Grief Reactions Associated with Sudden or Unexpected Death

Some common medical causes of sudden/unexpected death are: fatal arrhythmias, acute myocardial infarction (heart attack), massive pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung) intracranial haemorrhage/cerebrovascular accident (stroke), and acute aortic aneurysm. Other causes might be car, work, or sporting accidents, and natural disasters or violent attacks. With the increased world-wide of terror attacks, survivors are challenged to deal with a wide range of emotions, which may be intensified due to the randomness and viciousness of the attacks.

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 people bereaved from it.

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 within 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.  Feelings of guilt may arise about not being with the person, and about not being able to call for help in time.  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.  Images of pain, struggle, and fear might be uppermost in the survivor’s memory.

Any sort of traumatic death presents significant difficulties to the emotional, physical, and spiritual resources of survivors. In the case where the survivor 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 personpsychologist or counselloror 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 survivor’s mind and emotional world; they may take time to deal with. It may be that the survivor 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 survivor to lose a sense of connection with the person who has died, who might now have become the subject of a major inquiry.

Where a survivor was not present when a loved one died suddenly or unexpectedly, a significant emotional challenge is a sense of guilt. They might feel that if they were present they could have helped more or prevented the death.  They might feel cheated out of the natural expectation of being with their loved one at the moment of death. 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 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 makes sense of the event itself, and its impact. The survivor 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. For both survivor and helper there needs to be a recognition that emotional adjustment to sudden/unexpected loss is not a short process.

Page last updated 27th July, 2017