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Grief following accidental or traumatic death

Death as a result of an accident or a traumatic event can raise a number of complex issues for the bereaved. People get caught up in all sorts of accidents or disasters. These may range from car or work accidents to larger civil incidents, such as bank hold-ups or terrorist events or natural disasters.

The grief process is often different from an expected or anticipated death because:

  • the bereaved person may have been physically injured or threatened during the disaster
  • there may be a range of other losses including the death or injury of other family members or friends, or the loss of property or home


The tendency for people who have been severely traumatised to become emotionally numb, to avoid talking about the issue and shut down can disrupt the grief process. They may also experience feelings of unreality and fear. This can make it very difficult for them to access their inner feelings and to work through the disruptions and losses caused by the traumatic event.

The bereaved person may suffer from ‘survivor guilt’, questioning why they survived when others have died and believing that they could or should have done more to prevent the tragedy.

The memories of the accident or the disaster may dominate the bereaved person’s mind. These memories, particularly if the bereaved person’s loved one died in extremely distressing circumstances, may dominate their thoughts, rather than the memories of the dead person themselves. This can become a diversion from grieving for the person who was killed. In that way the grief process may be disrupted.

The memories of the traumatic death may cause so much distress, that the memories of the person who has died may be actively avoided.

Dealing With The Impact Of Traumatic Death

Any sort of accidental or traumatic death presents significant difficulties to the emotional, physical, and spiritual resources of survivors.

In the case there the bereaved person was a witness to the death of their loved one(s), it may be important for the person to be able to tell the story of the events in detail. This may be done with a professional person-psychologist or counsellor or with a sympathetic friend, or friends. It may be important not to gloss over the details of the event, particularly if they are uppermost in the bereaved person’s mind and emotional world; they may take time to deal with. It may be that the bereaved person will need to over and over the event, trying to understand what they saw, time sequences, the cause of the death, where it occurred, who was present, who helped.

An added burden to such deaths can be the activity of the media, which is often very intrusive, making it impossible to find private time and space to deal with the emotional impact of what was the death of a loved one.

Police and the coroner may also be involved, and it can be very easy for a bereaved person to lose a sense of connection with the person who has died, who might now have become the subject of a major inquiry.

Strategies Which May Help

Two useful strategies are provided here, however other specific strategies may be necessary and can be provided by a GP or counsellor:

  • help the person to separate the traumatic memories of the death, from the feelings of longing and positive attachment felt towards the person who has died. Understanding the response to a traumatic event and bereavement is particularly important
  • talking through, at length, the feelings of disruption, loss, horror and fear of the traumatic event

Some people may need to seek help from a health worker such as a doctor or counsellor for assistance in managing their grief and coming to terms with the horror and fear of the traumatic event.

Other Resources

The Victim Support Service
Beyond Blue
Road Trauma Support Team of SA


Page last updated: 17 September, 2019

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