Stages of Grief and Recovery After a Sudden Death

November 7, 2016 Becky Oberg

The stages of grief after a death suddenly became more relevant to me, unfortunately. I was notified that one of my friends on Facebook died at age 24 of what appears to be kidney failure. Combined with the recent All Souls Day service at church, this has made me think about the stages of grieving and recovery after a sudden death. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,1 there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They don't always go in this order, and they don't always happen to everyone. But this is a general road map to grief.

Grief and Recovery Stage One: Denial

This is the initial shock of the death. We can't believe they're gone. I still expect my friend to post things, such as that someone hacked his account as a sick joke and he's alive and well. This is normal, especially when the death is unexpected. Denial is a simple inability to accept reality. It is only when it begins to interfere with our lives that it is a problem.

So how does one move on from denial? One forces oneself to face the reality of the person's death. Read the obituary. Get a copy of the death certificate. Attend the funeral. Eventually, it will sink in and you'll learn to move on. Acknowledge your emotions, but don't let them control you.

Occasionally it happens that a person is simply unable to accept the death. If this is the case, find a therapist experienced in bereavement counseling. You deserve to be free from denial--you deserve to integrate the loss.

Grief and Recovery Stage Two: Anger

It is normal to feel anger after a death--including anger at God or other intangible forces. For example, you can be angry at a war, where "everyone was responsible, but no one was responsible," as one Vietnam veteran observed. You can be angry at the person for dying. You can be angry at the disease. You can be angry at God for not healing the person. There's plenty of anger to go around when in mourning.

Moving on from the anger stage of grief and recovery takes time and acceptance. Allow yourself that time. Find a way to channel your rage. For example, you may volunteer for fundraisers such as Extra Life (a video game marathon that raises money for Children's Miracle Network). One friend of mine mourns her stillborn baby by hosting an annual "Day of Kindness" to encourage people not to take life for granted. Physical activity is also good--a long bike ride or kickboxing session might help. The important thing is to find what works for you.

Anger eats at the soul. Face it, acknowledge it, and conquer it.

Grief and Recovery Stage Three: Bargaining

I'll borrow from the experts at on this one:

Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. “Please God, ” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others. Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?” We become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.

So how do we recover? We move on from bargaining by realizing that life played out the way it did. There was very little we could have done differently. We learn we live in an imperfect world, that we are imperfect people, and that life is imperfect. That's about the best advice I can give--accept imperfection. If you were perfect, you'd be God, and you'd have a whole new slew of problems.

Grief and Recovery Stage Four: Depression

After bargaining fails, we enter the depression stage of grieving. We're severely sad because reality has set it. The person is dead and we're not. People often want us to "snap out of it," but this is a natural part of mourning. It is important to allow yourself to feel the sadness. In many cultures, mourners are not expected to do much for the year after the death--sadly, American culture is not one of them. We're allowed to grieve at the funeral, but after that everyone wants us to be happy.

It is important to remember the depression will not last forever. If it interferes with your life, especially via thoughts of harming yourself or anyone else, get help immediately. There are many grief support groups out there--and even in isolated areas you can find grief and depression support online. Keep looking. Don't give up. You deserve to laugh again.

Grief and Recovery Stage Five: Acceptance

In some cultures (such as Native American), coming out of mourning is cause for a celebration, complete with gift-giving. I have found this ritual to be comforting. But it is important to remember "acceptance" does not equal "okay with it." I have a friend who was murdered and I will never be okay with that, but I have accepted it. I have adjusted to the reality that she's not here anymore. And I have moved on with my life, despite being shaken. And so will you.

There are many stages of grieving and recovery after a sudden death, but the five best-known are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They are more of a cycle than a linear progression. But the good news is recovery from grief after a sudden death is possible if we allow ourselves to feel the emotions.

See Also:

Coping With Loss: Bereavement and Grief

When Grief Becomes a Mental Health Issue

Grieving a Loss: Mental Illness and Bereavement


1 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation

You can also find Becky Oberg on Google+, Facebook and Twitter and Linkedin. Her ebook, Comforting Tamar, is available on Amazon.

