How to Help Someone With Grief After a Sudden Death

Ms. Vance said she appreciated all the prayers after her husband’s death, but she was most buoyed by those who offered to lighten her load.

A study released in August by the American Psychological Association found that the loss of a loved one in a traumatic event can cause complicated reactions for those left behind, including prolonged grief. Other studies have found that people who have endured a traumatic loss are more likely to experience severe, intense and persistent psychological reactions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, compared with those who have had an expected loss, according to Kristin Alve Glad, a clinical psychologist and the lead author of the A.P.A. study. In these situations, Dr. Wortman said, the bereaved can struggle for many years or decades.

“Time does not heal all wounds,” Ms. Vance said. “There are times when I feel forgotten. Everybody goes back to their normal lives, and, for us, there’s never going to be a normal life again.”

Dr. Wortman suggested checking in periodically and reaching out during times when those who are grieving may be particularly vulnerable, like a wedding anniversary or major holidays. She has compiled a list of helpful websites and articles that focus on offering support in these situations.

Consider adding simple “thinking of you” messages to your to-do list. Lisa Zaleski, who lives in White Lake, Mich., confronted the unimaginable, first losing her daughter, Sydney, in June 2017 at the age of 23 in a car accident, then her son Robert in December 2019 to suicide when he was 31 years old. After her daughter died, a friend she wasn’t especially close with sent her a text of acknowledgment every day for a year. “It felt like a tremendous amount of support,” she said.

Nneka Njideka, a licensed clinical social worker in Brooklyn, N.Y., who specializes in grief, explained that those with more resources have “grief privilege.” They may be able to take an extended leave of absence from work and afford a team of professionals to cope with the loss, for example. But she said that isn’t the case for those who are low on resources — and people of color in particular — who, in addition to losing their loved one, may be faced with “living losses,” like unemployment or food insecurity.

Calandrian Simpson Kemp, who is Black and lives in Houston, was working the night shift at a homeless shelter for women in 2013 when she got the call that her only son, George Kemp Jr., had been shot dead at 20 years old. “Everything you envisioned for them has been stolen from you,” she said. It was too much to bear for her husband. When she broke the news to him, “he dropped his keys and never went back to work,” she said. The family, which includes her daughter and stepdaughter, became uninsured as a result. She couldn’t afford mental health care and at one point needed to use a food pantry.


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