Struggling with How a Loved One Died

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

The moments surrounding a loved one’s death can stick with a person. If you were there, the memories can remain strong even if the details are foggy. For those who weren’t there, the absence of memory is often replaced by questions and wondering.

If grief is a forest, then the death is its impossibly dark and winding center. Many grieving people find themselves stuck in this center, unable to move far past it, while others have somehow made it to the less dense, but still challenging, outskirts and refuse to look back.

If my characterization sounds bleak, I guess it’s because this struggle is personal to me. Of course, I know many people have made peace with memories of their loved one’s death and they can look back without feeling fear, guilt, shame, or intense sadness. But I’m not one of those people. At least not yet.

Though I’ve explored just about everything about my grief, I seldom revisit the days surrounding my mother’s death. I haven’t faced what I know about them or made peace with what I never will know. And to be honest, I haven’t decided whether I should.

Is it worth the pain that looking back will cause? For me, probably. But this is a question every person must answer for themselves. If thoughts about your loved one’s death – or any other aspects of your grief – are haunting you, keeping you up at night, occupying your thoughts, showing up in your dreams, or pushing you towards harmful avoidance – then yes, it’s probably time to face them.

Though, “facing things” sounds a little too intense in my opinion. We always want people to be thoughtful and careful when taking on the tough stuff. We recommend you pace yourself and seek the support of friends, family members, a support group, or therapist.

memory of death

There are many reasons why the events surrounding a loved one’s death might evoke thoughts and emotions related to fear, panic, pain, shame, guilt, and several other internal experiences. Below are just a few:

Revisiting of the details of your loved one’s death:

People may have distressing memories associated with the death. For example, if a loved one struggled with a long-term illness, a person may remember how upsetting it was to see them in pain at the end of their life.

If someone died from an accident that involved violence or harm to the person’s body, survivors who witnessed the event or saw the person afterward may look back on these memories and remember their fear, terror, and panic.

Even those who weren’t present for the death may remember where they were when they found out, what they were doing, and how they felt and responded.

It’s very important to note, revisiting events like these can bring up many distressing thoughts and emotions. When thinking about the death, some people may actually re-experience intense emotions like panic, terror, and fear. In an effort to not feel this way, the person may actively avoid anything that could bring up these memories which, in the long run, may cause them to cut themselves off from important people and places and to possibly live in a state of hyperarousal.

We have a few articles linked below related to this. However, if this sounds like something you’re experiencing, and if it’s making you very uncomfortable or you’ve lived with it for a while, we’d also recommend talking to a mental health professional to explore some of what you’re going through. Specifically, we recommend finding a therapist with experience in treating trauma.

Negative feelings about how you felt or behaved at the time of a loved one’s death:

Thoughts and emotions related to things like self-blame, guilt, shame, and regret can cause feelings of depression, guilt, posttraumatic stress, and self-stigma.

Some specific examples include thoughts like…

  • “I should have done CPR when I found the body”
  • “Why didn’t I tell him to go to the ER right away?”
  • “I just froze – how could I have done nothing?”
  • “I should have been there.”

Looking back in hindsight, people may even feel guilty and ashamed about things that far preceded the death. Sadly, they may struggle with these things for a long time because, now that the loved one has died, they can no longer ask for forgiveness.

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Unanswered Questions:

Many mourners struggle with unanswered questions about a loved one’s death. Questions like:

  • How did they die?
  • Was their death an accident or did someone cause it?
  • Was it instant?
  • Did they suffer?
  • Were they afraid?
  • Could this have been prevented?
  • Who is to blame?

Just abstractly writing these questions feels upsetting, so I know living with them can be excruciating. Understandably, many people get caught up in asking these questions for a long, long time.

While some people do manage to find answers that bring them peace, many people don’t. Some of these questions can never be answered, and sometimes those that can, don’t have satisfying answers.

