Sudden Loss: 5 Ways it Differs from Expected Loss

There’s never a good time or good way to lose someone we love, but if we experience the sudden loss of a loved one…is it harder?

Sudden Loss
I shy away from this type of debate in the groups that I run. While validating a griever’s loss is one of the most important things a group can offer, a challenge of who is having it harder – or who is hurting more because of the way they lost their loved one – is not.
There are a lot of grief articles out there that discuss the difficulties of caregiving or losing a loved one to long term illness like cancer, and while this writing will not answer the question of what’s harder it will ask…is it different? And the answer is: absolutely.

Typically the support groups I have facilitated have been for the “newly bereaved” (within the first 13 months of their loved one’s passing). These are often attended by those whose loved one had been ill for a very long time, and I find typically that these grievers attend within the first three to six months of their loss.
Every once in awhile I will get a call from a person wanting to attend, and as we talk if they tell me that their loved one died a year ago or more and they’re just now feeling ready for help I will guess that they’ve experienced a sudden loss. Most of the time, I’m right.
This leads to the first way that sudden loss is different than a loss following a long term illness:
1. There is no time to prepare: It’s important to note that even with an “expected” loss, it can be challenging to adjust to a loved one no longer being here as nothing can ever truly prepare us for the finality of death. But for the griever who had no time to prepare, this challenge is greater. No time to prepare means having had no time to say goodbye, or no time to set things right. In some cases it means no time to figure out the final wishes of the deceased or what the “right” way to memorialize them would be. No time means not having the chance to say “I love you” one more time.
2. Sudden losses are more likely to happen with no one else around: I should say, at least when compared to those of someone who is on Hospice, lying in bed as their loved ones sit vigil. This can mean that survivors of sudden loss are left wondering about their loved one’s last moments. Were they frightened or in pain? Did they know how much I love them?
3. Sudden loss can leave more questions in its wake: How did this happen? Why was he/she there so late at night? For someone who lost a loved to a heart attack for example, could this have been prevented? Should I have done more? Often times a sudden loss means the loss of someone young, which will always leave behind the biggest question of all…..why???? Why him/her? Why did this have to happen? Why now?
4. The state of shock may last longer: While the “Stages of Grief” are used less often to explain the grieving process, there is still no doubt that grievers cycle through a variety of emotions as they begin to cope with their loss. Shock, numbness and disbelief are feelings every griever I’ve ever met with have experienced (again – even those who lost their loved one to a long term illness). So with no time at all to prepare, the griever with a sudden loss will likely spend more time in disbelief. The true work of grieving can’t typically start until a griever has even begun to come to terms with what’s happened, meaning a griever with a sudden loss could feel delayed in their ability to begin coping and moving forward.
5. A sudden loss is more likely to be the result of a tragic event: Of course every loss can feel “tragic” in its own way. But here it’s used to describe a sudden loss caused by something like a drinking and driving accident or an act of violence. If someone else was to blame for a loved’s passing the anger it causes can change a griever’s entire outlook on humanity and life in general. Someone who was once friendly and trusting may experience a resentment and deep-seated fury like they’ve never felt before. And for some, that rage may simmer in them for years after their loss.
In an effort to move forward, there are questions that the griever of a sudden loss may want to consider:
  • Can I accept that in life, and death, there are some questions that have no answers?
  • Is it possible to recognize that no matter how much time or energy I search in yearning for “closure” that I may never get it or find it?
  • Do the residual emotions of a sudden loss like guilt or anger serve a purpose (see previously posted blog on this subject) and can I redirect the attention of that energy elsewhere?
  • Can I find a way now to express my love and my goodbyes to the person who is gone through a ritual or a type of remembrance?
  • Can I ask for forgiveness, find forgiveness, and live in peace even if my loved one isn’t here to relieve me of the pain of any unresolved issues?
Take time with this. Sleep on it. Pray or meditate on it. Take a walk and clear your head. Give yourself permission, space and time to consider the questions that have been left in the wake of your sudden loss and recognize that letting go of the pain and hurt is not the same thing as letting go of the love and memory of your loved one.
Find people to talk to who get it… and be patient for the answers that will begin to reveal themselves. There is peace to be found in those answers.
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We know how it important it is to connect with someone who has had a loss similar to your own. That’s why we’ve included a forum on “Coping After a Sudden Loss”. We also have forums for “Loss from Substance Abuse”, “Suicide Loss”, and “Loss of Loved One to Violence/Murder”. And of course there is always the opportunity to connect with those who have lost a spouse, child, parent, grandparent, sibling or friend. Join today, and find others who understand. 

13 thoughts on “Sudden Loss: 5 Ways it Differs from Expected Loss”

  1. Two and a half years since my mother and her best friend were murdered by the best friends son and girlfriend. They stabbed my mother 17 times and strangled his mother because she grabbed the phone to call for help. The house was robbed of everything for drugs.
    My mother was physically and emotionally abusive. She didn’t speak to me for five years before she died. That leaves with other issues to deal with on top of her abuse.

    I have had several losses and betrayals in my life and this has taken that distrust to a whole other level. I’ve been in counseling, but that in no way takes the loss of her and the her betrayal or others away. Grief can be for those we lose to death and for those that are still alive that we have lost relationships with.

  2. Lost an adult daughter with my ex-husband, her father, in a violent car accident in September 2016, exactly a week before my birthday. She was 46 and such an excellent human being, goal-achiever, friend, confidant. I am in counseling, but it’s one day at a time. I am aching inside to hear her voice on the phone. We lived 4 hours apart. My heart is shattered. It happened on a Saturday, the day after we texted each other and made plans for her to call me on Monday evening to catch up. That call never came.

