People form countless relationships throughout their lives – with family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. We have the deepest connections with the people we love – these relationships help make us who we are. They contribute to our sense of identity and have the power to transform us, for good or bad. Because of this, the death of a loved one can create numerous psychological issues, including PTSD, particularly if the loss was tragic and unexpected.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms

We know that survivors often experience depression or anxiety after the death of someone close. We don’t usually think about them having posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it can also happen, especially after a catastrophic death.

By definition, PTSD can occur when someone has “experienced, witnessed, or been confronted with a terrible event.” News of an unexpected death already brings up especially strong emotions because it catches us off guard. A tragic death magnifies those feelings.

In fact, a 2014 study¹ by Keyes, et al, noted that, “unexpected death was associated consistently with elevated odds of new onsets of PTSD, panic disorder, and depressive episodes at all stages of the life course.”

The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Being frequently angry, tense, or jumpy.
  • Physical symptoms like heart palpitations, sweating, or hyperventilating.
  • Flashbacks of the trauma or dwelling on what the person might have gone through in their final moments.
  • Persistent avoidance of things or events that remind us of the person or place where the tragedy occurred.
  • Avoiding the emotions surrounding the death or event.
  • Problems sleeping or nightmares.
  • Changing their personal routine to avoid reminders of the event.
  • Distorted feelings of guilt; blaming themselves for the event.
  • Negative thoughts

Most of the time, people will slowly begin to recover from the initial shock and grief of a death. For those with PTSD, though, the symptoms dramatically affect their day-to-day life and they experience them for at least a month.

Treating PTSD After A Sudden Death

There are several effective treatment therapies for PTSD after the sudden or traumatic death of a loved one, including Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Sometimes medications are used in conjunction with these modalities.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

A tragedy and the resulting trauma can alter your thinking as you try to process what happened. For example, you might feel overwhelming guilt as if you were somehow responsible for the event. Or you may feel detached from the world or from those you love.

These negative thoughts can cause you to avoid the things you normally enjoy or make you worry obsessively that you’ll lose someone else in a similar manner.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches you to become aware of your beliefs and thoughts about the situation. Once you identify them, it gives you the skills to see whether there are facts to support those thoughts and how to let them go if there aren’t. In short, CBT helps you manage your destructive beliefs so you can replace them with accurate views.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR helps people process trauma on an emotional level. It has been shown to help PTSD sufferers heal faster than through traditional therapy. In fact, a study funded by the Kaiser Permanente HMO found that 100% of single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after just six 50-minute sessions.

In PTSD, traumatic thoughts and memories work against the brain’s healing process. Flashbacks, nightmares, and disturbing emotions cycle through the brain, keeping the ordeal in the forefront of the person’s mind. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy can break that cycle.

EMDR uses bilateral (both sides of the body) stimuli to tap into the biological mechanisms the brain uses during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. The theory is that using REM while recalling the disturbing thoughts or memories of the trauma helps the brain process it naturally, allowing the mind to heal.

The bilateral stimulation a therapist might use can include:

  • Hand tapping or toe tapping
  • Eye movements (following a pattern of lights)
  • Musical tones

Let Us Help

If you or someone you love has been suffering from PTSD following the traumatic death of someone close to you, talk to the mental health professionals at The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida help. To get answers to your questions or for more information, contact us or call us today at 561-496-1094.


  1. Keyes, K. M., Pratt, C., Galea, S., McLaughlin, K. A., Koenen, K. C., & Shear, M. K. (2014). The burden of loss: unexpected death of a loved one and psychiatric disorders across the life course in a national study. The American journal of psychiatry171(8), 864-71.

Dr. Andrew Rosen PHD, ABPP, FAACP is a Board-Certified Psychologist and the Founder and Director of The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, as well as, the Founder of The Children’s Center for Psychiatry Psychology and Related Services.

27 Responses

  1. Hi my husband died 16th July 2018. He died in front of me in the lounge and I had to sign to switch the life support machine off. I felt awful and the day after I took 2 of my dogs a walk and legs collapsed and two men stopped their cars and took me home. I had fractured my knee cap and was in hospital 9 weeks because of an infection. They brought me home from hospital and I walked it alone. It was cold and I didnt know how I felt. I had to part with three of my dogs because I couldn’t cope. All this happened within 2 days. Can I get help. Regards Dot Carter

    1. I can surely feel your pain and I am so sorry! I will keep you in my prayers.

  2. My grandmother passed 10 years ago when I was 13, I saw her lifeless body in her home(that we now live in) and the hospital. I’ve always thought that I had anxiety and such from a young age(I can’t remember anything before her death) so I never remembered anything. I’m now starting to think that I have had PTSD due to this for the last 10 years. But everything I’ve read said it lasts for about a year.
    Could I be suffering from ptsd?

