Coping with Sudden Death

By Therese Rando, Ph.D.

Sudden DeathIn both sudden death and anticipated death, there is pain. However, while the grief is not greater in sudden death, the capacity to cope is diminished. Grievers are shocked and stunned by the sudden loss of their loved one. The loss is so disruptive that recovery almost always is complicated. This because the adaptive capacities are so severely assaulted and the ability to cope is so critically injured that functioning is seriously impaired. Grievers are overwhelmed.

If you are such a griever, you probably are suffering extreme feelings of bewilderment, anxiety, self-reproach, and depression, and you may be unable to continue normal life. You had no preparation and no time to gradually absorb the reality that the world was about to change dramatically.

Instead, there was a sudden destruction of the world you used to know...



Dr. Therese Rando, author of How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, is a psychologist in Warwick, Rhode Island, where she is the Clinical Director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss. Having published 70 works pertaining to the clinical aspects of dying, death, loss, and trauma, Dr. Rando is a recognized expert in the field and has appeared on numerous television programs, including "Dateline," "CBS This Morning," "Today Show," "Good Morning, America" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Image by Tim Teebken / Getty Images


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Comment by elyse on March 8, 2016 at 12:17am
When my brother/only sibling went missing 5/28/14,my life changed forever.For two days it was a search,but we knew he was already gone.And then,it was a recovery.A recovery of his body.He was found in a lake,drowning undetermined.There will never be a closure for me,not knowing what happened brings me to despair.I keep going over and over in my mind.I feel at times obsessed.You hear every day about Loss of life,but when it happens to you,it's so hard to believe.Almost two years later,I still can't believe my brother is gone.I miss my brother more than words can say.The emptiness I feel without my brother in my life,no one can fill that void.I wished I got a chance to tell my brother how much I loved him.
Comment by Carol Greenspan on July 23, 2015 at 12:23pm

My husband died on May 31, 2015 of sudden cardiac arrest. I was totally shocked and devastated and I still can't believe it happened. Despite his having a heart attack (and valve replacement surgery) back in 1987, he was doing well, and was stabilized. He had just had a series of medical tests two weeks before he passed away and they all came back beautifully. The test results were as good as they had ever been before and we were elated and certain that we were gong to have many more good years together. Then, all of a sudden, he was sitting listening to a ball game and reading and he just stopped breathing. Every morning I wake up and think it was all a nightmare and he'd still be there....but then I realize that it did really happen and he's gone. I just can't seem to cope with this grief and guilt.

Comment by Vincent D'Anton on May 25, 2015 at 8:15am

I lost my wife on June 10th,2014. It has been a very hard year trying to cope with loosing her. When I received a call that no one could get a hold of her I rushed home to check on her and I found her on the bedroom floor dead. At the time she was watching our grandchildren and when I left she seemed all right. Their ages were two and six months. They say she did not have any pain, that it was quick. That did not help at all. She was gone and that was devastating enough. A few months later one of my daughters and I started seeing a counselor to help us with everything. She was in a group at college and i was at home. At first it helped me quite a bit but now coming upon the one year mark it does not seem to help anymore, especially holidays and special occasions . There are several times everything would seem OK and then all of a sudden I would have a break down. I would start crying and thinking of her and all the time we had together and all the time we had to go. We were together for thirty four years and looking for that much more. The depressions I have get real bad at times and I start thinking of the possibility of joining her. I am being told that it will take at least a year to a year and a half before I start being able to cope with my grief, I don't see it even on the horizon. In my business I talk to people briefly and when the subject comes up on their side I don't get into details or a long conversation with them but I think to my self how do they do it, how do they cope? Even now writing this I wonder if it is not the ability to cope but maybe it is guilt. Even though my wife and I always told each other how much we loved each other I do think at times If I have ever done everything I could for her. Maybe that is the problem, I don't know. At this point the pain will always be there but when it is worse than I could ever stand it is like someone reached in and ripped my heart out, I don't know how much longer I can take it.

Comment by James Harold Bath on December 6, 2013 at 5:20am

Don't worry, Stephanie. All souls must drop their physical bodies. Our pure souls are young and happy in our eternal spirit where all our family and friends are waiting for us to be with them again after leaving this temporary physical life

Comment by Stephanie Armstrong on December 5, 2013 at 8:25pm

My mom died unexpectedly yesterday morning and I am so devastated. She was my best friend and just can't believe she is gone. :(

Comment by Christian R. on October 16, 2013 at 6:03pm

(i posted this on another blog as well...i just need to have it out in the world to make it feel real)

i lost my 21 yr old sister yesterday it was sudden my mom talked to her at 8am (she was spending the night at some friends) she told her she was going to go back to sleep and come home later, but she never woke up. Her friends called 911 and they tried CPR, but she was already gone. They are performing the autopsy today so we still don't know what happened. i never knew i could feel so much sadness and pain. i am 25yrs old and being her big sister is all i have know for so long. i cant even begin to fathom how i am supposed to live the rest of my life without her. it still doesn't feel real. i don't want it to be real. i don't know how to handle this loss or what to do with myself now. i know i have to be strong for my family, but i just feel like there is a giant hole in my heart that will never heal.