APA Reference
Oberg, B. (2016, November 7). Stages of Grief and Recovery After a Sudden Death, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Becky Oberg

February, 14 2023 at 7:19 pm

I lost my neighbour 2 days ago. I am 25 and she was almost 90. But mentally she was all there. We could have chatted for hours any time I bumped into her in her garden leaving my flat. But she suffered from a number of health conditions, which meant she often was unable to socialise much. If I could go back, I would have drank way more cups of tea with her, chatted for much longer, visited her more often. But at the same time I know all of that wouldn’t have been possible anyway even if I could go back because of the way her health was. I was always scared to ring her bell in case it stressed her out but other than that I would have loved to — and would have! - visited her every day. She died suddenly in a care home she was only meant to be in for a few weeks because of a leg problem! We thought she’d be coming home this week just in time for spring and we’d have a lovely spring in the garden together. Due to corona measures she was only allowed one visitor a day to the care home for the past few weeks so I just couldn’t get to her as she had closer people for that one hour. I never got a proper goodbye due to all those factors together. I literally can’t stop crying now. She was my second grandma and she had the biggest impact on my life of anyone I know. My heart feels like it’ll burst. Literally the only thing I want to do right now is follow her up to heaven so we can continue our chats and tea together and so that she’s not alone. I have never been in so much pain in my life I loved her to the ends of the earth <\3

February, 15 2023 at 2:02 pm

Hi L. My deepest condolences for this loss. I can tell what that connection meant to you, and it's awesome you had that time together. That definitely does make things harder though, especially with the cirumstances leading up to her death. Be gentle with yourself as you go through this process, but know that if you do need extra support, there are a variety of mental health supports available to you. This page has a good list of options:… You can get through this.

August, 26 2019 at 4:02 pm

My good friend died 5 hours ago! We were camping with our families and she was complaining of a migraine the day before, she died of a burst cyst on her brain. I'm beside myself, she had 2 small children and a wonderful husband. I'm in shock, I'm numb, we did things together with the children and now we'll never do anything again. I'm broken. I can't stop crying! It's uncontrollable. I'm in so much pain for her young family. I'm thinking that if only she hadn't of stayed home while her husband took the children out to give her a break then she might be here now. I keep thinking that someone might have stolen her phone and is playing a sick joke (I would do anything for it to be this!). I have 2 young children and I'm representative the situation on to them, if I were to die. I am broken and in so much pain..

August, 26 2019 at 5:26 pm

I am so sorry for your loss. I'm a mother, too, so I feel for you and just can't even imagine the pain. Please lean on the love and support of your family and friends to help you through this very difficult time. If you need to reach out to a mental health professional please don't hesitate to do so. There is no need to suffer alone.
Please take care of yourself.

August, 1 2019 at 7:15 pm

My boyfriend aged 43 died suddenly 5 days ago. I'm in shock. Why did this happen? I'm angry, depressed, anxious, all at once.

August, 1 2019 at 9:54 pm

I am so sorry for your loss. That sounds like a very difficult situation. Do have any support, family, or friends you can reach out to? Please take care of yourself.

December, 26 2018 at 6:02 am

I lost my brother November 7, 2018. The grief is unreal. My mom, brother and i live together. (Making finances easier.). Jason passed in his sleep.
We will never know what was the exact cause, as he the coroner went by medical records and there was not any contradicting evidence of anything at the "scene"...due to complicatiins from coronary disease. (His cardioligist said he wouldnt sign off on his death, because his heart was in good shape and shoulfnt have died from coronary disease.)
In order to have an autipsy done, we would need to pay a private firm to do it ....$3500 paid in full befire they would do anything. My mom, sister and i could barely pay for creamation.
It is tough, but we will get yhrough it....somehow, some way.

November, 9 2018 at 8:22 pm

My husband of 33 years died of a heart attack 3 weeks ago. Totally unexpected. I came home from working a late shift and couldn’t wake him. My grief is still in denial and intense heartache. I’ve picked up the phone to call him and remember that I can’t and it just about makes my legs go out.

April, 15 2018 at 10:36 am

I’m going through a very hard time, I don’t know what to do. I lost my partner of 12yrs a week ago, it’s a lot and hard. I’m alone

June, 19 2017 at 6:46 pm

I just can't stand the pain sometimes. And it's incredibly hard to pull out any tears sometimes. I feel empty but also like I'll burst from the anguish...

November, 8 2016 at 3:35 am

Denial and depression are my two. Acceptance has been on others.

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