I searched a bit online for articles about how to find peace with unanswerable questions. Most of what I found addressed living with unknowns in the future, what psychologists call ‘intolerance of uncertainty” 

Intolerance of uncertainty is a significant factor in many types of anxiety disorders. So I think it’s worth noting that living with unanswered questions about a loved one’s death can cause anxiety about the future because unknowns lead to an increased sense of unpredictability and a decreased sense of safety. 

So now what?

It’s difficult to address this subject in a simple article because there are no easy answers. I can’t provide a list of bullet points telling you how to deal with one of the most significant and painful moments of your life.

The actual events of a loved one’s death are often like an open wound that isn’t easily healed. Though it’s the event that starts the dominos of grief falling, it’s often one of the last things we’re ready to explore.

What I can say is that if any of the above experiences are creating stuck points for you in your grief, then you may want to think about finding ways to explore those particular experiences. Things like writing, journaling, artistic expression, support groups, talking to a friend, and seeking therapy can help.

We’ve written a lot about coping with grief, so have a look around our site if you want to read more. We also have a free 10-day Coping with Grief from Home online course. Though we don’t specifically focus on this issue in the course, you can and it may introduce you to a few new coping tools.


We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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13 Comments on "Struggling with How a Loved One Died"

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  1. James  September 19, 2020 at 12:13 am Reply

    Life can be so so cruel. My dad died of MS in 1966. The VA had tried shock therapy which totally destroyed him. His body atrophied and he was racked with pain. My memories are of hearing both my parents crying in desperation. My dad died of fluid in the lungs. We had a country doctor come to our house and clear his lungs, it was not pleasant for anyone to see and hear my dad cry. I was 14 when my dad died. My mom went into an immediate melt down, she had a blue funk or whatever the term they used in the 60s. She had a complete mental/emotional break down. She lost the will to live. My memories are of yelling at my mom to eat. Then it happened. I got a call at like 5 am from my sister. I was staying at a friends house. She said come home now. My mom was in the chair that was where the hospital bed was in the family room. Her head was down, she had an unlit cigarette in her hand. She had died. She was wearing a robe. I was 16. I did not try anything to help my mom. She died of an accidental overdose, but in reality she died of a broken heart. She had fluid in the lungs too. As the EMTs were transferring my mom from the chair to the gurney her robe opened up. Why lord is the last picture in my mind is of seeing my moms totally nude body. Life is so cruel. I need to say about six months earlier, my sister’s fiancé was racing his VW Beetle and lost control and hit the curb and rolled and snapped his neck. My sister and I had to ID the body. I had never seen a grey looking body before. About six months after my mother died my best friend was riding his motorcycle on a late Sunday night. My sister and I went to the ER to ID the body. I was 17. I was allowed to stay with my sister who was awarded custody of me. At 18 our grandfather died. So, if you are counting that is five close, personal deaths I experienced in five years. I became a raging alcoholic who hated god. Through my own living hell and the support of AA I found peace. I have chronic PTSD and Major Depression. I have had three heart attacks. I have not wanted to live a lot more days than I have wanted to live. But here I sit still trying to figure all this out. I am sober, one day at a time. I have found a higher power whom I’ll call god that is a loving caring god. You would not believe the blackout drunks I went through before I finally made it to AA. It is a miracle I did not kill anyone with a vehicle and for that I am grateful. I resisted a long time taking psychotropic medications because my mom overdosed on them. Taken as prescribed they have given me relief. I am still a damaged soul but I do not look for ways to die now. There is hope though, and opening up is so critical to get your feelings out. I see the world different for sure, don’t say I am on a pity pot but unless you have been in my shoes you would not understand that i have no joy in life with one huge exception and that is my son who never saw me drunk and he accomplished everything I never got a chance to do as a child and yes that does make me happy.

  2. Gary B  September 18, 2020 at 5:55 pm Reply

    Its been 2 years and I constantly revisit my wifes death. In fact I revisit from her diagnosis to the 2 months she was given and was all she got. I am still in this “hamster roll ball” of a life going back and forth with my 2 sons who were with me though it all. At any moment we try and think again about what was done-what was said- what happened-why we missed things-WHY HER? I dont expect it to ever stop until I take my own final breath. I am 66-she passed at 62. She deserved better and damn it so did I.