Comment by Petal Watson on July 19, 2013 at 5:58am
I'm stunned and I still can't comprehend Edward's death.  I don't understand.
i feel very damaged and very traumatised.  It is January 2012 when he died and I am worse not better.  Not depressed just unable to cope with pettiness and the mundane of life.
How could he be dead?  I don't understand - it's inexplicable.  I feel frozen, because every time I try and reach out for help, I am pushed away.  I could fill a book with valid stories and tales of reasonable very lucid attempts on my part to be embraced.
But we moved to here a new town in England from N. Ireland, and I have no infrastructure of support - as we were everything to each other.
I cannot comprehend it
i feel exactly what she described in this article above -- a profound loss of security and confidence in 'the world as we know it'
it's not a theological statement though I am a committed Christian (without a church as I've tried 22 different churches and the latest fiasco which most of my overseas friends describe as "crazy" antics, is that when I reached out with one of my love stories, the reply was cc'd in by email to include others without my permission.  Which is an extreme attack on my dignity, to turn a private one to one conversation into a public display without my permission!!!
Anyway my profound feeling of mistrust in the world now is NOT a theological statement - but much like saying, "how do I know that when I inhale, that there will be air to breathe?"  I don't.
and i have NO tolerance for head games, people cc'ing others in without asking me - i have no tolerance for mundane pettiness
every time I try and extend a bit of trust and reach out, there always seems to be some boundary violation - some hitch - some less-than-filled-with-the-Holy-Spirit action which says 'no!  back off!  this does not have the finger of God on it!"
I can't stick it - I am really and truly short circuiting, and I have no strength to have to continue to challenge unstable behaviour because it's taking ALL MY ENERGY just to stay on my own feet without having to look around every situation for the next trick
I experienced, directly from God, a lovely story of Hope one week ago, but I am so nervous about every day daily things because every time I reach out I just keep getting shattered, like a 
Comment by James Harold Bath on January 31, 2013 at 11:41am

My wife suffered a series of health problems over the last 20 years of our 30 year marriage.  She had brain surgery to clamp a bleeding vein, and later a small stroke, and heart problems.  Her personality changed over the course of these illnesses, making her docile, forgetful, and dependent on me to make all the important decisions.  She became childlike.  I hid as much of her mental decline from her as I could and treated her like an intelligent, cherished and equal partner.  Then about ten years ago she had a near-fatal reaction to the statin drug Lipitor.  This cholesterol-lowering drug caused severe neurological damage throughout her body.  It ate away and dissolved massive amounts of muscle tissue which crippled and severely handicapped her physically.  It also damaged her brain cells and made her even more mentally dependent on me.  She could walk a few steps, slowly, if she held onto me or a chair or something.  My care-giving duties toward her increased steadily over the years as she lost mental and physical strength.  And in exact proportion, so did my love and compassion for this precious woman, my wife Christel.  Her loss of independence was hard on her self-image.  I had to constantly remind her that her value to me was exactly equal to my value to her, that we both were equal in necessity, worth, intelligence and everything else though we each brought different talents and abilities to our one loving relationship, our one marriage, as one soul using our two bodies.  She sometimes expressed regret that I had to do so much for her and she felt she wasn't giving enough in return.  I tried and sometimes succeeded in getting her to understand that I never felt I was doing more than she, only different than she.  I told her that her willingness to receive a gift or service from me was the only way that I could have the privilege of giving any gift or service to anybody.  A giver "needs" a receiver in order to grow inwardly and spiritually through that giving.  And she was giving me this chance to grow by allowing me to give to her.  A receiver is always of equal value to the giver because the giving cannot take place without both parties sharing equally in the exchange.  I gave her many hugs and I love you's and she gave them back to me over the years.  Finally, after 30 years of togetherness and  20 years of bathing her, helping her toilets, pushing her in wheelchairs, changing TV channels for her, changing the bed, washing the laundry, doing the daily cooking while always involving her by asking for her guidance as chef (she loved cooking) and after helping her outside to water her plants and watch the birds, showering her with love and seeking her advice on many issues, doing everything I could to bring a smile to her beautiful old face, after 20 years of increasingly intense caregiving that became a total focus for me, her heart beat its last beat in bed early in the morning of January 28, 2013.  She passed away sometime in the 30 minute span between the last two times I checked on her to see that she was sleeping peacefully.  The grief I feel right now is indescribable.  I had never imagined that my heart could break the way it is breaking now.  I wish to God I knew how to get to her now to protect her.  I hope that the strength and wisdom of her pure soul has emerged at last from her crippled body and is far more powerful than I.

