wear and tear we experience during the day.  When healing from trauma, it is particularly important to get enough rest.  Your body knows how to heal itself naturally assuming the right conditions exist.  One of those conditions is getting enough sleep.  If you are having trouble sleeping, feel free to reach out to me for help.   Sleep aids are to be avoided, if at all possible, so your body can resume its natural rhythms.   A word about alcohol.   Try to limit the amount of alcohol you are consuming, especially at night, as alcohol interrupts your circadian rhythms which means your body won’t reach the depth of sleep needed for repair.


We have all heard about the benefits of exercise.  It can be especially helpful in releasing the stress hormones that are activated when you are going through a trauma.  Our natural endorphins are the ‘feel good’ chemicals that get released when we get our heart rate up.  You don’t need to go run for miles and miles to benefit.  Start with a regular routine of walking, for at least 20 minutes per day.  Other exercise is great too, like swimming, biking, etc.  Strength training can be helpful too, as long as you make sure to get some aerobic activity.  Don’t push your body to exercise too hard.  You simply need to move your body for a period of time.  Over time, your body will begin to stabilize and respond to the exercise.  It helps flush your system of toxins and you will start feeling better.

Pace Yourself

Work and family obligations consume us.  When someone dies, it up-ends everything.  How is one to cope with the regular obligations of life when you are feeling consumed by grief and sadness?  Initially, your regular routine may be altered.  You may be consumed by shock, grief and sadness.  Let go of the expectation that you will be able to keep up the normal pace, at least initially.  Give yourself permission to let some things go, if only for a short while.

Having said that, it will be important to maintain some regular routine. It will help stabilize you and your family.   Delegate chores and responsibilities and enlist the help of friends and extended family.  If people ask how they can help, give them a specific job to do, like pick up the dry cleaning or cook a specific meal on a specific night.  Allow your community to surround you with support.

Everyone will pace themselves differently.  Some people will dive right back into their regular routine and not miss a beat.  Some people will need a way to structure work and family commitments as they handle their emotions.  The concept of compartmentalizing can help.  When at work, set aside your grief/feelings as best as you can by imagining placing them in a lovely container.  The idea is that you can pick and choose when to address them.  This can help regain a sense of control and allows you to focus on the work task at hand.  Later, when you have some time, set aside a specific time to open up the container and access your feelings.  It may be that after work you have an hour to yourself to journal, cry, scream into a pillow, or simply sit with yourself and your feelings.  Once the hour is up, rejoin your family and set up a simple task to complete.  Walk the dog or play a board game.  This will help you pace the overwhelm and allow your body a way to slowly integrate the pain without overwhelming you.   Balance is key here.  Keep in mind this may be easier said than done.  Initially, you many not feel able to control when or how you feel your feelings and that is normal.   Just know that there will come a time when it will feel more manageable. 

Share Your Grief

It is so important to find outlets for your grief.  It may be that you simply need to share with your friends and family how you are feeling and let them know what you are going through.   When talking to children, edit the details to make the sharing age appropriate.  People can feel your energy and it will help them for you to acknowledge what you are going though so they know it isn’t something they have done to upset you.  Allow others to provide you with nurturing and comfort.  Hugs and physical contact can be very healing.

Group support is very powerful.  When you feel ready, gather with other people who knew your loved one and spend some time talking, sharing stories and memories.   Bring out pictures and momentos.   Allow yourselves permission to laugh and remember the good times.  It can be tempting to idealize the dead person, but it is helpful to remember the whole person, including the parts of a person that were challenging.  It can be healing to share honestly by acknowledging the challenging parts, just as it is to share and remember the beautiful parts.  We are all made of up many parts, and it is helpful to integrate all of it.

If grieving with family or friends isn’t an option, consider reaching out to a support group.  For survivors of suicide, SOS (survivors of suicide) offers group support for those who have lost loved ones to suicide.  Sutter Care at Home in Sonoma County also offers free support groups including Bereaved Parents, Survivors of Suicide, Partner/Spouse Loss, People in Grief, Adults who have Lost Parents, and Daughters Grieving Mothers.

