Grief Sanctuary: Coping With Death After a Massive Heart Attack

What are you prepared for when someone you love dies suddenly after a massive heart attack? Nothing. Learning how to grieve a sudden loss is the last thing on your mind. The shock and disbelief of death caused by a cardiac arrest is overwhelming – especially if your loved one didn’t have a history of heart problems or incidents. Death is surreal and shocking, even when your loved one is elderly or even ready to leave this world.

My father-in-law died six weeks ago. It wasn’t a massive heart attack; he was almost 90 and had various health issues (bladder cancer, diabetes, past cardiac incidents, and a pacemaker). Even though he died in the hospital and had been quite ill for a couple of weeks, his death was shocking. I’ve been reading books about grieving after sudden loss and death, and recently discovered the idea of a “Grief Sanctuary” in Honoring Grief: Creating a Space to Let Yourself Heal.

Before I describe how Alexandra Kennedy’s Grief Sanctuary might help you grieve sudden loss, I want to share a reader’s comment on my article about living alone after the death of a spouse. Melanie’s experience will give you hope and comfort.

“There is no right or wrong way to grieve and there is no magic number of days until you feel okay again,” says Melanie on Living Alone After the Death of a Spouse. “But you will be able to breathe again. The ache in your heart will lessen, you will find an inner strength you did not know existed, you will laugh and find joy again. After the sudden loss of death we learn to live in a new normal. There will be bad days, you will cry when you think of who you’ve lost. You’ll still get angry from time to time! That’s okay, just don’t allow yourself to live there. God is so much bigger than death and grief. He understands our hurt, sadness and loneliness. That raw pain of grief can feel like it will destroy you, and at times you may wish that it would, but don’t allow it. You’ve lost enough…don’t lose yourself.”

You have lost enough. Don’t lose yourself. For awhile you may feel like you have lost your identity because your whole life is different! You won’t feel like yourself for some time…and you’ll never be the same. But if you practice accepting and surrendering to the fact that a massive heart attack took the life of your loved one, your own heart will start to heal.

How Do You Cope With the Sudden Loss of a Heart Attack? A Grief Sanctuary

Melanie stresses the importance of grieving and healing after someone you love dies:

“For about 8 months, I didn’t even recognize my own reflection in the mirror,” she said. “Nothing looked the same or tasted the same. One day our daughter said,’I feel like I’ve lost both parents.’ She didn’t say it with anger, but with such sadness that it shook me to my core. Those words helped me to start clawing my way back to life, for my kids and my grandchildren at first, but eventually for me as well. I will always miss my husband. I wish he was still here. But our family can share the memories we have of him with grateful hearts now. This is something I never thought we’d be able to do. There is hope for grieving and healing after someone you love dies, please don’t give up…”

Give your heart time to recover

Your heart is traumatized and broken – just like the massive heart attack that took your loved one’s life! You may feel shocked, confused, overwhelmed, exhausted, and even a little bit crazy. That’s what grief is: shocking, confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, and crazy. Give your heart time to adjust to this new reality, your surreal new world and life.

Place your right hand over your heart. Take a deep breath. Feel it beating, strong and true. Steady and alive. You are still here. You still have work to do. We need you.

Remember that your grieving process won’t be the same as a family member’s, or your friends, or even your own spouse. You may find this idea of a Grief Sanctuary healing and soothing. Or, you might feel that it’s too painful and raw to face your grief so directly right now. Give yourself time to heal at your own pace – especially if you lost your husband or wife to a massive heart attack. Your psyche has taken an enormous punch in the gut, as it were. Go slow. You’ll never stop missing your loved one, but you won’t always feel this terrible.

Understanding the nature of grieving

Avoiding the pain of grief is tempting. It hurts to weep, wail, and feel like you lost your will to live. But if you avoid the grieving process, your losses will accumulate. The more losses you avoid grieving, the heavier your pain gets. You may naturally shrink from grief and pain of loss, but it’s crucial to learn how to move through grief. Losing a loved one to a massive heart attack is shocking and overwhelming, but it does not have to destroy your spirit and soul.