  3. Helene  September 18, 2020 at 12:50 pm Reply

    My sister died alone of what was likely an overdose.
    She had recently transistioned from living in a shelter, to sharing a small apartment with a friend she met at the shelter.
    When I got the call about her death, no one could say for sure how long she had been dead for, a neighbour found her.
    She died alone.
    Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Did she suffer? Was she aware of what was happening?
    All unasnwered questions.
    Not much info from medical examiners office…a tired sounding man…cause of death; “inconclusive, no foul play”
    I live on the other side of the country, and never physically went there to deal with her death.
    I let the local social service agencies arrange for funeral home, cremation burial etc.
    I was too afraid to go in person, too afraid to see how and where she lived. Too afraid to possibly encounter the people she associated with.
    Afraid of all the unknowns.
    Thirteen years later, and I live with pain, regret, blame, shame, and such a deep seated anguish that no one seems to understand. I don’t speak of her much, because experience has taught me that most people just don’t “get it”. When I have tried to open up about my grief, some people have said,”But it was so long ago.” OR, even worse, ” Well, she chose to live her life like that, it’s not your fault,”
    I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, and say I don’t think they intended their comments to be as hurtful as they came out. Maybe….but let me say, it felt like a knife being twisted in my heart. And the lesson I learned? Don’t ever open up to anyone….because no one understands!
    How can I explain that I still wake up with my heart clenching and aching with saddness. That she’s in my dreams, and that I’m always so happy to see her in those dreams and want to wrap my arms around her and just love her. Then I wake up….and feel the weight of my sorrow crushing me, breaking my heart. She’s gone.
    How can I explain the level of guilt I feel for not being there for her…for not trying harder to help her out, for not better understanding her addiction? How can I explain how terrible I feel when I imagine her death…alone. Or was she alone? Was someone with her? Did they panic and run when she overdosed, leaving her there to die on her own?
    So many questions….
    My logical brain tells me there was nothing I could have done to save her, but my heart never lets me off the hook that easily. My internal dialogue is cruel and punishing and relentless. I don’t know if I ever will find any peace….my sisters death haunts me and feels like a weight I carry always. One that no one else can see, or feel.

    It felt good writing these words and thoughts which I rearely share with anyone else….thank you.

  4. AB  September 18, 2020 at 11:40 am Reply

    I’m not sure that it’s the “how” my dad died that haunts me as much as the fact that he died, period. He was old and his heart was failing him. We knew it, he knew it. But he had overcome heart problems many times before. I guess I just thought there would be more time. I’m grateful and glad that I spent so much time with him prior and that I was there but I do wish that in the time I had alone with him overnight, before he died, that I would have done more, like try to talk to him or hold his hand. He didn’t seem conscious and I didn’t want to disturb him. I hoped he just felt my presence. Still can’t emotionally believe he is gone and that I can’t talk to him anymore.

  5. Eloise  September 18, 2020 at 9:57 am Reply

    My husband died 5 months ago. He was in a nursing home after a hospital stay. He was in isolation because of covid. I always wake up around 5 am, thinking of him alone, was he scared, hoping he was asleep. He had called me a few days before his death, late at night, to tell me he loved me and wish me a good night. I remember and hold on to that call because he was in good spirits. It gives me some comfort.

  6. Debbie  September 18, 2020 at 12:41 am Reply

    My son died suddenly at the age of 38, he did live with his dad and I. He death was discovered through a well check call from his work after five days. Along with the police report I want any pictures of the scene that were taken. My husband thinks I am very sick to want these, but I just need to know and see his death. Is it mentally unhealthy? He was my only child and I loved him very much.