Comment by steve moon on January 2, 2013 at 5:13pm

Families are forever.  Families are the building blocks of heaven.  What most religions of today do not understand is that in biblical temples for example "the Temple of Solomon" families were sealed for all eternity by those who were called to perform these priesthood ordinances.  God, being a just God, has provided a way for all of his children to be sealed for time and all eternity into their eternal families.  For individuals to be sealed into these eternal families they have to accept the gospel of Christ and live their lives in such a way as to qualify for this eternal blessing.  These priesthood ordinances are being performed on earth today for both the living and the dead.  They are part of the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  To understand how families are sealed and what it means to be worthy of these blessings please contact a missionary (ages 18-21) of the Mormon Church "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints" or visit this web page "" where you can chat with a missionary and view other materials.   It will change your life as it did mine.


Comment by Raquel Santiago on December 30, 2012 at 1:53pm

Hi Mandy,

And your life is also precious.  Very precious.  Girl, there are more fish in the sea so to speak.  While you never want to forget Michael, you will move on in time.  Now it hurts, but each day it will get a little easier if you allow it to.  However, if you continue to "pine away", the healing will take longer.  I KNOW...My posting on here way before yours knows your grief, i feel your pain everyday and so do my clients.  But each one also has adapted to this new life, dont let it close doors to you but allow this to open new doors to your life.  There is nothing we cannot overcome, these trials and tribulations put before us are there for a reason and each one makes us stronger.  I have lost many to suicide, who throught that they could not get through.  I have attempted myself many times in the past 16 to be exact and 8 of them on life support where i woke up and the doctors said "welcome back" and I responded, "those damn paramedics never give up".  I was lucky, i lived, yes i still continue to go through trials and tribulations every day, my health is not as perfect as I would like it to be.  I wish had my friends back who took their lives and I wish i had my partner back who was killed by a drunk driver in San Jose, but i cannot.  I cannot change time, nor would i want to.  Those challenges and tribulations are what made me the person i am today.  Strong, confident and a person who helps others get past what they are going through to better their lives.  Some it takes longer than others.  But each instance makes us what we are today.  Myself being buddhist but born to a catholic family i hear you.  And i dare not comment on beliefs as each belief is a person's own, we learn that in counseling 101 lol.  Michael will always be with you, somehow someway, guiding you when you least expect it and you will wonder, how did i get through that or how did that happen.  Remember here can be no darkness without the light and vice versa.  One cannot exist without the other the same as feelings and emotions, saddness and happiness cannot be one without the other.  We are all scared when death takes someone and many times we blame ourselves for missing the signs, lord knows i did, but we cannot blame ourselves for the choices of someone we love.  Your emotions will run rampant right now, you will cry, you will laugh hysterically, you will smile and each day that light will grow a little brigher, right now yes its hard.  There are many steps you will go through beyond the 7 steps listed in grief, those are not an exact guide and they can rinse and repeat at any point in your life.  The future is what you make it my dear......These challenges are what make us who we are, and this happened for a reason, figuring out why will baffle you for years and isnt worth it.  Allow your life to unfold as it will now and follow that path.  I see many paths for your future but do you...yes i think you do if you allow yourself to be open to them.  Grieve...crying is powerful and will allow you to let it out and when you think you have cried too much, cry a little bit more.  its healthy.  Then do something you wouldnt normally do, go out and stand in the sun, bathe in the light, the warmth, feel it surround you and that my dear is Michael with you, guiding your life in ways you never imagined.  For each person will be different.


Comment by Raquel Santiago on December 30, 2012 at 12:43pm


Many of us here know and feel your pain, have been there at one point in our lives or are there now.  Suicide is one of the more difficult deaths to handle with a lot of unanswered questions (somtimes).  Dont blame yourself - dont linger on the past but on the future, your future.  You cannot change the past only adapt to the future and grow.  Surround yourself with loves ones, those who love and care for you.  It will take time but you will move on with your life.  I am limited in what i can put in a posting.  I dont know your religion but the powers that be do not give us any obstacle we cannot overcome.  Everything happens for a reason and yes even this.  All that said, do not do this alone.  Talk to someone whether its a grief counselor or a therapist or even a friend.



