Witnessing or discovering a sudden death, even if you didn’t know the person, can be traumatic and distressing.
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.
These are dedicated sections on our website with information to help you cope with these situations.
Everyone will react in their own way, but discoverers and witnesses will often experience some strong reactions immediately and in the weeks that follow. It’s normal to experience such reactions as discovering or witnessing someone’s death is confronting and unsettling.
Emotionally, you may feel shock, disbelief, confusion, horror, and fear. Some people feel guilty for not stopping it somehow, even if there was nothing anyone could’ve done. You may feel deep sadness for the person. If you didn’t know the person, you may feel curious and want to know more about them.
Memories of what you saw may stay in your mind for some time, making it harder to concentrate on things. Disturbing thoughts might keep repeating, and you may have nightmares or flashbacks – as if it’s happening again.
Physical reactions are also common, such as shaking, racing heart, nausea, tight chest, body aches, and exhaustion. You may have difficulty sleeping or changes in appetite. Socially you may want to be near others or be more alone. You might be more irritable, or constantly on alert in case it happens to you again. You might want to talk about it or avoid it. You may find yourself questioning why, and searching for meaning, and feeling less safe in the world.
All these reactions are normal responses to a traumatic event, but they can often affect people more, and for longer, than they expect. Witnesses who also knew the person who died suddenly will also be experiencing the grief of their personal loss.
Witnessing or discovering a sudden death, whether you knew the person or not, can be life changing. Below are some things that others who’ve been through this have found helpful.
Remind yourself your reactions are normal after a traumatic experience. You are safe now. To learn more about trauma, see Coping with Trauma.
Talk about what you saw and experienced with someone you trust. Bottling things up can make things harder. An experienced Support Worker is available to listen and talk with you and your family, whānau and friends. You can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker. You could also talk to your doctor, a psychologist or counsellor.
A blessing of the site where a person has died is very important for some families, whānau, and communities. Some family or whānau members may want to visit the scene of the death and be part of a blessing ceremony, and others may not. You can choose to hold the blessing privately or open it to whoever would like to come, including from your community.
If you are an immediate family or whānau member and would like to arrange a blessing of the site, you could contact your local church or faith centre, your local marae, your cultural leaders, the police officer who has been working with the family, a Police Iwi Liaison Officer, or speak to your Support Worker.
If you don't personally know the family or whānau, speak to a Support Worker if you would like to attend any blessing of the site that is being arranged.
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.
Don’t push yourself or be hard on yourself. Take plenty of time to work through what’s happened.
Seek professional help if the intensity of your reactions don’t lessen, or they get worse. This is especially important if you are experiencing difficult flashbacks, and everything comes back to you in vivid detail. Talk to your Support Worker about options available in your area or call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker. Find a doctor, psychologist, or counsellor, or your local mental health team here https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/find-a-gp-or-counsellor/
If you are feeling overwhelmed, you can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker. Or you can call the free helpline 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor 24/7.
More tips for coping with your reactions
To understand more about trauma and grief, and to learn ways to manage your reactions, please see:
Even though it may not feel like it now, your reactions will gradually lessen in the weeks and months to come. If they don’t lessen or get worse and disrupt your daily life and work, it is best to seek the help of a professional who has experience supporting people after trauma. Some people may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you have concerns, see your doctor, a counsellor, a psychologist, or ask a Victim Support Worker about help that is available to you. (You can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker.)
Helpful support information for witnesses and/or discoverers of a traumatic incident, such as a sudden death, is available to download here.