Why sudden bereavement is hard

This page provides useful background to why a sudden bereavement can be very challenging. It is important reading for anyone caring for someone suddenly bereaved.

The loss of meaning

Sudden bereavement often removes people from our lives who are significant, close and central to us, who were not expected to die now; such as a life partner, father, son, brother, mother, daughter or sister.

People who are significant to our lives can provide us with immense security and purpose. When these people die, it can cause us to feel lost and directionless, as well as emotional pain and any practical difficulties due to the bereavement.

Bereavement specialist Dr Robert A Neimeyer [1] says our life stories and plans are often “interwoven, closely, with the life story of another”, 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 by that life story. It is important, when caring for a person who has been suddenly bereaved, to have a basic understanding of their life story, to enable appropriate empathy.

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

People who had poor relationships in the past (for example, an unloving childhood, or failed relationship) may find it difficult to cope when someone special dies suddenly with whom they had a good relationship. They may find it hard to imagine having 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 challenging to make sense of the world any more, when someone special dies suddenly. They have no experience of such things happening, so the shock can be enormous.

People who have previously been suddenly bereaved, and then moved on, 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: 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 was witnessed by the traumatised person. In both cases, the defining factor is that the traumatised person was there at the event. Such descriptions of trauma exclude unfairly people who have been bereaved by a sudden death but who were not present.

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, and someone very close.


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