Comment by Doraine on December 17, 2012 at 6:26pm

My son was killed while walking home the day after Thanksgiving. My husband and myself were on our way to St. Louis to spend the day after thanksgiving with him when we received the phone call for the St. Louis Medical examiner. asking me to pull the car over so he could speak to both of us. when I stopped the car he told me that my son was dead. I still am finding it very hard to believe. To me it feels like a very bad dream that I can not wake up from. my heart hurts so bad

Comment by Vee Herrera Michrina on November 20, 2012 at 12:41pm


Thank you for your post and your insight is beautiful and much needed. The person I lost this year was truly amazing! He spent his life for others. He was an Anthropology professor, helped the poor and reached out to those with special needs. I have realized that that I am angry and I had to repent to God for being angry with him, and even “forgiving God” for taking Barry. I believe you will make a wonderful counselor and advocate for the grief stricken. Grief is hard to work through and I’ve needed a lot of support. It’s so ironic that I always had Barry as one my one support, but I am also reaching out to help me heal too. I even feel survival guildt at times for wanting some healing--part of me wants to always grieve for him because somehow It is proof of my love for him and in parts keeping him with me. I now leave it in God’s hands my life and Barry’s. 

Comment by Raquel Santiago on November 20, 2012 at 10:59am

This was hard to read and remember but its so true.  Which is why i am now dedicating my life to help people recover from grief.  When my partner died i was sooo angry at the world, to take him from me.  The one brightness in my life.  No one could talk to me, tell me anything, I was a walking time bomb.  Then my best friend hung herself and even though you think it cant get worse, I went downhill from there.  Emotions are heightened during deaths of loved ones especially and the more there are there harder it is to recover, but it is possible.  It will take time and clinicians who work with these clients need to understand the emotions that they are going through and how to help them cope and survive..

Comment by LjadeC on October 17, 2012 at 5:03am

Dear Therese Rando,

Thank you for this great article...

It has been about 6 weeks ago since I lost my Precious, Beautiful, mother in a sudden and tragic death.

She was a hermit and liked to live alone and we had not heard from her in about 3 days and it was not unusual for her to not return our calls for that time.  My brother (who was closest to her) went over to check on her and found her dead-bleeding from her head, in her hallway where she had fallen.

When the paramedics arrived they said she had probably been dead for about 12 hours.  Dennis had been calling her for three days and that means she was lying there, helpless and either conscious and suffering for days, or unconscious.

She was all one, with no one to help her or save her!

I am STILL in a state of shock and disbelief.  

I blame myself in many ways that I could/should have helped her as she was very, very frail and needed help.  I have been so depressed that it is almost impossible for me to cry and I WANT to, but the tears don’t come.  There were times, after she died, that I did cry but no breaking down and sobbing like I would like to.  I am VERY, VERY sick-I know.

I was in a severely depressed state before she died but I am EXTREMELY DEPRESSED now.  (I scored 44 on the BECK BDI II last night.)

I am in NO CA and have no medical coverage, I haven’t worked since end of 2009 and I have only enough money to survive for only about three months.

I am in SUCH a state of hopelessness and despair that I HATE the idea of facing another day.  Each night I PRAY to die in my sleep

I don’t WANT to kill myself, but I see no way out.

I can’t STAND this miserable existence anymore and I want out.  I don’t live anymore-I merely exist-and barely do that.

Last night I went online to a depression website where they asked you to write and promised to write back, but no one did!  I can’t find the site because my computer crashed and I can’t remember the site name!

I have been surfing online to find painless, fast ways to off myself and online places that can help people who are suffering like me.


I don’t know what to do and I am reaching out…




Thank you

Comment by connie on October 6, 2012 at 9:30pm

I lost my husband July 2009, my best friend Mikee help me get thru the terrible time and then Sept 2012 he was taken from suddenly, the pain is bad sometimes I don't think I'll make it we had crossed from best friends to being in love and looking forward to a life together.  I know life goes on and he wouldn't want me to be soooo sad but it's so hard without him here to talk to, he's in my head and heart.  He was the most caring wonderful person in the world and now my world is gone.  I din't get that final moment to say good-bye to him as he died in another state and was an organ donor his soon to be ex-wife didn't let me know until it was over with.

