Coping with the sudden death of someone you love
Coming to terms with the death of anyone close to you is incredibly difficult. But when the death is sudden, there is a different terrain to navigate. The impact of sudden death belongs in its own place. A place that can be unnerving and spooky at times for those left behind. A space for those grieving, that is filled with shock, and can be felt on a very physical and sometimes visceral level.
When someone gets gravely ill, even if only for a short period, it gives us some time to fathom the loss that will come. Losing someone close to you without any warning can be a painful, confusing, and self-altering experience.
It is not uncommon in the early period after a sudden death to experience frightening and strong feelings. If you were not present at the death, it may take some time for the reality of what has happened to sink in.
Some people experience strong physical responses to the news that can last days, weeks or months. These can include stomach issues, such as vomiting, diarrhoea and indigestion.
Others may experience symptoms due to increased anxiety, such as feeling sweaty, breathlessness and tense muscles. All these responses should lessen with time as the initial feelings of shock subside. You may also feel numb and confused. You are adjusting to something monumental that has happened and your brain may disassociate for short periods of time to help protect you from the pain.
Depending on the individual circumstances, you may experience intrusive thoughts or flashbacks if you were present when it happened. These are normal, especially in the first few weeks. Even if you were not present when they died, intrusive images or thoughts may come and go. These thoughts can be distressing. Speaking to a counsellor about your grief may help, especially if you are finding it hard to cope and are worried about upsetting others by sharing.
Taking care of yourself in the immediate aftermath
Do what helps you
Grief is completely individual, and people will react differently to the news. Some people might cry endlessly, others might explode with rage and some might want to go over and over the event in attempt to make sense of it all. It can help to go to the place where the person died as part of understanding what has happened, if that is possible. It can also help to find a safe outlet for your strong feelings, such as physical activity or talking to others.
Take each half-hour as it comes
You might swing between feeling OK to being unable to get up off the couch. Extreme changes in feelings are to be expected. Try taking each half-hour as it comes. Breaking the day down like this can help to make it more bearable and you can tune in to what you need for yourself throughout the day.
Something that is so important, yet so hard to do when your mind is racing, especially as there is often a lot to organise after someone dies. Most things can wait. If your body sends you signals to rest, listen. We live in a culture that favours busyness, but if staying in bed for the day is what you need then that is OK.
For others, keeping busy might be part of their way of coping. Do what feels right for you. Sleep disturbances are likely in the early days. However, if you are having trouble sleeping over a prolonged period, it might be useful to visit your GP to discuss your options. Hypnotherapy can also be effective in calming a racing mind.
Nominate a communicator
People tend to want to help when someone dies, but often really are not sure what to do or say, and are conscious of intruding. You do not need to do every bit of communicating yourself (even if you might feel like you do). It can be helpful to nominate a communicator or two. These people you trust can contact relatives, make enquires and speak to those more widely connected to who you have lost to answer questions about what has happened.
You do not need to keep going over this loss if that is detrimental to you.
Spend time alone if that's what you want
If you have people in your life, they are likely to want to gather around and keep you company at such a difficult time. If you would like some space, however, ask for it.
The experience of grief after a sudden death is overwhelming and you will likely need time alone to process what has happened. It's important to advocate for your needs and do what feels right for you over what might make others feel useful.
Increased anxiety is normal
While death is a normal part of life, it does not make the reality of it any less shocking. Losing someone to sudden death is highly likely to increase anxiety.
You may feel scared of something happening to you or other people in your life. Your trust in the safety of the world has been ruptured. Regulating your nervous system with deep breathing and relaxation techniques may help.
If your anxiety feels overwhelming and you are struggling to cope, seeking support from a counsellor or therapist can give you a safe, non-judgemental space to talk about what you are going through. Trust me, having support outside your friends and family can be incredibly valuable as you go through the grieving process.
Eat regular, small meals
Many people go off their food in the immediate aftermath of sudden death and may forget to eat altogether. To keep your energy up and to help your body to adjust, try to eat small but regular meals, if you can.
Be aware of feelings of guilt
When we try to comprehend death in its immediacy, we sometimes feel guilty that we didn’t do more or that we somehow should have been able to intervene. Going over scenarios in our head can leave us caught in a cycle of blaming ourselves as a way of punishment. This sadly will not bring the person back and will only further impact the pain of grief.
Look for opportunities for breaks
Watch an episode of a programme you like, go for a short walk somewhere green or prepare a simple meal. Take opportunities to engage your thoughts in tasks and things you enjoy. It is OK for you to take breaks from thinking about what has happened.
Try to avoid numbing feelings with alcohol
When we experience the excruciating pain of losing someone we can often turn to alcohol, or even drugs, to help alleviate the pain and to 'check out' for a short while. A couple of drinks might help you to relax, but be mindful of drinking to excess when you are in the acute stages of grief. Alcohol is a depressant and will only make you feel worse in the long run. Habits can be formed around alcohol quickly too, so do reach out for support if you find that you are using it as a crutch to get you through difficult times.
Suppressing emotions can cause issues
There may be times when you feel you need to hide your emotions or temper them for the sake of others. Generally, people will understand and expect strong emotions given what you have been through. Try to make room in your day to really listen to how you're feeling, as pushing down feelings or denying them can cause some people to have a more complicated grieving process over time. Working with a counsellor can help if you are struggling with your emotions.
Drink water, keep going
Sometimes a simple mantra can help. If you are crying a lot you'll likely be dehydrated, so keeping up your water intake will help. And keep going, because in time, people do learn to live with their grief and the intensity of sadness wanes. The people we lose live on through their impact on us and grief becomes part of who we are. Something that feels more manageable over time to carry each day, alongside all the memories of the one we love.