Rather than resist the powerful, transformative forces activated in grief, we can learn strategies for moving through it,” writes Kennedy in Honoring Grief. “Or, more accurately, allowing it to move through us, stage by stage, day by day – without feeling overwhelmed.”

Once you “let down” into grief and let it move through you, Kennedy says, it shows you what you need to heal. Maybe you need a grieving or widows support group, or maybe you prefer to grieve alone. Maybe you’re full of anger and rage; you need to go somewhere to scream, moan, and wail until you’re a crumpled heap on the ground. Or maybe you’re like I was after my grandma died from a massive heart attack: you just want to go to sleep and stay asleep forever.

Learn what a “Grief Sanctuary” is

This strategy for dealing with grief after a massive heart attack (or any type of death) is simple, yet powerful. A Grief Sanctuary is a “sacred space” to gently hold you as you turn within. This space and time will help you move through the grieving process. Your heart will slowly recover and heal from the shock of death and the pain of bereavement.

“A sanctuary for grieving enables us to honor our grief for a limited time each day in the midst of our busy lives,” writes Kennedy in Honoring Grief. “Rather than feeling overwhelmed, those who use the sanctuary find that they have much more focus and energy for their work, schoolwork, friends and families.”

Enter your Grief Sanctuary daily. It’s a safe, insulated contained space that generates a sense of peace when you’re dealing with grief after the shock of a massive heart attack. This space allows you to go deep enough into your grief so you can begin the healing process.

Find the space that holds you and your grief

“Find a contained space in your home or garden where you feel protected and safe,” writes Kennedy. “It is important that you will not be interrupted. Let it be a place that inspires, comforts, and nurtures you in your grief. The sanctuary is a refuge dedicated to your healing.”

If you don’t feel at ease or peaceful in the first location you choose, move to another place. Kennedy says most people try out different spaces and places until they settle on a Grief Sanctuary that works. If your husband died from a massive heart attack in his home office or den, for instance, you may want to avoid that space. Or, you may find it comforting and healing to be where he took his last breath. Your Grief Sanctuary is yours. You don’t have to explain why it works for you, where it is, or what you do there.

Grief Sanctuary: Coping With Death After a Heart Attack
A Grief Sanctuary

If you lost your husband and need more practical or actionable tips, read Getting Through the Day When You’re a Grieving Widow. A guest writer called Kathleen wrote it; she lost her husband after a long journey through Parkinson’s disease. Her story and advice for widows will help you grieve your own loss – whether it was a sudden death or a slow walk.

Enter your Grief Sanctuary daily

In the cocoon of your Grief Sanctuary, close your eyes and turn your attention within. “What is happening inside you?” asks Kennedy. “What most wants your attention? Scan your body. Our bodies are in constant conversation with us; our bodies don’t lie – though our minds do. What are you experiencing in your body? What sensations come to your attention? Where is grief residing in your body?”

Tune into your body and become aware of your emotions. Are you feeling angry? Guilty? Lost? Depressed? Peaceful? Grieving the sudden loss of a massive heart attack may leave you with wide range of emotions. Allow yourself to experience them all. They will eventually heal you. Avoid blocking the flow of grief. You will pay a deep price if you allow your grief to go unresolved. Grieving is healing – whether your loved one died from a sudden shocking cardiac arrest or was on a slow journey to the grave.

Let go of your grief when you leave the sanctuary

“When you leave the sanctuary, let go of focusing on the grief,” writes Kennedy in Honoring Grief. “Make a clear transition. Many people hold on to their grief. It is important to grieve fully in the sanctuary but to let go of it when it is time to engage in your daily life. To help with the transition, do something nurturing for yourself – have a cup of tea, call a friend, go for walk.”