Comment by Vee Herrera Michrina on August 31, 2012 at 8:53pm

Dear Jackie, Oh honey! I come to you with the humblest of heart and want to tell you how much it hurts to read your words. I am so sorry you lost your beautiful precious daugther. Words can NEVER say what begins to even understand such a loss. LIfe is very different! and I am seeing a grief counselor myself, and she has told me that to want to NOT go on is a very normal way to feel. I know it’s supposed to get better, but the way i feel about loss, is HOW CAN SUCH A LOSS ever get better--or maybe even easier. And do we really want the time to pass? I feel I want this moment to stay right here because it’s been 4 months since I saw my beloved, last. And as time goes on I fear I’l “forget” his voice, or his laugh in the way I do now. I cling to my faith in God with my last hope and by a golden thread to tied to my heart. It even makes me wonder “what is the point of this life, and love if it is always to end in loss”. But I still come back to faith in God that he has a greater view that I cannot see and I will not stop loving my beloved, NOR WILL he or she who has left us.

I hope I can be of some support because I find I need it in different ways every day. Today I was really deeply sad and even angry at Barry for leaving me. I feel so jipped! so upset! SO helpsless and so hopeless and aimless...

I try to even live moments as if he is still here, because in ways he is with me. I put his pictures up, his keepsakes so I can touch them and I even do things he or we did to help me feel close.

I am do deeply sorry. Your broken heart is in a million tiny pieces and only time can tell you how you will find hope or meaning with out here here in the natural world

I know she is forever your beautiful angel.

blessings, vee (Colorado, age 49)

Comment by Jackie Potgieter on August 31, 2012 at 3:27pm
I lost my daughter on the 19th of March 2012 and I am finding it very hard to carry on in a normal lifestyle. She was only 27 years old and I miss her so much. Life is different and many relationships with family have changed. It's so hard but I try each day. .
Comment by Keziah Mwaura on August 7, 2012 at 5:11pm

Am Keziah and lives in Kenya. I lost my husband on 12th march 2012 suddenly as a result of a brutal murder;on the eve to my birthday. I will never miss to celebrate my birthday.we had been married for eleven years and had two sons, 10yrs and 5 yrs old. it has been very hurting for me with so many unanswered questions. we had a lot of things to do together and we did together. Now, life have turned out to be very boring. sometimes I just hold on to the pictures we took together since our college days and cant imagine my partner and friend is gone, just like that. I miss the so many stories we shared and his jokes. He was the best daddy for our sons. Life is no longer sweet and each day I live in fear of not losing some one who I love so much. I have always held on to our memories. there are times I feel like giving up but the thoughts of our sons and the so many promises we made to each other keeps me going. Mash, I miss you so much. I am also grateful for this discussions because now I know there are others who have gone through the same path I am n have made so will I.

Comment by 95688 on August 6, 2012 at 1:42pm
There are two groups that I have frequented in the past. One is local and the other is abount an hour away but it is so worth it. I recently completed a 4 week short term grief group with my husband (we married a month ago) and in the past had taken my mom and my mother in law. It helped me because it gave them a perspective from many others and gave them some sense of what I was going through. The groups I go to are specific to neonatal loss. You may be able to find some good bereavment or hospice groups. Don't be turned off by the sound of hospice. It doesn't necessarily mean old or nursing home and they can give you some valuable resources.

In our support group we have a saying. "The club that no one wants to be in." Of course that is because we have lost our babies, and no one wants their babies to die. But it goes for everyone that is grieving. We never want to endure the loss of a loved one. Whether they're our parent, spouse, lover, friend, etc. The losses are all different but we have that one little thing in common. That we lost someone close to us. Even if they aren't that close, the thought that you didn't get to know them or participate in their lives more than you did can make the hurt worse. I can definitely go on but will leave you with this.

The following is a poem we read in our group. I sent it to some close family members, friends, and coworkers.

Please be gentle with me for I am grieving
The sea I swim in is a lonely one, and the shore seems miles away.
Waves of despair numb my soul as I struggle through each day,
My heart is heavy with sorrow.
I want to shout and scream and repeatedly ask, “WHY?”
At times, my grief overwhelms me, and I weep bitterly, so great is my loss.
Please don’t turn away or tell me to move on with my life
I must embrace my pain before I can learn to heal
Companion me through the hard times and sit with me in silence
Honor where I am in my journey, not where you think I should be
Listen patiently to my story
I may need to tell it over and over again
It’s how I begin to grasp the enormity of my loss
Nurture me through the months and years ahead
Forgive me when I seem distant and inconsolable
A small flame still burns within my heart
And shared memories may trigger both laughter and tears
There is not right or wrong way to grieve
I need your support and understanding
I must find my own path
Please, will you walk beside me?

This is exactly how I feel a lot of the time and it helps to know we're not alone in our grief no matter how different the situation. God Bless and hope your day is a little better than yesterday.

Pamela Barker

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