Organisations, academics and faith leaders launch Sudden Bereavement Charter as new analysis shows unexpected deaths triple to almost a quarter of all fatalities

  • Almost a million people in the UK have been coping with the devastating effects of an unexpected bereavement since March 2020, according to the charity bereavement service Sudden [1]
  • Its analysis indicates that just under 1 in 4 deaths are currently from unexpected causes, up from just 1 in 14 before the pandemic [1]
  • Sudden estimates that the economic cost of dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, among those bereaved from the pandemic and other unexpected causes, could be as high as £3billion without adequate support in place [2]
  • A Sudden Bereavement Charter has today been launched, signed by 17 charities, academics, faith leaders and health and care professionals
  • The Charter calls for access to specialist support – including the continuation of critical Government funding due to end this month – to help those suddenly bereaved and reduce costs to society and the economy.

Monday, 8 March 2021: The number of unexpected deaths has tripled to almost a quarter of all UK fatalities as a result of COVID-19, according to a new analysis by the charity bereavement service Sudden [1]. Some 24% of all deaths are now from unexpected causes, compared with just eight per cent before the pandemic.

[1] Table: Sudden analysis of unexpected deaths in the 12 months to March 2020 and March 2021 

Year to March 2020Year to March 2021
Sudden deaths (ONS baseline) [6]50,00050,000
COVID-19 deaths [5]0140,000+
Total sudden deaths50,000190,000
All deaths (ONS 2019 baseline [6] + COVID-19 deaths)666,014806,014
Sudden deaths as a percentage of all deaths8%24%
People seriously bereaved [3]250,000950,000

Source: Sudden analysis, March 2021.

Studies show that for every death there are at least five people, on average, who are bereaved of a close family member [3]. Today’s analysis also reveals that the numbers of those dealing with bereavement due to unexpected causes has almost quadrupled, from 250,000 in the 12 months to March 2020 to 950,000 in the last 12-month period [1].

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Given the unexpected nature of such deaths, those dealing with the sudden loss of a loved one can experience particularly profound shock and turmoil in their lives, as well as grief. Without early care and social support, there is an increased risk of serious mental health conditions, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other challenges that affect safety and wellbeing.

Based on studies from the London bombings, some five per cent of those affected by a sudden or shocking bereavement may go on to develop PTSD if not supported properly from day one of their bereavement. Another study by the London School of Economics suggests the direct and indirect costs of treating PTSD are as much as £64,000 per person. Therefore, Sudden estimates that the economic cost of dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among those bereaved from the pandemic and other unexpected causes in the last year could be as high as £3billion without proper support [2].

Psychological trauma research also shows that appropriate emotional and practical support, in the early days following sudden bereavement, can help people cope with immediate emotional and practical issues, including poverty, illness and mental health conditions.

Sudden Bereavement Charter

The pandemic has shone a light on the acute needs of people facing an unexpected bereavement, prompting a number of academics, charities and health and care professionals to launch a Sudden Bereavement Charter.

The Charter, signed by 17 organisations and individuals, including the Sepsis Trust, Winston’s Wish, Child Bereavement UK, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and leading trauma academics, including Professor Stephen Regel and Professor Neil Greenberg, calls for proper support for those suffering a sudden bereavement, whether from an immediately fatal or suddenly life-limiting condition such as COVID-19, a brain haemorrhage, or an event such as an accident, homicide, suicide or other disaster.

The Charter also calls for support to help those unexpectedly bereaved to cope with their reactions, as well as practical help, including medical and financial support, and appropriate time off work. It also includes the need for information for those bereaved to understand procedures such as repatriation of bodies, post-mortems or criminal investigations.

The organisations and individuals who have signed the Charter point to the need for extra rights for people facing unexpected bereavement, to avoid the risk of poor health and social outcomes, such as depression, heightened anxiety or PTSD, loss of work, family breakdown or even suicide.

The Sudden Bereavement Charter also calls for continued Government funding of services to help those dealing with an unexpected bereavement. A package of financial support from the Department of Health and Social Care to sudden bereavement organisations is due to end on 31 March, leaving charities it has supported, including Sudden, facing a cliff-edge and threatening the welfare and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of suddenly bereaved families across the country.

Mary Williams OBE, Chief Executive of Sudden, said:

“The pandemic has laid bare the harrowing challenges facing families dealing with a totally unexpected bereavement. Sudden deaths leave us little or no time to say goodbye, causing immediate emotional and practical shock and turmoil. Most of us never expect it to happen and, if it does, we often need help to deal with the loss, shock and turmoil it causes.

“Due to COVID-19, almost a quarter of deaths are now from unexpected causes. The launch of today’s Charter champions the rights of the suddenly bereaved to access immediate care through the worst time of their lives – and to mitigate negative impacts on them, society and the economy.

“It’s particularly critical that the Government continues to support organisations supporting the suddenly bereaved. Its funding to date has helped reduce the harrowing effects of the pandemic’s second wave on families, giving people support and relieving pressure on front-line health and social services. However, its funding is due to stop at the end of March, leaving charities like Sudden facing a cliff edge when their services are needed the most. We strongly urge the Government to commit to fund critical early bereavement support from April onwards for people who are suddenly bereaved.”

— Ends —

For more information, please contact Jason Wakeford:

Notes to editors

  1. See main table in release
  2. Trauma research shows that about 5% of people may develop PTSD following a sudden or shocking bereavement: Koenen KC, Ratanatharathorn A, Ng L, McLaughlin KA, Bromet EJ, Stein DJ, et al. (2017) Posttraumatic stress disorder in the World Mental Health Surveys. The study of Buljan, NF (2015) Burden of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – health, social, and economic impacts of exposure to the London bombings, LSE suggests that the economic cost of PTSD, including direct and indirect costs, could be as much as £64,000 per person. 5% of 950,000 people = 47,500 people x £64,000 per person = £3,040,000,000
  3. For every death, there are on average up to five people seriously bereaved. Source: Antonucci TC., Akiyama H., Takahashi K. Attachment and close relationships across the life spanAttach Hum Dev.2004; 6:353–370.
  4. See Charter below and here
  5. Deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, update 02/03/31 – source: ONS
  6. Baseline statistics derived from ONS in Sudden report ‘When the Worst Happens’ June 2020.

Sudden is reliant on donations. We are a charity-run service. If you’d like to contribute to our crucial work, particularly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, then please donate to Sudden. Sudden is run and hosted by Brake, the road safety charity.