Supporting people after sudden death including COVID-19

Sudden death is a traumatic and challenging experience

This page aims to provide an insight into why a sudden bereavement is traumatic and consequently challenging. It uses the findings of academics and practitioners who have studied and researched the effects of sudden death on bereaved people.

The loss of meaning of life

By their very definition, sudden deaths are more likely to occur among children, young people, and healthy mid-life adults. Therefore, sudden deaths often mean people's lives are ripped apart by the death of somebody very significant, close and central to their life, such as a life partner, father, son, brother, mother, daughter or sister.

People who are significant and central to our lives can provide us with an immense feeling of security and purpose. When these people die, it can cause us to feel lost and directionless, at a time when we are suffering immense emotional pain due to the bereavement.

One bereavement specialist, the psychiatrist and academic Dr Robert A Neimeyer, from the University of Memphis, describes this as "the loss of a security-enhancing attachment relationship and the decimation of a world of meaning occasioned by profound loss"[1]  Neimeyer says that frequently our life stories and plans are "interwoven, often surprisingly closely, with the life story of another"[1] , so when that person dies, our own life story and plan for the future is shattered.

Suddenly bereaved people are affected by their own life stories

Everyone is unique, with a unique life story. Anyone's ability to cope with the sudden death of someone close is likely to be shaped partially by that life story, and it is important, when caring for a person who has been suddenly bereaved, to have at least a basic understanding of their life story to enable appropriate empathy to be provided.

Different life stories mean that sudden bereavement can be hard to bear for different reasons.

People who have had poor relationships in the past (for example, an unloving childhood, or failed relationships) may find it particularly difficult to cope when someone special dies suddenly with whom they had a very good relationship. They may find it hard to imagine ever experiencing such a special relationship again, because their experiences have taught them that good relationships are hard to find.

People who have always experienced good relationships, and who have no experience of being suddenly bereaved, may find it extremely challenging to make sense of the world anymore when someone special dies suddenly. They have no experience of such things happening in their world, so the shock can be enormous.

People who have previously been suddenly bereaved, and then moved on in their lives, may find it particularly hard to bear if it happens again. Having to experience sudden bereavement repeatedly may mean these people find it hard not to have a depressive view of the future.

So there can be no doubt that sudden bereavement is challenging for a range of different people with different life stories.

Every sudden death is unique and traumatic

Every sudden death is different, but all are traumatic and therefore challenging.

A death may be witnessed by the bereaved person, and the bereaved person may have been powerless to prevent the death; for example, a father forced to watch his child drown but unable to rescue his child because of strong waves.

A bereaved person may have been involved in the event that caused the death; for example, a road crash. In such circumstances, the bereaved person may also be recovering from injuries, or caring for another injured family member. The bereaved person in some circumstances may have even caused the death of their loved one; for example by driving dangerously.

Alternatively, a bereaved person may not have been at the scene of the death. They may be told about the death second hand; for example, by a police officer telling them their loved one has taken their own life.

A bereaved person may have suffered multiple bereavements at once. This is also not uncommon following a road crash.

A bereaved person may have suffered the sudden serious injury of a loved one, which then led to a lingering death in hospital, where the death was either inevitable, or there was hope of recovery and then death.

Many people working in the field of trauma, and caring for people who are traumatised, define a traumatic event as an event that involves the traumatised person, or which was witnessed by the traumatised person. In both cases, the defining factor is that the traumatised person was present at the event. Such descriptions of trauma are alienating for people who have been bereaved by a sudden death but who were not present at the time of the death, as these people are excluded from this descriptor.

In the case of sudden death, the defining factor that makes the death traumatic, and the bereaved person's response to that death complex, is not that the bereaved person was present the scene of the death. The defining factor is that the death was sudden, unexpected, unanticipated and was of someone very close.

Another common defining factor of many sudden deaths is that the death was violent, or involved extensive pain or fear, or was all three.

Again, these elements add to the traumatic nature of the bereavement, regardless of whether the bereaved person was present or not.


1 Complicated grief and the quest for meaning: a constructivist contribution Robert A. Neimeyer, Ph.D. University Of Memphis, Tennessee