Sudden bereavement can be a traumatising experience

This page provides examples of why a sudden bereavement can be very challenging and traumatising.

The loss of meaning of life

Sudden death often means a bereaved person’s life is ripped apart by the death of somebody very significant, close and central to them, who was not expected to die; such as a life partner, father, son, brother, mother, daughter or sister.

People who are significant, close 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, as well as the emotional pain and any practical difficulties 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. 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 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.

Every sudden death is unique and can be potentially traumatising

Every sudden death is different and can potentially traumatise. Here are some reasons why.

Witnessing: 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.

Involvement: 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.

Not there: 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. Our imaginations regarding what happened may be vivid and cause great distress.

More than one death: A bereaved person may have suffered multiple bereavements at once. This is also not uncommon following a road crash, for example. Or may have suffered one sudden bereavement shortly after another sudden bereavement, for example due to illness.

A lingering death after a sudden event: A bereaved person may have suffered the sudden serious injury of a loved one, which then led to a lingering death in hospital, where there was intermittent hope of recovery and then death. This can, in itself, be a drawn-out traumatising experience if combined with medical interventions of a distressing nature.

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

‘The death matters to me, whether I was there, or not.’
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 potentially traumatising, and the bereaved person’s response to that death potentially complex, is not that the bereaved person was present at the scene of the death. The defining factor is that the death was sudden, unexpected, unanticipated and was of someone very close.


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