Grief Topic

Grief Reactions Associated with 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 on hand for coping. People may be more shocked, and confused initially.

They may have more need to go over and over the events around the death. For many, this is made worse because sudden, unexpected deaths are the sort of deaths more often linked with more traumatic ways of dying. This may make it more difficult to see the body and hold the funeral. It may mean mistakes were made and people feel guilty or angry. Big and unknown organisations or people may be involved like police, coroner, courts, the media and insurance companies. Instead of being able to move through the journey of their grief, people may feel stopped by what others want of them.

It is important to realise the grief process is not always more difficult when the death is sudden or unexpected. It may be more complex initially as you struggle to come to terms with the reality of the death. The quality of the relationship you had with the person, whether it was close or not, is more important in determining how you grieve.

What is meant by sudden and unexpected death?

Most people will have an idea about what a sudden, unexpected death is. But it is very important that this is thought about from the point of view of those affected. For example, even if 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.

If some people did not know the person was ill, they may think of their death as sudden or unexpected because they had no idea it was likely to happen.

Sudden seems to mean the death happened quickly, but people may have very different ideas of what “quickly” is.

It may be clear when it is in a few seconds or minutes, in an accident or from a heart attack, but 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.

A person who was expected to take many months to die may also die a death that is seen as 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.

Unexpected deaths also happen when the person is not expected to die in a certain way, or place, or is not expected to die at all. The person may die differently – perhaps not as peacefully as was expected or much more peacefully. They may be expected to recover or even be having a minor operation. They may have one illness and die from a different cause.

Different communities

Communities have their own ideas about what to expect about death and this changes over time. For example, dying from measles, in childbirth, as a baby or from contaminated water is not an expected death in Australia now. But death is not so unexpected for certain people, under certain conditions and in certain ways – for example, in hospitals and wars, to the elderly, frail or very sick, on the roads and perhaps to “others” (not those who are close), in heavy storms or the harsh outback. Films and television encourage ideas of expected deaths and also the idea that some warning will occur.

Helping after a sudden death

The community needs to respond quickly to offer good support at times of sudden, unexpected death. This may need more thought, skill and time as people may take longer and find it harder to grieve such a death.

It is important questions are answered honestly and sensitively. Some family members dealing with a sudden death may be assisted by being given accurate information about the crisis, to avoid fantasy.

There can be close bonds between the survivors of such a loss and they may be able to offer each other special support, when and if they feel ready.