Common reactions after a road death

Most bereaved family, whānau, and friends find their trauma and grief reactions after a road death can be very strong and difficult to cope with.

Early reactions following a road death can be found here, but in the coming weeks, months, and even years, bereaved family, whānau, and friends are likely to experience some strong trauma and grief reactions to their loss, and the trauma of the crash itself.

Everyone’s different and will react in their own way, but it can be reassuring to know some of the normal reactions commonly experienced by others who have lost a loved one in a road crash. Reactions can be intense at times.

Common reactions often include:

  • shock, disbelief, numbness
  • anguish and distress
  • helplessness, powerlessness
  • anger, rage
  • guilt, shame
  • blaming - others, systems, God, self
  • wanting revenge if caused by another driver
  • sadness, grief, yearning for the person
  • fear, anxiety, panic attacks, on high alert and jumpy
  • regret for things said or done, or not said or done
  • worrying the person might be forgotten
  • alone, isolated, feeling no one understands
  • despair, depression, suicidal thoughts
  • hard to take in – needing information repeated
  • everything’s a blur, time warps
  • forgetfulness
  • mind racing or thinking very slowly
  • difficulty concentrating and completing tasks
  • difficulty making decisions
  • preoccupied, thoughts about the death on loop, thinking if only…
  • nightmares
  • flashbacks - reliving what happened, or that you imagine happened
  • possible development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • wanting to avoid things that trigger painful memories, such as going past the place where the person died, especially if it is in your community – or if you must pass it often, trying not to think about it
  • heart racing, feeling faint or dizzy
  • tight chest, hard to catch a deep breath
  • nausea, stomach aches, digestive issues, diarrhoea
  • body aches, headaches, tense muscles
  • tearful, crying, sobbing
  • shaking, sweating
  • exhaustion and moving slower, or high energy and restless
  • hard to sleep, or sleeping more
  • appetite changes
  • sensitive to noise and light
  • falling sick more easily, pre-existing health conditions worsen
  • keeping close to others, or being alone more
  • wanting to talk, or not talking
  • avoiding going out by transport
  • avoiding certain people, places, or situations
  • irritable, intolerant of others
  • using drugs or alcohol to cope
  • loss of interest in things you enjoy
  • trying to make sense of it
  • questioning why? what if?
  • sensing life is unfair and unjust
  • turning towards cultural beliefs and/or faith, or questioning them
  • uncertain about the future
  • sensing the presence of the person who has died, or of tīpuna (ancestors)

Most people find the intensity of their reactions will gradually lessen, but the effects of the trauma or grief can take longer than most people expect.  Our helpful information sheets provide more information about reactions. See also these coping tips. (Finding ways to cope after a death)

Helpful support information for witnesses and/or discoverers of a traumatic incident, such as a sudden death, is available to download here.

If children or young people have been affected by the death
See our information sheet for parents and caregivers about Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event.


When you are Grieving
Coping with Trauma
Dealing with flashbacks
If you have discovered or witnessed a crime or traumatic incident