The pain of sudden death

I received a very sad call yesterday evening informing me that the son of someone I’ve been getting to know through church had died unexpectedly. The medical cause is not yet clear, but it appears it might have been a stroke or an aneurysm that caused him to collapse and crash his car. He was 41 and leaves behind a wife and four small children. (I’m not going to include any more details here, for the privacy of the family who are grieving.) My heartfelt sympathy goes to all of those who are, this very minute, suffering the raw agony of the sudden loss of a son, a father, a husband.

Sudden loss is really difficult to deal with. He or she leaves the house for work, or you say goodbye on the phone after a chat, or you pass an email back and forth over the miles. Nothing special was said; it’s all part of the routine ebb and flow of life. Only later you discover that this was the very last conversation you will ever have with them, in this life.

And so you recreate and relive that conversation over and over, grasping for every word, every expression. Write it down while it’s still fresh, I would tell this newly grieving mother, because as vividly as you remember it now, this treasured memory will become hazier as time passes. 

My last conversation with my living daughter was on the phone. I stood in the kitchen, drinking a cup of tea, looking out of the window at the house construction over the road, wondering whether it was going to be a one floor bungalow or a house. I was trying to cheer up Catherine, who was feeling quite down – not uncommon as part of her bipolar disorder. We chatted for about 20 minutes. We didn’t end the conversation in a particular way. I don’t think at this point she herself knew what was going to happen later that day. It was communications with her ex-partner later in the morning that pushed her over the edge, I believe, although her mind was disturbed by her disorder, and it is impossible to know just what she was thinking.

It’s been almost 5 years since that morning chat, the one that turned out to be the last we would ever have. The house across the road is long finished. Whenever I stand in the kitchen, looking at that house (yes, it was two floors) I recall that last conversation. I hope I never have to move away from where I live now. I would hate to lose the view.

That’s only a very small part of the story, of course. Sudden death causes profound shock. I hate to think of the agony this newly-bereaved friend and her family are enduring at the moment. The rawness, the sense of unreality, that it can’t really be true.

It’s the beginning of a new phase in life; a difficult phase of adjustment to loss, of survival.

For anyone reading this who is in the throes of a sudden bereavement, I offer my heartfelt sympathy. I hope you will be surrounded by those who love and support you. I hope you will take care of yourself. You are in shock. Stay warm, and drink plenty of warm drinks. Try snacks if you don’t have the appetite for a meal. Let the tears flow. Jesus wept with the two sisters bereft of their brother. He weeps with you, and I do too.


Something more on surviving sudden death, from my book A Valley Journal

Sudden Death: The Day the Earth Stood Still

In the morning the sun rose. You woke. It was just an average day, with no outstanding expectations. But by the time the sun went down in the evening, the earth had stopped moving.

In the evening the sun set. You retired for the night, hoping for a peaceful sleep. But before the sun rose again, the earth had stopped moving.

You weren’t expecting anything different to happen this day. You had said no goodbyes, made no preparations, had no expectation of disaster. But disaster did strike. By reason of an accident, sudden health crisis, suicide or murder, your loved one lost their life.

The slow lead up to death that precedes a terminal illness is difficult to bear, yet it affords some period of adjustment; there are usually at least some possibilities for you to say goodbye mutually, to talk about what needs to be talked about, to make preparations emotionally and practically for your loved one’s departure. This isn’t always the case, as your loved one may have lost consciousness, or an illness that did not seem serious can suddenly take a turn for the worse. So even with a “gradual” decline, there can still be a great shock.

However, sudden death has no preparation period whatsoever. It is traumatic and life-changing. The world has not stopped turning, but it may seem as though it has. And when the sun rises again the following day—the new day—the first day that will run its course without the living presence of your loved one, the feeling of shock and disbelief may increase. It can be quite surprising to your shattered sensibilities that everybody else is going on with their normal daily activities. Don’t they realise? Don’t they get it?

Surviving the sudden death of a loved one is not unlike surviving a physical accident. It is a profound shock to your system, and just as a physical shock may leave you chilled and shaking, so this emotional shock may have physical impact. Staying warm, having warm drinks and eating small nutritious meals or snacks, even if you don’t feel much like eating, are a good idea.

You will never forget the moment of discovery. If it was a phone call or a knock on the door, it may take many months before your heart does not skip a beat at the sound of the phone or the doorbell. If you discovered your loved one, the flashbacks may be intense for a long time to come.

It is likely you will endlessly replay the events of that day. According to experts, this is healthy, as it gives your mind an opportunity to come to terms with the reality of what has happened.

It is just as likely that during the early days, it won’t seem like reality; just a bad dream from which you hope beyond words to awaken. But this isn’t a dream you can wake up from. It really happened. Your mouth dry, your whole body rigid with tension, perhaps a feeling of dizziness, sleepless nights, utter emotional exhaustion—all of this and more is part of your painful journey of survival.

But it is a journey of survival. It can be survived.


For all the blessings life has brought

For all its sorrowing hours have taught,

For all we mourn, for all we keep,

The hands we clasp, the loved that sleep.


We thank Thee, Father; let Thy grace

Our living circle still embrace,

Thy mercy shed its heavenly store,

Thy peace be with us evermore.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, poet, physician and essayist (1809–1894)






2 thoughts on “The pain of sudden death

  1. Pingback: The joys & perils of sorting out old books | A Valley Journal

  2. Pingback: The longevity of grief: Mind the gap | A Valley Journal

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