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Grief following sudden or unexpected death

A sudden, unexpected death can raise some complex issues for the people left to grieve. The shock of a sudden death can catch people out, and challenge their ability to cope.

What Is Meant By Sudden And Unexpected Death?

A sudden or unexpected death can occur through a medical event such as a fatal heart problem (for example, arrhythmias or acute myocardial infarction); a blood clot in the lung (a massive pulmonary embolism) a stroke (intracranial haemorrhage/cerebrovascular accident) or an acute aortic aneurysm.

Other causes of sudden death might be suicide, or traumas such as car, work, or sporting accidents, natural disasters or violent attacks. With the increase in world-wide terror attacks, survivors are challenged to deal with a wide range of emotions, which may be intensified in the case of random and violent events.

In cases where someone has been terminally ill and receiving long term care, their death may still occur in a way that seems sudden and unexpected to their carers. For example:

  • a person who was expected to take many months to die may ultimately die a death that feels sudden. Perhaps they were expected to get worse gradually, but instead they stay fairly well and then die abruptly. This can seem sudden when people are expecting a different experience
  • a person may dies within a few weeks when they were expected to live for months. For those unware that the person was ill, the death may seem sudden or unexpected because they were unprepared for it
  • a death that takes several hours or days may also be called sudden, or seem sudden, to those involved. Others who are close to such deaths may not consider them sudden at all, particularly if the person was suffering

In whatever way the death occurs, a sudden or unexpected death adds extra dimensions of grief for the people who are bereaved.

Grief Reactions

Most people have feelings of shock and confusion as the result of the death of someone close to them, but these feelings can be intensified when the death is sudden.

Everything changes in a split second, which challenges people’s emotional worlds.

The person may have died alone, or in the presence of a loved one. Each situation carries with it its own emotional challenges:

  • if the bereaved person was not present when their loved one suddenly died, they may experience feelings of guilt or anger that they were not able to be there
  • if the bereaved person was with person when they died, they may have experienced significant trauma.  If they tried to offer first aid, or were responsible for calling help,  images of pain, struggle, and fear might be uppermost in their memory


Dealing With The Impact Of Traumatic Death

Any sort of sudden and/or traumatic death or a death by suicide presents significant challenges to the emotional, physical, and spiritual resources of the person who is bereaved.

In the case where they were a witness to the death of their loved one, it may be important for the person to be able to tell the story of the event in detail. This may be done with a professional person— a psychologist or counsellor – or with a sympathetic friend. It may be important not to gloss over the details of the event, particularly if the death is persistently occupying the bereaved person’s mind. It may be that they will need to go over the event, perhaps trying to understand what they saw, how it unfolded, the cause of the death, where it occurred, who was present and who helped. It is important not to rush the person and always let them know that they don’t have to talk if they don’t want to. Sometimes revisiting these memories can be retraumatising, so ensuring the person feels safe is essential.

An added burden in the case of sudden deaths can be the activity of the media. This is often very intrusive, making it impossible to find private time and space to deal with the emotional impact of the loss.

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 if they become the subject of a major inquiry.

What Helps?

Sometimes people part in the morning, and never see their loved ones alive at the end of the day. Their world changes in those few short hours, and they are not prepared for the range of huge adjustments they need, and are expected, to make.

What is important in dealing with a sudden or unexpected death is the ability to feel and express grief which is the normal response to loss of any kind. It takes time and patience to find a way to make sense of the event, and its impact on your life.

A bereaved person and their family and friends need to recognise that emotional adjustment to a sudden or unexpected loss is not a short process. Be patient, and seek help when you need it.

Other Resources


Offers 24/7 crisis support via telephone, text or online

Victim Support Service

A state-wide service across South Australia providing free and confidential  therapeutic counselling and practical support to victims of crime.
Beyond Blue

Provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.
Road Trauma Support Team of SA

Provides free counselling and support for people who have been affected by road trauma, whether directly or indirectly.


Page last updated: 29 December, 2021