Finding ways to cope after a sudden death

Grieving the sudden death of someone close to you is never easy. It can be a very up and down time, with reactions often strong and unpredictable.

If the death was also traumatic or frightening, you may experience a combination of reactions to both grief and trauma. They’re all normal reactions but they might affect you or others in your family or whānau more, and for longer, than you expect.

Please click here if the death was due to any of the following specific sudden death situations. We have dedicated sections on our website with information to help you cope with these.


Grieve in a way that’s right for you. Everyone is different and will react in their own ways. Take things one day at a time. Only do what’s essential. Grief takes the time it needs. Don't be hurried by the expectations of others. On days when you wonder if you’ll get through this, be reassured that you will, one day at a time.

Looking after yourself is important. Encourage others who have been affected to do the same. Eat healthy food. Drink enough water. Keep up routines and get good rest and sleep, as best you can. Do some simple exercise. Take some slow, deep breaths. Spend time with people you can relax with, or with a pet. Spend time in nature. If you find keeping busy helps, find useful tasks to do. See a doctor if you’re unwell, extremely anxious, or are having difficulty sleeping. Draw on any cultural or spiritual beliefs you may have. Accept caring offers from others if that would help.

Flashbacks:  If you have a flashback, it feels as though you’re back in the middle of your traumatic experience or reliving some aspect of it. This can be in vivid detail and during a flashback it can be difficult and confusing to connect back to the present and to what is real. To better understand flashbacks and ways to manage them, see our information sheet Dealing with Flashbacks.

Express your thoughts and feelings. When you’re ready, share how things are for you with trusted close family, whānau, or friends. Write thoughts down, walk or run them out, punch a pillow, or cry when you need to.

Remember the person’s life. It’s not how they died that counts the most. Think about and share good memories with others. Collect some memories together in a scrapbook or box. Find ways to honour their life - lighting a candle, making something special, or putting their photo up.

Connect with your family, whānau, and friends. They’re likely to be grieving too. Supporting each other can help a lot. Don’t lose touch with people who care about you. Ask for help when you need it, including cultural or spiritual support.

Expect some painful reminders. Small things - a photo, a sound, a place, certain music, or a favourite food can suddenly trigger deep emotions. Take some deep breaths. Cry if you need to. Our Dealing with Flashbacks information sheet provides helpful tips on how to cope if disturbing things are coming back to you. These reminders are a normal part of traumatic grief.

Consider talking through what happened with a counsellor or psychologist. Many people find this helps because bereavement after a sudden death can be traumatic and extremely painful. Talk with your Victim Support Worker about getting free counselling.

It’s a relief to have a distraction sometimes, to think about other things - doing chores, being at work, or spending time on an interest or in nature. All this can help to give difficult thoughts and emotions a rest.

Expect setbacks. There will be good days and bad days for some time after your loss. Grief never happens in a predictable, straight line. Use the support available.

Avoid:

  • not talking to anyone – keeping it all inside adds stress
  • using alcohol or drugs to blot out the grief – this can make things worse
  • making big decisions quickly – best wait until you’re thinking more clearly
  • not seeking help – get support when it’s needed.

Feeling overwhelmed right now? You can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker, or phone 1737, a free, confidential helpline to speak with a counsellor.

More tips for coping with your reactions
To understand more about trauma and grief, and to learn ways to manage your reactions, please see:

If your reactions concern you

  • Make time to visit your doctor to explain what you’ve been going through. They can do a health check and support you with any ongoing issues, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, or depression.
  • Consider talking with a psychologist or counsellor who can help you work through your reactions to what has happened and its consequences for you and your family or whānau.
  • Visit this helpful listing to find a doctor or counsellor https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/find-a-gp-or-counsellor/

Supporting children and young people
Bereaved children and teenagers will often also find their reactions hard to deal with. They will need ongoing attention, reassurance, and support. It is not unusual for grief to resurface later, even long after the death. Reassure them that it’s normal to have strong thoughts and feelings after someone dies. Talk about helpful ways to manage them - taking some slow, deep breaths if they’re getting anxious, crying if they want to, or talking with someone they trust when they’re really sad.

For information for parents and caregivers on helping children and young people cope with a sudden death see our information sheet Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event.

Use books for children about grief and understanding death. Contact Skylight on 0800 299 100 for available children’s books after a traumatic event or sudden death or ask your local library – e.g. A Terrible Thing Happened (Margaret Holmes), After a Murder: A Workbook for Grieving Kids (The Dougy Centre), or Something Has Happened or When Tough Stuff Happens, both by Skylight.
Other helpful links:

Other useful resources and websites

64 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Grief

Coping with Anniversaries  (The Grief Centre)

 

Downloads

Coping with Trauma
When you are Grieving
Dealing with flashbacks
If you have discovered or witness a crime or traumatic incident