Helping in the early days
People experiencing a sudden bereavement often have strong emotional and physical responses because of the shocking nature of the bereavement.
In recent decades, academics and practitioners have catalogued responses, and defined appropriate care.
The below basic guidance is based on this work, and also informs the approach of the Sudden service, which provides a down-the-line case worker for suddenly-bereaved people, from day one, onwards.
Shock and responses during the first month
Immediately after finding out, suddenly bereaved people often display shock symptoms, often including disbelief that the death is true; a feeling that it is all just a bad dream. Screaming, shaking, an inability to talk or move, eat, drink or sleep, are all common and normal. Physical responses may include pains such as stomach ache or headache, diarrhoea, stuttering, heart palpitations, jumpiness, and exhaustion.
These symptoms are emotionally and physically draining, for bereaved people and their family and carers.
Shock symptoms can start to subside over the early days, but not always. Read Sudden’s guidance for suddenly bereaved people on shock reactions.
During the shock period, suddenly bereaved people are less likely to be reading this website, so it is helpful if you, as a carer, can communicate to the bereaved person what is happening to them.
During the early days of a sudden bereavement a number of additional thoughts and reactions are common too, such as painful and intrusive thoughts (regret, anger, fears), insomnia and nightmares, and a feeling no-one understands. You can help suddenly bereaved people to understand this is also normal, using the advice in Bereaved Adults.
Reactions may be extreme and distressing.
As a carer, the most important thing you can do during this time is to assist in providing safety and support.
In the first hours and weeks
It is important to have support for suddenly bereaved people during the first hours and weeks. The main functions of this care are to ensure a suddenly bereaved person:
- Is safe from harm. When in shock, a person may be more liable to make mistakes, such as drive dangerously, or burn themselves. Potentially dangerous tasks such as driving and cooking should be done by someone else.
- Has their basic needs met. This includes eating and drinking (not alcohol), housing, keeping warm, and attempting to sleep.
- Has their responsibilities covered. This includes any responsibilities for dependents such as children and elderly people, but also responsibilities for pets. It may also be necessary to tell key people about the bereavement, such as an employer of the bereaved person.
- Is provided with basic information that helps them make sense of what has happened. It may be necessary to repeat information several times.
- Is not excluded from procedures and events that are happening that are relevant to their sudden bereavement and decision-making that needs to be done, but given support and information to enable them to make the best decisions for them. For example, decisions around viewing the body, return of belongings from the police, or funerals.
- Is cared for in light of their pre-existing life situation, and any vulnerabilities around that. For example, complications such as domestic violence, family breakdown, depression or other chronic illness, or alcohol or drug addictions.
This can all be provided by a loving family member or friend, and, if not, by someone else.
Care professionals can provide this role if no one is available, or can help family members or friends to provide this care by advising them and relieving them at times.
It may be that after some weeks responses being displayed by someone suddenly bereaved are within the range of common grief responses that often follow any kind of death, including expected deaths.
The bereaved person is accepting the death, and starts to take steps to move forward with their life while still experiencing their bereavement with great sadness and many other emotions that are normal.
These responses don’t require any sort of specialist care to aid recovery, but some people find it helpful at this stage to access a grief support service.
However, it is not uncommon, or unusual, for someone bereaved suddenly to suffer more than this following a sudden death, and in that case someone can be described as having grief reactions that are complex or prolonged, or other reactions that can be described as due to traumatic stress.
Some reactions are described here and what to do about it if you notice such reactions.
In these cases, someone may benefit from a mental health diagnosis and appropriate treatment to aid fast recovery.
If you are not in a position to escalate someone’s care and seek an assessment of their mental health, it is recommended that they talk to their Sudden caseworker to seek help. We employ a clinical advisor (a mental health nurse) who can organise assessment of need.