Coping With A Sudden Death

This page contains common responses to and ways to cope with the sudden death of someone you know.

Grief opens a place in our hearts that we never knew could hurt so profoundly but it also opens this same place to a love we never imagined possible.

Common Responses to a Sudden Death

Although a sudden death affects people differently, there are some common reactions that many may experience. Some people may experience little reaction to the event while others may experience strong reactions. These signs could begin right away, or you may feel fine for a couple of days or weeks, then later be hit with a reaction. The important thing to remember is that these reactions are quite normal; although you may feel some distress, you're probably experiencing a normal reaction to an unexpected situation.

Physical Reactions

  • Insomnia/Nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Hyperactivity or "nervous energy"
  • Appetite changes
  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations or pains in the chest
  • Dizzy spells

Emotional Reactions

  • Flashbacks or "reliving" the event
  • Excessive jumpiness or tendency to be startled
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Feelings of anxiety or helplessness
  • Sadness

Effects on Productivity

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Increased incidence of errors
  • Lapses in memory
  • Increase in absenteeism

Ways to Cope with a Sudden Death

(Click on the statements below for more information)

Be tolerant of your reactions.

They are normal and will subside with time for most people. Acknowledge that it may be awhile before you are entirely back to feeling like yourself again.

Do not try to avoid the grieving process.

Allow yourself time and space to experience the thoughts and feelings related to your grief and loss.

Give yourself time.

You may feel better for a while, then have a "relapse". This is normal. Allow plenty of time to adjust to the new realities.

Spend time with others.

Force yourself to do this, even though it may be difficult at first. It's easy to withdraw when you're hurt, but now is when you need the company of others the most.

Talk about the experience with your friends.

For most people, talking helps relieve some of the intense emotions we feel after losing someone close to us.

Try to keep your normal routine.

Staying active will keep your mind on events other than the traumatic loss, will give you a sense of comfort with familiar tasks, and will help put some psychological "distance" between you and the event.

Structure your time even more carefully than usual.

It's normal to forget things when you're under stress. Keep lists and double check any important work.

Maintain control where you can.

Make small decisions, even if you feel that they are unimportant or you don't care. It's important to maintain control in some areas of your life.

Let your feelings of loss activate you.

Do something that helps you feel more in control, e.g., join a grief and loss group; look for ways to help others.

Photo of two women hugging each other

Ways To Help A Bereaved Friend

Listen. When a friend is grieving provide them the opportunity to talk about their loss. Do not tell them to “cheer up,” but give them the space to work through their grief. Do not tell them how they should be grieving. We all grieve differently. Allow them the freedom to do it their way. If their symptoms of grief are severe and persistent and they are having difficulty coping with their day-to-day activities, encourage the student to get help through Counseling & Psychological Services or another supportive agency.

Ways In Which The Death Of A Student Might Affect Us As A Campus Community

As a campus community, we all strive to create a culture where it is safe for all students to grow and be challenged. When a student dies this can threaten that sense of safety and security that most students feel.

The death of any person we know can threaten our own sense of safety. We are often taught that if you follow all of the rules everything will go well. If you don’t follow the rules, negative consequences can occur. Unfortunately, the death of a fellow student causes us to realize the limited control we have in this world.

Many grow up with thoughts that fluctuate between being fearful of tragic events and feeling invincible. The death of a fellow student reminds us all of how fragile our own lives are as well as the lives of others we care about.

Sometimes the death of a fellow student can trigger thoughts and feelings related to past deaths of other important people in our lives. The brain has a difficult time putting each loss into a separate storage file. Therefore, it can be common for a recent loss to cause memories of past losses to resurface.

Where To Get Help

UWF Counseling & Psychological Services offers Individual Counseling, Couples Counseling, and Group Counseling.

To schedule an appointment, call (850) 474-2420 or come by the UWF Student Wellness Center, Building 960, Suite 200A.