A sudden or unexpected death can turn someone’s life upside down. One moment they’re doing everyday activities at home or work. The next moment they may be trying to comprehend something they don’t want to believe.
You may never be fully ready for the rush of feelings when a loved one dies. Whether you’re in this situation or you’re helping a friend through this, it helps to learn more about this process.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Causes Feelings of Shock After a Death?
- How to Deal With Shock After the Death of a Loved One
- How to Help a Friend Deal With Shock After a Death
This guide can help you see how and why shock develops, how to get through it yourself, and tips for supporting someone you care about.
What Causes Feelings of Shock After a Death?
The brain sees the death of a loved one as a traumatic experience. And when you experience trauma, your body goes into protection mode as you absorb the news. Your brain becomes flooded with information. Your emotions, thoughts, and uncertainty can become overwhelming.
The adjustment of knowing a person isn’t in your life anymore is enormous. It can be too much to process all at once, so your brain finds ways to shut things out. This is why you feel disoriented, foggy, and may have a fuzzy memory during periods of intense grief. Your brain does what it needs to keep you physically alive and not much else.
Unfortunately, this stage of grief can feel uncomfortable and confusing. Being out of touch with reality is upsetting, especially if you can’t clearly remember stretches of time. With support and help from others, you can get through these first difficult moments of coping with death.
How to Deal With Shock After the Death of a Loved One
The shock of a loved one's death takes a lot of time and energy to process. If you’re unsure how to manage the next few days or weeks, here are some tips for getting through it.
1. Take care of your health
Do what you can to care for your basic health needs. You may not feel like doing much of anything, so you may have to work against that desire. Take it slow and small, focusing on simple routines and physical activities.
Why does caring for our body help when it’s our emotions that hurt so much? Because grief is a full-body experience. Your nervous system is closely tied with your thoughts and emotions. Whatever you can do to soothe your body will help you respond to episodes of deep emotional pain.
- Get physically active every day, even if it’s just a 10-15 minute walk in your neighborhood or inside your house. Move your muscles and elevate your heart for a few minutes a day. You’ll get a brief burst of endorphins, too, and a burst of oxygen to your brain with increased blood flow.
- Stay hydrated and try to eat simple foods. It’s OK to enjoy some comfort foods, but try to avoid overindulging in fast food or junk food snacks. Excessive sugar or caffeine can also add to your emotional roller coaster and disrupt your sleep, so watch your intake of these as well.
- Sleep may not come easily some nights, but try to stay active during the day to help you feel sleepy at night. Eventually, your body will remember how to get back into a sleeping rhythm.
2. If someone offers you help, take them up on it
You may not act like yourself when you’re feeling shaken by someone’s death. Part of your brain may go on auto-pilot, not thinking clearly about the big picture. If you’re the kind of person who usually likes to take care of themselves and doesn’t often ask for help, you may fall into that habit now.
It may feel like you’re going against your typical personality, but this is the time to accept help. Your perception of life is off-kilter, and you may not see what you really need. When others offer help, they see a way to reduce your burden.
Resist the urge to say, “No, I’m fine.” You probably aren’t fine. And you might struggle to accept that truth. But for a while, when you still feel numb, let others help and take care of you.
3. Express your emotions
Talking about your grief helps you work through emotions, but this can be an uncomfortable experience. If you’re still in shock from the loss, you may feel confused or uncertain. But the act of speaking out loud can help you process your feelings. This also happens when you express yourself in other ways such as writing, art, or music.
Getting your emotions out of your mind and body allows you to get a different perspective on them. These new interpretations give your brain a different experience to work through. And as you express your feelings multiple times in various ways, your brain and body experience them differently, too. You learn about your emotional process as you go through it and give it meaning.
4. If you can, be involved with your loved one’s funeral
You may not feel like getting involved in the funeral, and part of your brain will want to run away from any reminders of your loss. But if you are able to, taking charge of a few tangible things related to the funeral or handling personal items can help you stay more grounded in the moment.
It’s OK if you let others help you or even take most of the action. If you’re in a state of shock, you may feel like you have little control over how you feel for a while. It may take time before you feel like yourself.
But every small action you take can give you a mental anchor to keep you connected to these events. You’ll want to turn away, but facing reality will help you move through your grief in the long run.
How to Help a Friend Deal With Shock After a Death
A friend coping with shock after a death needs your help. Here are some ways to fill this vital role as your friend tries to find their footing.
1. Acknowledge their emotions and show your support
Shock and numbness can be disorienting. With everything feeling so foggy and confusing, a person can feel like they’re losing touch with reality. The numbness is one way our brain protects us from being overloaded with emotional pain. But this experience can still be distressing.
Don’t promise them they’ll get over it or that their pain isn’t really so bad. It’s understandable to want to minimize their struggle. You don’t enjoy seeing them hurt, and wanting to minimize it is a natural reaction.
Nobody knows how long it will take for the sting of their loss to soften. But the disorienting shock won’t last forever. It will change at some point, and you’ll still be there supporting and helping them get through it.
2. Reach out to them first
You’ve probably seen and heard people react to a person’s loss by saying, “If you need anything, just let me know.” It’s a knee-jerk comment with good intent, but it’s not as helpful as it seems.
Why? Because it puts the responsibility onto the person who feels like their brain is full of fog and emotional exhaustion. They will likely need help even if they can’t recognize it or find the courage to reach out.
Grief can do strange things to a person’s mindset. Feelings of guilt and disorientation can make it difficult to ask for help, even from people you love and trust. Instead, take the initiative with the assumption that you can help them in some way. Offer something tangible like getting groceries or cleaning their kitchen. It’s an easy offer to say “yes” to and doesn’t require much thought.
You may end up talking with them or being nearby when they are emotional, or you may not. It’s OK either way because your presence says it all. They can count on you, whether you show up on your own or they find a way to ask you.
3. Invite them to lean on you, express their grief
Your friend or loved one will probably resist facing their emotional pain, and it’s completely understandable. Nobody wants to fully accept a shocking loss that will shake their world. You can’t make someone accept reality. But you can be there and give gentle invitations to share their pain with you. It may take a while before they take you up on it.
Keep in mind that no one knows exactly how long grief can last for each individual person, and whether it may continue to be this intense. If a person’s death was sudden or occurred in a traumatic way, a loss like this becomes more complicated. Your loved one may not always be accepting of your invitation either.
Sometimes they may flat-out reject you or be angry that you keep bringing it up. Don’t be discouraged. Show your understanding and love, and then give them some space. But do bring it up again later. Just because they are avoiding reality doesn’t mean that approach is helping them.
Offer your listening ear, and if they say no, remind them that you’re always there and support them whenever they are ready. You never know when they might be willing to take you up on it. Keep your message consistent, but keep it low-pressure.
Coping With the Shock of Death
The shock of a loved one’s death is something you can’t prepare for. It’s too much for your mind and body to accept all at once, and the shock response protects you. Still, it’s important to understand how this works and learn ways to get through it.
And if you’re able to support someone in a difficult time like this, you’re filling a vital role in their life. Be genuine, stay steady, and keep showing your support.
- “Experiencing and Expressing Emotion.” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center, counselingcenter.illinois.edu/brochures/experiencing-and-expressing-emotion
- “Coping with Grief after a Sudden Death.” Northwestern Counseling and Psychological Services, www.northwestern.edu/counseling/shared-assets/homepage/grief-coping.pdf