Goodbyes unspoken: Coping with sudden death

Some thoughts on coping with the sudden death of a loved one. 

In some respects, every death is sudden. Even if the death is more or less gradual or anticipated – a long decline from illness is one example – it might seem sudden when the end finally arrives. A baby, child or adult is alive one moment, breathing, and the next moment they are not.

Other deaths are completely unexpected, and that is the focus of this article – deaths that are actually sudden: A road traffic incident. A routine medical procedure that has a unforeseen outcome. A medical emergency such as a heart attack. Suicide. Murder. Random acts of violence. Premeditated although not personally targeted through terrorism. Random accidents at home or elsewhere. And sadly, if you are reading this, you might have other experiences.

Even if the person did not physically die right away following any of these incidents, if the loved one has lost consciousness, the opportunity for last words has gone. Gone is the opportunity to make peace together, to sort things out, perhaps even to know their wishes for burial or cremation or the funeral.

Sudden death can be one of the most cruel bereavements to cope with. It often leaves so many unanswered questions. So many ‘What if’s’.

He or she leaves the house for work or a walk, 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 anyone who is grieving suddenly, “because as vividly as you remember it now, this treasured memory will become hazier as time passes.” 

My own experience

My last conversation with my living daughter was on the phone, standing in my kitchen, looking out of the window. It seemed inconsequential at the time; I certainly did not know she would die later that day, and I don’t think she did either (another story for another time). It’s been 8 1/2 years since that morning chat, the one that turned out to be the last we would ever have.

That’s only a very small part of the story, of course. My daughter’s life was so much more than her death. My time living in this house – almost 10 years now – is so much more than those moments in front of the kitchen window. But it’s those shocking moments that stand out.

As I look back to those first days and weeks after Catherine died, I remember feeling overwhelmed by a sense of unreality. She couldn’t really have died, could she? She didn’t really, did she? The answer, tragically, was yes, she could and yes, she did.

Sudden death causes profound shock. It’s the beginning of a new phase in life; a difficult phase of adjustment to loss, of survival.


Coping with sudden death

For anyone reading this who is in the throes of a sudden bereavement, I offer my heartfelt compassion. 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.

There is so much more to write about this painful grief, the unanswered questions, the unfinished conversations. But as this post is quite long already, I will end it here with a few recommendations for further reading, and I will return to this subject another time.


There is some excellent advice produced by  

Download booklet on coping with sudden death (PDF)

More details:

The advice includes:

  • At the beginning, coping with shock
  • The first few weeks: challenging thoughts and reactions
  • The first few weeks: advice on coping
  • After a month: seeking help for traumatic grief and post-traumatic stress
  • Procedures and paperwork



For anyone who has been bereaved of a child suddenly, this is a leaflet you can download by The Compassionate Friends:


An article on surviving the sudden death of a loved one, from my book A Valley Journal

The pain of sudden death: The day the earth stood still



Abrupt endings leave us with incomplete conversations and wondering how we will go forward

2 thoughts on “Goodbyes unspoken: Coping with sudden death

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