Say Goodbye

Due to the unexpected nature of the death, you may be left feeling things were incomplete or unsaid.  It may feel important to express the things to your loved one that you didn’t have a chance to say.  You can write a letter to the person expressing all of your feelings, including any guilt or anger, that you would like to express.  Journaling is a very powerful way to process your feelings.  Some people find great relief in setting aside some time each day to journal about how they are feeling.  You can even speak out loud and have a conversation with the person, to include things you may want to apologize for.  Don’t worry.  If you choose this option, it doesn’t mean you are crazy.  It is simply a way to move the energy from inside your body to outside your body.  Sometimes people make an art project, or collage.  Creative expression can help the healing process move along.  Whatever the outlet, it is very important to find some way to express your feelings.  You will benefit from finding a way to close the loop on any unfinished business.   If you are feeling stuck or unsure of how to move forward with this, feel free to reach out to me.

Honor With Ritual And Ceremony

Many cultures have found the healing power of participating in ritual or ceremony to mark passages throughout the lifespan.  When you have reached a place where you are ready to celebrate the life of the person lost, it can be very healing to participate in a ritual or ceremony that honors the person you are grieving.  How do you imagine the person would like to be celebrated/remembered?  What kind of service or ritual would be meaningful?  You may gather in a Church community for a religious service or create one of your own.  Some people find that bringing in a living symbol that represents your connection can be very healing, like planting a tree or rose bush.  When you see this symbol, it brings you back to the feelings of love and connection you shared.   Some people choose to make a memory book and gather photos of shared times.  Organizations and companies may design a plaque and have a dedication ceremony commemorating and acknowledging the contribution of the deceased employee.  This gives coworkers the chance to honor the life of their colleague/ friend in a formal and public way.   Some people set up foundations for particular causes that carry on the messaging and passions of the person who has died.  Whatever form it takes, creating and participating in a ritual of some kind can help aid in the grieving process.

Post-Traumatic Growth

When something traumatic happens, there is the potential for the experience to deepen our connection to ourselves and to those around us.  There is an opportunity to grow and learn from it.  This may come later in the healing process, or it may not come at all.   But, the potential for it is there.  What would that look like?  We all want to find meaning in our lives.  When someone dies, it has a way of realigning our priorities and asks us to reevaluate what is important to us.  With the awareness of the impermanence of life, we may refocus our energies and let go of relationships or habits that no longer serve us.  We can apply whatever lessons we learn from going through the grief process to our current lives.  We may come through the experience realizing how important it is to act kindly towards others or tell those in our lives how much we love and value them because we never know how much time we will have with them.  There are many ways the experience could potentially change us for the better.  Be curious about what the experience can offer you.  Finding a larger meaning after going through a traumatic experience can help us grow as human beings.

Death is sad.  Grieving is a process.   It takes time.  It comes in waves.  You may feel that you have completed your process only to be hit out of the blue, months/years later, when you hear a song on the radio or an anniversary date approaches.  The process continues, although the pain does lessen over time.  Many people feel that they shouldn’t move on with their lives because somehow that means they are forgetting their loved one.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  You will naturally move to a place where you are feeling less sadness and this does not in any way minimize the love and caring you have for your loved one.   When asked, most people would agree that the person who died would not want you to be living a life of constant grief and suffering.  The best way to move forward is by living in a way that honors the relationship and choosing to live life to its fullest potential.

The human Spirit is incredibly resilient.  I anticipate that you will naturally move through the grieving process, as long as you have the right support and give it a sufficient amount of time.   If you are struggling with grief, feeling stuck, or would like to talk about your process, please know that I am available to support you.


If you would like some additional support in your grieving, please feel free to contact Holly Prichard, MFT at 707-591-5065 for a free consultation.   

In addition to her private psychotherapy practice in Santa Rosa, CA, Holly Prichard, MFT is a trained EAP crisis response provider and can travel to provide on-site crisis education and counseling to employees of organizations experiencing a disruptive work event, such as a work place death, injury or other event that causes a disruption in the work place.  Call 707-591-5065 to learn more about providing this service to your organization.