    1. Yes. I definitely recommend seeking professional help. PTSD has no set length, it always lingers right around the corner. You’ve experienced an extremely traumatic event, and it never leaves. Please don’t doubt yourself and your symptoms because of how long you’ve had them for.

  3. My mother was a victim of medical malpractice and was suddenly taken from me and family the morning of 9/17/18. I’ve consistently had nightmares and hate to go bed for fear I’ll have more terrible dreams screaming out for her which then disturbs the household. I can’t get the visions of her in the hospital and thinking of how she suffered. It’s God awful and just so exhausting but it seems to be my new reality, my new norm. The sudden, traumatic loss coupled with grief is so overwhelming and complicated it all seems to compound together and just make grieving all the more intense.

  4. Last year on the day before Valentines Day, the love of my life, my best friend died in my arms. We had just left the hospital 8 hrs. before he died & it took them 20 mins to show up! I keep thinking it will get easier but it seems to get harder! Not only didI l lose him, I lost my income, communication to the outside world, and my “friends”. I want to want to go on. I don’t know where to find help. Life is hard without friends! I have cried every day since.

  5. My husband died ten years ago after a very short battle with an aggressive cancer. I started suffering from anxiety during his illness. In ten years I am no better, actually worse. The other day a colleague asked how my husband died. As I told the story I was totally back in the hospital room experiencing it all again. I am now reflecting on my anxiety struggles of the last decade and wondering if I have PTSD. I have tried so many things – psychologists, meds, mindfulness etc – I just don’t think I am making progress but in fact sinking lower and lower.

    1. Hi Liz,

      Please contact us through the contact page to learn more about the options and support we have available.

  6. I am looking for instruction really. My 21 yr old son was standing next to his uncle that he was very close to, pick up a gun and put it under his chin and pull the trigger. My son cought him before he hit the ground. He’s very traumatized what he saw is playing over and over. We are talking as much as he wants and hes talkinr which is good. What do we need to do

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Please contact us through the contact page to learn more about the options and support available.

  7. In 2012, I unexpectedly lost my youngest son who was just 23 yrs old. He was tragically murdered due to vehicular homicide. There was a conviction and trial and during the trial we learned of the horrific details of his murder that ultimately caused his death. Back then, I never imagine how those details would haunt me 24/7, 365 days/ yr. and would make a negative impact on my mental health.

    I’n 2013, I was diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety and continued treatment for the next 3 yrs. through 2016 in which I was diagnosed with PTSD and Bipolar depression. Over the past 6 yrs I spent many sleepless nights having night terrors, anxiety and extreme panic attacks. During those 6 yrs, I cried all day, everyday and was prescribed antidepressants, sleeping medication. Continuing to cry out for help from my doctors, I was admitted into an inpatient/ outpatient mental health treatment program through 2018 that focused on (CBT) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness. Along with the professional care of my Doctors, proper diagnosis and treatment I am convinced that this saved me from committing suicide. Not only did it save my life,

    In 2018, I was able to enter back into society and the workforce and become a productive citizen again. More importantly, with proper treatment it helped me learn to live with my diagnosis, heal and live happy, healthy and productive life again.

    Today, I’ve been on my job for 2yrs and have received 2 promotions. I am the proud grandmother of 3 beautiful grandchildren. The oldest is the son of my son that I tragically lost and is now 11 years old and is one the most important people in my life.

    – The big take away from my mental health crisis is that I realized that I was in a crisis and needed help, so if you see the signs don’t ignore them, please get help, it could save your life.

    In loving Memory of Martin Samuel Eason
    11/11/86- 9/22/12
    #Parentsofmurderedchildren (POMC)
    11/11/86- 9/22/12
    #Parentsofmurderedchildren (POMC)

  8. I am 54 now I lost my mother when I was 21 to alcoholism and had to walk past her body in the undertakers on my own to go to the toilet, I lost my loving wife to cancer 2020 after a short battle with melanoma, then 4 months later my father to a brain tumor, then sister to breast cancer, in between 2 nephews one in a motorcycle accident one kicked almost to death on his doorstep having to have half his skull removed to take away the swelling, not nice to see, then losing the battle in hospital a week later.
    also friends and neighbors too many to list.

    I am traumatised and confused with life and to this day struggle to live a normal life.

