How to Cope With Seeing or Finding a Loved One’s Dead Body

Updated

It can be one of the most traumatic experiences to deal with for anyone who’s ever seen or encountered the dead body of a loved one. There’s a profound psychological impact upon finding a loved one’s dead body, whether you were expecting it or you came upon it by surprise. The discovery can leave you shocked, stunned, and devastated. 

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Finding a dead body is an emotional shock that can be very upsetting regardless of whose body you’ve found. When it happens to be a loved one, it adds an additional layer of emotional pain and suffering to the grieving process.

Images of your deceased loved ones have the propensity to burn themselves into your memory for the rest of your life. This is just one of the trauma symptoms you’ll experience, in addition to the grief you’ll suffer over the loss of your loved one. 

Pre-death tip: If you are dealing with the trauma of the time before a loved one's death, read our guide on coping with watching a loved one die.

Tips for Coping Immediately After You Find a Loved One’s Dead Body

The emotional and physical reactions you may experience typically produce anxiety and confusion. This is a normal response to trauma and should start to diminish in the weeks and months following your discovery.

Not everyone reacts the same after experiencing a traumatic event such as this. Some people will go into shock and feel nothing at all, while others will go into an immediate physical and emotional breakdown. The shutting down of emotions and reactions is a safety mechanism that helps you cope with stressful situations. Violent reactions are also a healthy way to manage your stress as they help you unleash reactions that otherwise would cause you great emotional harm if suppressed. 

The following tips may help you with what to do immediately after finding a loved one’s dead body:

1. Call for help

Immediately upon finding your loved one’s dead body, call 911 for help. They’ll be able to walk you through what to do next and send someone over to help you wherever appropriate. It’s not unusual to react in a way that leaves you numb and unable to respond when finding or seeing your loved one dead in front of you.

You can also expect paramedics to come over even if your loved one is already deceased. They may need to call the coroner to do a formal pronouncement of death. It’s also not unusual for them to leave the body where they found it until after the police have had an opportunity to check for foul play or other causes of death not occurring naturally. 

2. Notify immediate family and friends

Whether finding your loved one’s dead body was expected or a complete and unexpected shock to you, you’ll want to get in touch immediately with friends and family. Let them know what’s happened and advise them of the death.

Ask others to come over and help you sort through the immediate next steps. You’ll also need someone to lean on for the next few hours.

3. Let someone else take over

The officials investigating or processing your loved one’s death will have many questions for you to answer. You may not be in the right frame of mind to contend with all of their inquiries.

As soon as a trusted friend or family member shows up, try to hand over communications with officials to them. You’ll need some time to gather yourself. Every traumatic loss or event produces as many different reactions in a person. You won’t know what to expect when it comes to the different types of grief you might experience. 

4. Absorb the shock

What you’ve just witnessed can be confusing and distressing. Sit down and allow the shock of your discovery to absorb. Give yourself some time to process what you’ve experienced.

You’re most likely to enter into shock immediately after your discovery. You’ll need some time to take in both what you’ve seen along with your loved one having just died. It can take anywhere from several minutes to several hours for you to come out of this initial state of shock. 

5. Talk about it

Eventually, the bereavement process will start shortly after the discovery of your loved one’s dead body. Grief is a different experience for everyone. It helps to talk about what you’ve seen and gone through with a trusted family member who’s around. You may want to refrain from giving official statements to the police or other officials until you’ve had an opportunity to collect your thoughts and calm your emotions.

Ask for some time to yourself to process the information and for the chance to say goodbye to a dying loved one or someone who has just died before officially saying anything.

6. Grieve

Seeing or finding a loved one’s dead body is a highly emotional ordeal for anyone. Your reaction to experiencing this type of trauma may be one of shock and disbelief at the very beginning. As the news starts to sink in and outside help has arrived, you might find yourself overwhelmed with emotion.

Remember that these are all part of the initial stages of the grieving process. Allow your feelings and emotions to flow freely without trying to suppress them. It’s okay for you to let out your pain and sorrow. Have a good cry if you need or want to, and don’t worry about disrupting the flow of things going on around you. 

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Tips for Coping With the Aftermath of Finding a Loved One’s Dead Body Months or Years Later

You’ll experience emotional issues well after the discovery of your loved one’s dead body. You may find yourself needing help in knowing how to deal and cope with finding a loved one dead. Be kind to yourself after going through such a traumatic event. Be mindful not to blame yourself or carry the weight of guilt around because of what’s happened.

The way you react to and deal with this type of trauma early on may have a longstanding effect on your actions and emotions for the rest of your life. You can carve out a more positive overall grief experience by taking active measures in minimizing the effects of any psychological or emotional damage.

Here are some things that you can do to help you successfully cope with the aftermath:

7. Develop a support system 

Seek out ways to help you cope with the aftereffects of the trauma of finding your loved one’s dead body. Witnessing such things may leave you psychologically scarred for the rest of your life.

Find a core group of people who can help you sort out your feelings and who can jump in to lend a hand when needed. Your support system can start at home and expand to your close circle of friends or acquaintances who are familiar with what you’ve gone through.

8. Find one-on-one support

The psychological impact of finding your deceased loved one may require you to seek out and connect with other survivors who can share in your experience. You can find others who have also been impacted by this experience via online support groups. When you’re ready, talk things over with someone you’ve gotten to know and trust.

Keep in mind that not everyone you’ll meet on the internet is who they say they are. Try and get to know them before opening up with all your innermost thoughts and feelings. Some people tend to prey on the vulnerabilities of others during their times of loss. 

9. Start journaling

Getting your grief out and onto paper is one of the first steps toward processing your psychological and emotional trauma and begin healing from it. Consider reading your journal out loud to your grief support group or others who’ve pledged their support.

Keep track of your ups and downs as you go through your grief. It can help you get your feelings out when having witnessed this type of trauma. Suppressing your emotions may make the healing process more difficult for you and lead to more complicated grief types. 

You can read our guide on grief journaling for more.

10. Understand how grief works

Grief is known to come in stages. Although the grieving process is not linear, you can expect to experience certain aspects of grief predictably. The initial stages of grief are known to produce periods of shock, disbelief, sadness, and anger.

When faced with the trauma of finding or seeing your loved one’s dead body, you can expect the impact to be tough on you. The healing process can take a long time and shouldn’t be rushed. Read up on how grief works and how you can expect it to impact you in the coming weeks and months.

11. Get professional help

As time goes on, you’ll either experience your grief lessening, staying the same or getting worse. Keep track of what’s going on with your feelings and emotions, as well as your energy levels.

Notice when you’re struggling with functioning or with severe feelings of depression that never seem to let up. These may be signs to consider the professional help of an online therapist or counselor

Dealing With Finding a Loved One Dead 

Finding or seeing the dead body of your loved one is an experience you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. You’ll find it difficult to erase the images from your mind regardless of how much you try and forget what you’ve seen. You can stop the images from affecting you by seeking therapy if the trauma remains after a few weeks or months.

You may never get over it, but you’ll get through it, and as time goes on, you’ll be better able to deal with your loss and experiences.

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