Common reactions after a sudden death

Most bereaved family, whānau, and friends find their reactions to a sudden death are very strong and may be overwhelming at times.

Please click here if the death was due to any of the following specific sudden death situations. We have dedicated sections on our website with information to help you cope with these.

Common reactions to a sudden death in the days and months that follow include:

  • shock, disbelief, numbness
  • helplessness, powerlessness
  • sadness, grief, yearning for the person
  • anger
  • guilt and regret for things said or done, or not said or done
  • blaming - others, systems, God, self
  • fear, anxiety, panic attacks, worrying others may also die
  • 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)
  • heart racing, feeling faint or dizzy
  • tight chest, fast breathing, hard to catch a deep breath
  • tearful, crying, sobbing
  • shaking, sweating
  • nausea, stomach aches, digestive issues, diarrhoea
  • body aches, headaches, tense muscles
  • 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
  • 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
  • unsure of 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 grief usually takes longer than most people expect
The Finding ways to cope after a sudden death page on our website has some tips to help you cope, and you can also see our helpful information sheets  which provide more information about reactions to grief and trauma.

Reactions of children and young people
Bereaved children and teenagers will often also find their reactions hard to deal with. They will need ongoing attention, reassurance, and support. It is not unusual for grief to resurface later on, even long after the death. For more information for parents and caregivers on helping children and young people cope with a sudden death see our information sheet Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event.



When you are Grieving
Coping with Trauma
Dealing with flashbacks