  9. Hey
    I lost my grandmother 2 years ago. We all had yo decide as a family if we wanted her to get surgery and i was pushing them the most so she could get the surgery. She was the closest thing I ever had. She had called me the day before she passed away and she told me she’s coming home. I got a call the following night saying she’s gone. I didnt really get the time to grieve but after 2 full years I can barely sleep at night. At first my nightmares would just cause me to sweat but they’ve gotten worse I jus vomit and sweat profusely and wake up hyperventilating. I barely have appetite. I cry all the time. I’ve cut ties with almost everyone that I know. I don’t want to see anyone. I’m tired all the time. My heart hurts I don’t know what to do.

  10. Hello. A few months ago my mother collapsed, I called for an ambulance immediately, I had to do cpr until it arrived while on the phone to them. Which seemed like forever. They took over and tried for about 1.5 hrs. She never awoke. Was a heart attack. I reply this over and over. I miss her so much. She lived with us for 3 years after my dad died. And mum had dementia. But I can’t get past this, I know she passed quickly and I could not have saved her. But i keep seeing it in my mind. Her little face. I’m just so sad and I just don’t know what to do.

  11. My best friend (who I talked to and met (by email) online) died by suicide (I also want to). My grief has gotten way worse. I’m 12 and I’ve never felt grief in my entire life. My family doesn’t even know about Ava (who died) AT ALL. It’s been three months and I’m still in the denial stage. I cry myself to sleep almost every day. I need help. I cant take this anymore. My mom’s catching on though cuz i write in a diary and she saw one note that fell yesterday (I write lyrics for songs) and i dont know what the hell (sorry) i should tell her. I cant even go through my day w/o thinking that (Ava was “This is something that she’d have REALLY enjoyed.” PLEASE HELP.

    1. Hi Prapti,

      Please contact us through the contact page to learn more about the options and support available.

  12. Hi, obviously the suffering is a situation which doesn’t spare anybody.
    I lost my very cheerful sister in a tragic accident fall from high ( no one knows was jump suicide or an accident)
    My lover sister was suffering a bipolar disorder, and she was living with her 3 kids and introvert husband, I highly attribute to him the causes of her psychologic disorder to her husband.
    I am Algerian living in Canada since 2 years, the most heartbreaking day of death was on November 9, 2020. I couldn’t fly to Algeria in ordre to attend the funeral with my family because of the closure of borders.
    Currently, I feel traumatized extremely sad and crying the most of the time, I can’t realize my very loved one sister is gone 🥺🥺🥺.

  13. We brought my mom home on hospice after a hospital procedure went bad. I watched her decline for 4 days, except for one day where she talked and we were able to have heart to heart discussions. The next day she no longer was verbal and had the “death rattle” people speak of. She went on like that for another day, then the last day I helped the nurse bathe her and suddenly after the nurse left, she began making it clear she was actively dying. Holding her and watching her pass was the most traumatic thing I’ve experienced. I keep reliving it in my mind, over a year later: I can’t move past it. I began abusing alcohol and have separated myself from family & friends. I keep waiting to “get over it” but I feel stuck. Why?

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Please contact us through the contact page to learn more about the options and support available.

  14. my name is Michelle and on the 26th of January of 2019 at 3:45 in the morning i saw my Nan dead on the sofa in the living room,it has been three years and it still hurts now. i had to clean the house nearly on my own and sort through her things,i had to handle the police,ambulance and was there when they came for my Nan’s body. i found out she had an heart attack,stroke and kidneys had failed. i want to heal but i do not how to.

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Please contact us through the contact page to learn more about the options and support available.

  15. I lost my dadi n 2015 due to cancer . It was horrible to see him go through chemo and radiation for 2yrs and the terrible pain he endured and I couldnt do anything I was there when he breathed hislast breath and his life was over I went and laid next to him when the people came to take him away, I couldnt let go …I just held him until he got cold and they took me away and then took him…I relive that every day as if it happened just yesterday..I blame myself that could do anything to relieve his pain most of the time he was crying like a baby…until now the smell of certain things reminds me of that Till now I cannot go back into that house . These thoughts and memories still haunt me and I cant even remember the funeral…
    Somedays it feels like it wasnt me there that I was watching someone elses live..not sure what this do I process this? My relationship with my family has not been the same I feel detached from them and myself i was diagnosed 16yrs ago with MDD and 2 yrs ago with borderline bipolar…

    1. Hi Brokenheart,

      Please contact us through the contact page to learn more about the options and support available.

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