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What is sudden death?

This page provides a brief introduction to sudden deaths and the devastation they cause to people's lives. If you have been suddenly bereaved you can also read our guide to sudden bereavement. If you are providing support for a suddenly bereaved person you can learn more about sudden death by reading our guidance for carers.

A sudden death is an unexpected death

A sudden death is any kind of death that happens unexpectedly. This includes:

• suicide
• road crash or other transport disaster
• drowning, falling, fire or other tragedy
• undiagnosed advanced terminal illness, such as advanced cancer
• sudden natural causes, such as heart attack, brain hemorrhage, or cot death  
• sudden death from a serious illness that was known about, but where death wasn't expected, for example epilepsy
• murder
• war or terrorism

A sudden death is an unanticipated death

While sudden deaths have very different causes, what unites them all is that they are unexpected and consequently unanticipated. The people bereaved by these deaths have no time to prepare for their loss, or say goodbye. Their bereavement consequently comes as a shock; a bolt from the blue.

A sudden death rips apart people's lives

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 bereaved by sudden death often suffer severely

Everyone is different, and grief is a very individual experience. How people respond to a loved one dying suddenly may depend on many factors unique to them, including their personalities, what has happened in their life previously, and their personal situation now.

However, it is clear that people bereaved suddenly often suffer very much. They often have acute and lengthy support needs.

Suddenly bereaved children, as well as suddenly bereaved adults, share these needs. Often the needs of bereaved children are the same as those of bereaved adults.

Challenging grief 

Many people bereaved suddenly are often described as suffering from 'complicated grief' or 'traumatic grief'. Rather than going through a smooth process of initial sadness and then to coming to terms with the death and moving forwards happily, people bereaved suddenly may have a range of powerful reactions to their bereavement, resulting from the shock of their bereavement and the devastation it has caused to their lives. These reactions may be different at different times and over a long time. 

Some of these reactions may be frightening and mentally or physically painful and debilitating, affecting people's ability to live their lives constructively in many ways.

Massively changed lives

As well as having to cope with the traumatic nature of their bereavement and its effect on them, suddenly bereaved people often have their day to day lives irrevocably altered, due to, for example, the death of a life partner who provided financial support, or the death a child who required daily care.

As well as working to recover emotionally, suddenly bereaved people often have to rebuild their lives and make a new plan for the future, as the plan they had before the death has been destroyed. It can be extremely hard to plan a new direction in life when suffering the after-shocks of a sudden death. 

In addition, suddenly bereaved people may suffer their bereavement at a time when they are already dealing with a major life challenge; for example domestic abuse, job loss, marriage break up, another bereavement, or some other calamity.

Support and recovery

It is possible to recover following a sudden bereavement and lead a full and happy life again. However, people bereaved suddenly often need sensitive and significant support to help them recover fully, and as soon as possible.

Support should be tailored to the particular needs of the individual, after careful identification of these needs. It may be provided by more than one person or agency responding to these identified needs.

Support may be appropriate, depending on the individual's circumstance and needs, from relatives and friends, professionals specialising in providing therapy for complex grief and / or post-traumatic stress disorder, government agencies such as housing agencies, and community, health and spiritual leaders.

There are often also charities specifically offering support to specific types of suddenly bereaved people, for example charities specialising in caring for victims of road crashes, murder, suicide, cot death, or war. These charities offer a variety of services including, often, contact with people bereaved in the same way. However, people suddenly bereaved by other causes, such as at-work accidents or cardiac arrest, may not have charity services specifically aimed at supporting them.

More information about appropriate support can be found in our guide to sudden bereavement and our guidance for carers.

Copyright: Brake 2013