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Grief following sudden or unexpected death

A sudden, unexpected death can raise some complex issues for the bereaved person. A sudden death can catch people out and test what resources they have for coping.

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 (such as 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 through suicide or trauma 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 due to the randomness and violence.

In some 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:

  • a person who was expected to take many months to die may seem to die a death that is sudden. Perhaps they were expected to get worse gradually but they stay fairly well and then die in a brief space of time. This can seem sudden when people are expecting a different experience
  • perhaps the person dies in a few weeks when they were expected to live for months. If some people did not know the person was ill, they may think of the death as sudden or unexpected because they had no idea it was likely to happen
  • a death which takes several hours or days may also be called sudden, or seem sudden, to some of 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 to the people bereaved from it.

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 due to the suddenness of the death.

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

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

  • where the bereaved person was not present when a loved one dies suddenly or unexpectedly, a significant emotional challenge is a sense of guilt
  • the bereaved person can feel cheated out of the natural expectation of being with their loved one at the moment of death
  • if the bereaved person was with the loved one who died, it might have been a very traumatic experience, trying to offer first aid and to know who to contact for help. Images of pain, struggle, and fear might be uppermost in the bereaved person’s memory

Dealing With The Impact Of Traumatic Death

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

In the case where 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 event in detail. This may be done with a professional person—psychologist or counselor 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 go 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.

Often 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 which they need, and are expected, to make.

What Helps?

What is important in dealing with sudden/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 itself, and its impact.

The bereaved person needs time to be able to express their intense grief and pain, and they need to be given time by those around them: family, friends, communities, and professional services.

The bereaved person and their family and friends need to recognise that emotional adjustment to a sudden/unexpected loss is not a short process.

Losing someone suddenly through suicide will raise even more challenges for those left behind.

Other Resources

Victim Support Service
Beyond Blue
Road Trauma Support Team of SA


Page last updated: 17 September, 2019

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