  7. Robert Marshall  September 17, 2020 at 3:31 pm Reply

    It’s been almost six months since my wife left me. The what and how questions continue to haunt me. The last squeeze of her hand in mine as she departed. my total break down as the doctor asked about about FINAL Directives 48 hours before and every so often after until I signed a DNR hours before she left. The tears and the shakes (even now) as I think about it. the hurt and pain of the memory that will last as long with me as I am on this earth…………………

  8. Glenda Galbreath  September 17, 2020 at 11:27 am Reply

    I lost my daughter 10 minutes after her birth in 1984. I learned after a short amount of time that people stopped being present in my grief after a couple of weeks. After trying to work through the grief I put on my make up and went out in the world like a clown. I functioned for everyone because that was expected of me. I wrapped her and my grief in a pretty box and ribbon and put her away. I can only unwrap the box and deal with her a little but if the time.

    I had a lot of guilt that I did something wrong during the pregnancy but she had 3 true knots in her cord that tightened as she was born.
    Grieving was so intense I thought I had lost my mind. Now I work on it a little after a time. I had 3 children after her and now grandkids. They all know, about her and some of them go to the grave with me. I have often wondered how life would have been if she really was here and a part of our lives.

    I learned over the years that I wasn’t even allowed to fully grieve her at the viewing and funeral. I should have been allowed to scream and yell and cry loudly. I had to restrain my grief for everyone else and their comfort. We need to allow people to openly grieve. Maybe I wouldn’t have packed her in that little box. I probably didn’t deal with her loss for years because I was expected to move on.

    I will always miss her. She remains close to my heart where she was the time I had her.

    • Melinda Schmidt  September 18, 2020 at 9:37 am Reply

      I have never had your experience (my pain is about my dad’s passing) but I wanted you to know I see you, I see your story, I hear the completely understandable pain. I’m so sorry and stand with you in this grief.

  9. Tonia  September 16, 2020 at 6:59 pm Reply

    We had been told by the hospice doctor that our 44 year old son who had stage 4 lung cancer had only a few days to live. The next day I stayed home while my husband went to him as did two of his close friends. He died that morning and I regret not being there for him, but my husband has assured me that it was best for me. I still dont know if it was a quiet death or if he was struggling. My husband said it was fairly peaceful but the ” fairly” causes me agony. My son always made light of his illness. Not sure if he was in denial or if he wanted to spare us. I find meself thinking of those last days over and over again, especially him asking me, ” Is there so something I should know?” I couldn’t answer him. I just kissed him and told him I loved him. I feel like a coward and a failure. And that grates on me every day since February 29th. I’m 74 and dont want to live the rest of my life this way. I had pictured him, my daughter and my husband at my bedside when I pass but yet I wasn’t there for him.

    • Melinda Schmidt  September 18, 2020 at 9:47 am Reply

      I can only imagine how difficult it is to have a son pass before his parents. All your questions are understandable. The “what-ifs” are so hard. I have them about my dad’s passing which I was present to. The only thing that helps me is to know he would now say to me, “Forget about it. I’m fine. It doesn’t matter now! I made it through.” I know this also sounds dismissive of pain, but I also know my dad would say that! And yet, I still relive his passing and the particulars about it that I wish I could have changed. Hugs to you iin this miserable grief. Great grief means great love was had. You loved and CONTINUE to love your son with all you’ve got. What a mom.

  10. Liz  September 16, 2020 at 5:07 pm Reply

    I’m trying to make sense out of the tragedy. I’m drowning in it

  11. kathy  September 16, 2020 at 1:21 pm Reply

    my husband had maid (medial assistance in death),he was very close to dying from an aggressive form of cancer. He chose this way because of witnessing his father’s death, struggling to breath. Almost all of his adult kids and some adult grandchildren were there in the room. None of them had ever witnessed a death, I have so I was prepared, or so I thought. He went very peacefully and surrounded by love. I think that some of them are struggling because of being there, a memory that will always be there. I’ve been judged by this and those who have judged me are no longer in my life. He got to chose, not many of us get to do that. I’m grateful that he died in my arms and I heard his last heartbeat, but I am also haunted by it.


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