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Sudden bereavement: responses in the early weeks

People who are experiencing a sudden bereavement often have strong emotional and physical responses because of the traumatic nature of the bereavement.

Individuals are unique, and may display none, all, or different responses to their sudden bereavements at different times. However, in recent decades, there have been efforts made by academics and practitioners to catalogue these responses, give them names, and then to define care that has been found to be effective for people suffering these responses. The below guidance is based on this work. 

Shock responses and responses during the first month

Immediately after finding out the news of a sudden death, suddenly bereaved people often display responses that can be defined as shock symptoms, usually accompanied by a period of disbelief that the death is true; a feeling that it is all just a bad dream. Symptoms can vary from screaming to shaking, to an inability to talk or move, or eat, drink or sleep. Physical responses may include general pains such as stomach ache or headache, diarrhoea, stuttering, heart palpitations, jumpiness, and exhaustion.

These symptoms are often intensely emotionally and physically draining, particularly for the people suffering them, but also for people caring for them. However, shock symptoms such as these should subside over the early days. 

Read Sudden's guidance for suddenly bereaved people on shock reactions. During the shock period, suddenly bereaved people are less likely to be reading this website, so it is helpful if you, as a carer, can communicate the information contained in this guidance. 

During the first four to six weeks of a sudden bereavement a number of additional thoughts and reactions are common too, such as painful thoughts (regret, anger, fears), insomnia and nightmares, physical illness, intrusive thoughts, and a feeling that no-one understands. Sudden has produced guidance on thoughts and reactions in the early weeks and how to cope. You can direct suddenly bereaved people to this guidance through the 'Help for suddenly bereaved people' button on this website, or print it out. 

The guidance produced by Sudden on shock reactions and thoughts and reactions in the early weeks aims to help suddenly bereaved people understand that their reactions may be extreme and therefore distressing, but are normal at this time, and that the most important thing is to stay safe and feel supported. As a carer, the most important thing you can do during this time is to assist in providing that support and safety. 

Caring for a suddenly bereaved person in the first hours and weeks

It is important to have support for suddenly bereaved people during the first hours and weeks.

The main functions of this care are to ensure a suddenly bereaved person:

1. is safe from harm. When in shock, a person may be more liable to make mistakes, such as drive dangerously, or burn themselves. Potentially dangerous tasks such as driving and cooking should be done by someone else.

2. has their basic needs met. This includes eating and drinking (not alcohol), housing, keeping warm, and attempting to sleep.

3. has their responsibilities covered. This includes any responsibilities for dependents such as children and elderly people, but also responsibilities for pets. It may also be necessary to tell key people about the bereavement, such as an employer of the bereaved person.

4. is provided with basic information that helps them make sense of what has happened. It may be necessary to repeat information several times.

5. is not excluded from procedures and events that are happening that are relevant to their sudden bereavement and decision-making that needs to be done, but given support and information to enable them to make the best decisions for them. For example, decisions around viewing the body, return of belongings from the police, or funerals. 

6. is cared for in light of their pre-existing life situation, and any vulnerabilities around that. For example, complications such as domestic violence, family breakdown, depression or other chronic illness, or alcohol or drug addictions.  

The provision of this care does not require a specialist. It can be provided by a loving family member or friend. However, care professionals can provide this role if such a person is not available, or help family members or friends to provide this care by relieving them at times. 

On-going responses

It may be that after a month the responses being displayed by someone suddenly bereaved are 'normal' grief responses common following any kind of death including expected deaths, and which don't require any sort of specialist care to aid recovery.

For example, feelings of sadness, feelings of desperation at the death, pangs of grief, yearning for the person who died, and crying. The suddenly bereaved person might seek out places, or do things, that remind them of the person who died. They may feel irritable, or suffer insomnia, or have other responses that are unpleasant, but also accept help, do not feel demoralised about the future of themselves or others they love. They accept the death, and can move forward with their life while still feeling sad at times.

However, it is not uncommon, or unusual, to suffer more than this following a sudden death, and to suffer from traumatic grief, or post-traumatic stress, or both.

Go to our guidance for carers on traumatic grief and post-traumatic stress

Copyright: Brake 2013