Take time every day to honor your grief and work through your feelings – but don’t spend long periods of time in your sanctuary. One of the most important tips on how to survive the grieving process is to not overwhelm yourself emotionally.

How do you grieve a sudden loss?

Dealing With Grief After a Massive Heart Attack

Angel Catcher: A Journal of Loss and Remembrance is a unique and sensitive grief journal that allows readers to catch — and hold — an angel. Is your loved one still hovering and watching over you? Angel Catcher will help you find meaningful ways to overcome the despair of losing a loved one. 

“A dear friend gave me this book after my beloved husband died suddenly because of a massive heart attack,” says a reader. “For a few weeks, I couldn’t even open it because I was dealing with grief. But when I read it, I found an invaluable way to help me remember my husband and to put into words all of those little things that were so much a part of our relationship. I have recommended it to my grief support group and will cherish the memories it has helped me capture.”

Everything related to the Grief Sanctuary is from Alexandra Kennedy’s Honoring Grief: Creating a Space to Let Yourself Heal. She is a psychotherapist and grief expert; her book offers powerful and compassionate advice for grieving and healing – whether you’re coping with the sudden loss of a massive heart attack or a longer, slower, expected death from a terminal illness. Honoring Grief will help you create a special space where you are free to work through the difficult emotions that accompany grief.

Are you looking for ways to help a friend grieve sudden loss or a massive heart attack? Read 17 Sympathy Gift Ideas for Someone Who Lost a Mom.

How are you? Feel free to share your thoughts – big or little – below. You may find it helpful to write about the massive heart attack that caused your loved one’s death. How is your family coping? Might a grief practice such as a Grief Sanctuary be help you?

With sympathy,



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6 thoughts on “Grief Sanctuary: Coping With Death After a Massive Heart Attack”

  1. In a sudden loss like that, you don’t know how to react (especially when you are forced to watch her die like that), so you shut down. For me, that phase lasted for several months. I had (and still have) a hard time remembering things and concentrating on daily tasks. It has been 3 years since my mom suddenly passed when I was a teenager. It feels like you’re going crazy 99.9% of the time and it feels like you’re all alone because no one else around you has experienced something like this, especially when you’re just starting out in life, just 3 months before graduating high school when she passed. The pain can get excruciating especially in the beginning but it does get better. I have been able to find my smile again. I don’t smile very often because I still miss her like crazy (and most likely will for the remainder of my own life), but on those occasions that I can smile, it’s one of joy and gratitude. Gratitude that even though I won’t have her to see my graduation from high school or college, being able to travel around the world to do ministry work for the Lord, and a host of other things, I am grateful for the time that I DID have with her. Thank you Mom for raising me to be the person I am today. I will always love you and miss you.

  2. my husband died from a massive heart attack in Feb. 2019. we were married 53 years and the loss has left me deprerssed and heart broken. He was a kind and loving husband and my soul mate.

  3. My husband died March 4 2015 of a massive heart attack at 2:15pm right in front of me. I’m certified n CPR and still was unable to do anything. I called 911 and no one answered. I still relive this horrible day every day. We were together for 31 years. He was my best friend, lover, and the center of my world. We had no children, so now I am alone. All I want is to have a massive heart attack myself, so I can be with him. I am currently in counseling and have been since he died, but the truth is, I just don’t want to be here without him.

  4. Dear Paula,

    I’m so sorry you experienced this tragedy. It sounds like it was painful and shocking, and you’re left with all sorts of painful emotions. Seeing a loved one die, right in front of you, is terrifying experience – and it really does complicate how you deal with the grief of losing a loved one to a massive heart attack.

    Have you talked to a grief counselor? I encourage you to call someone. Your feelings of guilt and fear are a normal reaction to your experience…and the best way to work through the grieving process is to find support and help.

    Will you call a grief support line, or a local counselor in your area?

  5. terrified and guilty. . you are having a conversation and in the middle of a sentence, they die. Right in front of you and your efforts to save them fail. Now you are left with guilt and fear of it happening to another family member.