  3. So where is the other HALF to this story? Im not reading anything that deals with the challenges associated with long term grieving and terminal illness? Not saying one is any easier than the other. Just that knowledge is power.

  4. I lost my son to suicide on June 2, 2016. It was one month and one day after his 26th birthday. He was in jail and was found hanging in his cell. I have had so many questions and doubts about the whole thing. I think I still wait and hope that it’s all just a nightmare. That somehow it’s not real… There isn’t a moment I don’t miss him. I sometimes feel like people are tired of my grief and that they think I need to just “get over it”. I feel very alone and lost even now 2 years later.

  5. No, sudden loss is not different! Because even tho my husband was sick, we always believed he would get better. Wasn’t till that last night, I realized it was over. So sudden for me was getting the message within 24 hours. Maybe as much as a car victims wife/ husband has.

  6. Thank you for this article, just what I needed to read. I lost my husband 6 weeks ago due to a heartattack. My last communication with him was about what we would cook for dinner. 4 hours later I came home to find him dead. I striggle with the fact I couldn’t say goodby, one last I love you, to appologize for being so cranky the last week. We had so many plans! It’s like a bad dream from wich I cannot wake up….

  7. I lost my father in 2014 and I was a Daddy’s girl. He had been sick for several years. I was there to help my mom grieve and I grieved the loss of my dad, along with 2 sisters. We had the chance to say everything and we knew his wishes. I lost my husband to tragic accident. Totally different experience. The shock of grief is the same but there is no surprise when someone has been ill for a while. I think that may be the difference.

  8. I lost my ten year old son on Nov 30th 2016. He went to school as usual and an hour later they called to say they were rushing him to hospital. He was gone, in seconds before they could do anything. Probably cardiac failure.my world and my life has changed. And I struggle to get through every day. Work keeps me sane, and my 12 year old daughter. No answers, no relief from the pain, no respite from tears, and no acceptance. The words of this article bring comfort, but nothing stops the pain.

  9. There is a difference between expected and uunexpected deaths. I know b/c I have experienced both with partners. The first was expected though the method was not. He’d been an alcoholic for 10 or more years and spirallung ever downward. The doctirs told me his bottom was death. On May w1 2000 their prediction came trye when he committed suicide. I grieved afterward but I had been grieving so much before that I recovered quicker than I probably would have. Understanding his suicide took years, though, even un another relationship. Finally a therapist said something and I let go.

    On the other hand, my partner of 18 years died of sudden cardiac arrest on June 30, 2018. Though he had had open heart surgery two years previously, we both thought he was stablized. Turned out he wasn’t.. He disd in front o f me as I was calling 911. Turns out his brain was deprived of oxygen for too long (ta k es 3-4 min) He was on life support for six days and his kidneys and liver donated.

    Two months later, I am in a state of shock and disbelief. Though moving forward, I cry almost constantly here a nd there. I keep expecting him to text or call then I remember he is dead. The yearning for him is overwhelming. I write daily letters to him to try and resolve everything that was left unsaid when he died. Trying to accept that someobe can die in front of you JUST LIKE THAT is hard to accept. He is here; we are preparing for bed. Now he is gone.

    Life can be fragile

  10. In 2015, I lost my 46 year old son to bladder cancer. He was ill and fighting for four years – during which he had to relocate his family to another job in another state to get insurance coverage. Shortly after his diagnosis, I moved into a retirement community – a move planned before his illness. My daughter and I rode the roller coaster of hope and discouragement along with my daughter-in-law and grandchildren. When the end came, we had been “processing” and suffering along with him for years. We treasured the good times, and got through the bad ones; and when he finally opted out of being placed on a ventilator to buy two more weeks of suffering, we supported his decision and were able to fly down and get from the airport to the ICU in time for our good-byes.
    Six months ago, in February, my daughter and dearest of friends was found lifeless in her apartment as the result of a pulmonary embolism…this was a classic case of “has anybody heard from…?” and police, paramedics, and building management waiting with me in the hall to break in. I have been “coping” for the last six months, and got her apartment cleared out, her car donated, and am sitting surrounded by her possessions. She left no will; and I’m stumbling in my efforts to catch up with her insurance, pension, and other legal matters.
    In the meantime, I haven’t been mentally organized enough to file my taxes since my son died, and my car trunk is filled with her origami supplies and vacation photographs, and letters from lifelong friends. I have made some progress in the mechanics of “placing” her belongings with charities, friends, recyclers, etc.
    In the last two weeks, I feel like I have run out of steam completely. I’m waiting for my first appointment with a new therapist, and in the meantime, I seem to lack the energy I tapped into for so many months and years. At this time last year, my daughter and I had just had a wonderful vacation trip together, and we were back into the autumnal cycle: new school year beginning, “approaching holidays”, and the prospect of surgery for her in January. So my “anniversary” seems to mark a year since the beginning of the end – an end that I never knew was coming.
    This is too long, but the experience of the two losses so close together seems to have knocked me off my feet. The “expected” loss gave us all time to live with the diagnosis and bond over it together. The sudden loss of my daughter seemed like an unbelievable lightening bolt — and the ultimate destruction of the life we survivors had tentatively begun to rebuild.
    I’m hoping my current delayed response is yet another of the peculiar phenomena which is considered “within normal limits” in this situation.
    In the meantime, anyone who is reading this far is clearly someone who is caught in their own sadness and loss, and I send my love and support to them. You are not alone; you have made it to today; and each day will very likely bring moments of relief from the weight that we carry. Treasure them, as reminders that there is more solid ground ahead – a “new normal” taking shape as we put in the time needed to incorporate losses into our lives and life stories.
    And it’s time I saw my doctor to make sure the fatigue and “fogginess” don’t have a physical cause…writing this has made me see that. Communication can be a wonderful thing!

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