There is no form of grief that is “easy” to endure, yet the sudden, unanticipated loss of a loved one can be particularly difficult for individuals and families. Grief and loss challenge our sense of safety, predictability, and feelings of control over our world. Sudden loss challenges these world views in an even more profound way.
What Are Common Reactions of Sudden Loss Grief?
“But I just spoke with her yesterday.”
“I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
“I just can’t get myself to even believe that this has happened.”
Few experiences in life prepare us for the shock, denial, heartbreak, and utter confusion that surrounds the initial reaction to sudden loss. Generally, our life operates in predictable, consistent, and anticipated ways. Occasionally, we may be caught off guard by frustration or a situation that causes moderate distress. But we are resilient. We learn from these experiences and develop a healthy sense of control over our world and a fairly accurate ability to predict the future.
This world view gives us a sense of peace and calm as we navigate the day to day events of life.
Confusion: Sudden loss shadders our worldview. It challenges our most foundational understandings of how the world works, the level of control that we have, and our now seemingly limited ability to keep ourselves and others safe from death.
Sadness: Sudden loss produces a deep sense of sadness. We are sad for the loss of the future with that person. The inability to make new memories or fulfill well-laid plans leaves us with tremendous sorrow. As we reflect on the past, we feel a deep sense of loss for the events or big holidays we will never share again along with the ordinary moments of the day to day life.
Anger: Sudden loss feels incredibly unfair. This anger may be totally “reasonable” focused on the doctor’s incompetence, the drunk driver’s poor decision, or the lifestyle choices that resulted in a fatal heart attack. Yet, many times the anger does not seem to be totally “logical.” One may be furious that her partner “left” her while knowing full well that none of this was his choice. Often our reaction to grief is anything but logical or linear.
Guilt / Shame: Similar to anger, deep feelings of guilt and regret may not be based on totally “logical” thoughts. While a man may know in his head that he was an amazing partner, he may still feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and regret any and all missed opportunities or mistakes made during the relationship.
Physical Changes: Sudden loss of appetite or a sudden increase in appetite is very common. Increased fatigue, confusion, forgetfulness, and delayed reaction time all show how taxing grief can be on our bodies and brains.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously outlined the 5 Stages of Grief in her book On Death and Dying.
At the time, there was little research or interest in understanding grief and her foundation work helped pave the way for future research and understanding on the topic.
Her theory stated that individuals experiencing grief progress through 5 distinct stages of grief including:
And while many psychologists are thankful for her foundational work, subsequent research has shown that few of us experience grief in any sort of stage or order.
Instead, grief is better understood as a time where many different congruent and incongruent emotions are felt. Individuals experiencing grief may simultaneously feel a sense of acceptance and denial at one moment, followed by a sense of anger, apathy, frustration, and depression in the next. The intensity and confusion of these often conflicting emotions better capture the sense of grief that many feel after a sudden loss.
Lack of Closure
The way in which a loved one was lost can color the way the family member grieves. Death by suicide or overdose can cause particularly strong feelings of shame, regret, and anger. While psychologists and counselors alike actively try to destigmatize and educate around suicide or addiction, this grief process is still particularly difficult for many.
Additionally for those that have lost a family member to a sudden health condition or accident, many will lament the inability to say “I’m sorry”, “I love you”, and “goodbye.” Closure helps us make sense of the world, confirm the lasting connection, and see the love in the other person’s eyes. Without these key moments, grief may feel more devastating and deep.
Suggestions for Dealing With Grief in a Healthy Way
Accept that it is okay to not be okay for a while
Grief will pass. Life will one day feel normal again. Yet, our culture often rushes us to grief in a very short amount of time, and this pressure only complicates our grief process.
Grieve with others
Grief is best done within a community of support. The more we are able to openly share our grief with trusted family, friends, neighbors, and support groups the better we will feel.
Too often, people pull away from others while they are grieving due to embarrassment or shame around these feelings. Yet, those that lean on others for support and care are much better able to process through their grief in a healthy, positive way.
Don’t run from emotion
Our brains and bodies are expelling a tremendous amount of energy to process through the sudden loss of a loved one. Avoidance of grief takes even more of this limited energy and produces little long-term relief. Ultimately, avoidance of grief can make the experience more difficult in the months to come and increase the risk that someone will develop more long-standing depression or anxiety symptoms.
Seek out grief counseling
Currently, our society has many strengths, yet our lack of comfort with grief is a proud weakness in our culture. While many individuals who seek out grief counseling experience perfectly normal symptoms, the lack of support from family and friends makes the experience extremely painful and lonely. Finding a psychologist or counselor who specializes in grief can help normalize the process, share valuable guidance, and provide a sense of empathy.
At Biltmore Psychology and Counseling, we are passionate about helping people find the support and care that they need while processing through grief. We understand that this is a journey that is best done with support and is here to help people grieve well. If you or someone you care about has experienced a sudden loss, we are here to go through that journey with you.
We’re Here to Help
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When you are dealing with the pain of grief from the loss of a loved one, we encourage you to reach out to a local support group, confide in close friends or family, or seek counseling. No one should have to feel disabled by their grief. You CAN find support while coping with loss.
Managing grief and loss can be very overwhelming and isolating at any time of the year, not to mention during the holidays. Whether you have just recently lost someone and this will be your first holiday season without your loved one, or your 10th, it can be extremely difficult maintain the happiness and gratitude that pressure us all during this time.
Dr. Melissa Estavillo is a Licensed Psychologist and founder of Biltmore Psychology and Counseling. With over 7 years of experience, she specializes in both individual and couples therapy in Phoenix and Scottsdale, AZ. She integrates complementary methodologies and techniques stemming from Emotionally Focused Theory, Psychodynamic Theory and Other Evidence Based Practices to offer a highly personalized approach tailored to each client.