Bereavement due to traumatic death

Changing emotions and physical reactions

After bereavement due to a traumatic death people often feel deeply shocked and unable to believe what has happened. Crying is an understandable reaction. Some feel depressed and even suicidal. Pat said that her son’s death had shifted the foundations of her life. People felt terrible grief, isolation, anger and loneliness, and described their turbulent emotions.
Anger and guilt were two common emotions after a traumatic death. Ann felt a great rage after Westley was stabbed to death. She also was fearful that the men who were responsible for his death might not be convicted and sent to prison. She felt that after her son had died all the colour had gone from her life.
William regretted that he had not spent more time with his daughter, Lauren, the morning she died and felt guilty about the times he had been cross with her.
Many continued to feel this pain and anger for years. One woman said, “It doesn’t get any less painful, you just get used to it.” Cynthia said that initially she felt angry with herself. Gradually she realised that she was not responsible for her daughter’s death and she decided to direct her anger elsewhere to prevent other deaths on the road. A friend encouraged her to go to see an art exhibition, which helped her to realise that others felt as she did.
Most, but not all people we talked to felt angry after a traumatic death and blamed someone else for the death of a loved one. Ian said that he had never felt angry. Erykah had initially felt angry when her brother was shot, but she said that she no longer did. Elizabeth felt terribly sad after her daughter died in a car crash. She said that the grief never goes away, but she blames no-one for her daughter’s death. She is sure it was an accident.
Some people said that they felt guilty if they allowed themselves to enjoy life or think about something else for a while. It took Linda months to realise that she could not think about her son all the time. She missed him terribly but decided it would be healthier to set aside half an hour a day to think about him and to cry; that helped.
Susanna found it hard to sleep and had nightmares after her brother was killed in the Bali bomb. For months she felt shocked and confused; she had to readjust her sense of where she fitted into a different world. She also experienced survivor’s guilt.
Some people experienced physical reactions as well as changing emotions after a traumatic death. Problems with sleeping were very common. Dolores said she could not sleep for many months. She saw a cranial therapist, who helped her sleep much better. Elizabeth worked until she was exhausted so that she could sleep. Carole had a lot of undirected anger. She took up running, which helped her to get rid of her anger and which helped to tire her physically. Ann could not sleep either, but avoided sleeping pills because she did not want to become dependent on them.
Some found it helpful to resume work after a few weeks, others found it impossible to work for a while. Dolores, for example, had to stop work for six months and then gradually started again.
Some people couldn’t eat, had terrible dreams, felt sick, felt terrified, and out of control. A few found they could cope only by smoking or drinking more than usual, and realised that sometimes they were drinking excessively. A few were convinced that their physical problems, such as stomach ache, had been caused by stress, and Dean suspected that their sudden bereavement had exacerbated his heart condition and his wife’s stroke.
After a sudden traumatic death it is not unusual for relatives to be more anxious, and to see the world as a more dangerous place, at least for a while. However, some people experienced more serious mental health problems after they lost a friend or relative due to a traumatic death. Lisa was very ill for many years after two of her friends were murdered. Nina also said she had a ‘kind of breakdown’ more than two years after her husband’s death.

Last reviewed October 2015.
Last updated October 2011.

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