Coping with unexpected or ‘out of order’ deaths

How you cope after someone you love dies can depend on so many different circumstances. For instance:

  • Your personality
  • The place and role they had in your life
  • Who you have around you now – who is left in your household
  • Whether you are financially secure
  • Your health
  • Your belief system
  • Your support network

…and on and on the list goes.

An additional factor is regarding how and when your loved one died. This could be a natural progression, such as a family member in their 90s, or it could be unexpected and or out-of-order.

Unexpected and out-of-order deaths

Many deaths come out of the blue. There are people whose lives were cut short by Covid-19. Then there are the heart-attacks or strokes with no advance notice. Suicides. Accidents. Road incidents. Accidental drug overdose. A straightforward medical procedure that goes terribly wrong. A sudden allergic reaction.

Out of the natural progression can refer to the death of a child or a baby. No parent expects to outlive their child; no parent expects to arrange the funeral of their child. The death of a younger sibling is also often unexpected.

For those bereaved through these unexpected or ‘out of order’ ways, part of their grief adjustment will be about the present time. They have to adjust to the absence of their loved one. Depending on the relationship, there could be a lot of practical concerns. The chair is empty.

This is true of every bereavement. However, people bereaved unexpectedly or ‘out-of-order’ often find it particularly difficult to get past the circumstances of their loved one’s death.

A focus on what happened…

Those grieving from unexpected deaths often ruminate on ‘what if’ type questions. ‘If only’s’ bring no peace but still these ‘if’ thoughts go round and round.

The bereaved might spend a lot of time thinking over everything that happened before their loved one died. Could the death have been prevented? Did someone miss something? Did someone do something wrong? The ‘someone’ could be their loved one, or could be a medical professional, or could be anyone in authority. Or it could be themselves. When the questions go inwards, the feeling of guilt can be overwhelming.

If the death was not only unexpected but sudden, the bereaved might not have been with their loved one in their final moments. This is another deep sorrow. There may have been no goodbyes. There may unfinished conversations.  

One of the tragedies of coronavirus, as we all know, is that not everyone has had their loved ones at their side as they died, or at most it was one or two family members.

Out-of-order deaths, no matter whether the death was sudden or not, often have the same impact. The unanswered questions. The utter bewilderment: How could this have happened?

These factors make unexpected or out-of-orders death very difficult grief to cope with.

The black blob

Imagine that this sunshine is an illustration of your loved one. The entirety of their life. Their personality, their likes and dislikes, their hobbies, their skills, their jobs. In short, their life story.

This black blob represents how they died.

For people bereaved in a ‘natural progression’, the blob tends to fit into the bigger picture quite soon. They remember their loved in their entirety. Their death was part of their story; it was a chapter in their story, but not the full story. Of course it might take a long time to get to this point, because grief can be so overwhelming no matter the circumstances of how your loved one died. But most people do get to this.

However, for the person bereaved unexpectedly, in traumatic circumstances, or out of order, then the ‘black blob’ might seem much bigger, to the point that it overshadows virtually all other memories of their loved one. Their focus remains on what led to their loved one’s death and/or how they died. This is not really out of choice, but it’s a natural reaction to the unnatural event that has happened.

Can you relate to this? Do you spend more time thinking about how your loved one died than the events of their lifetime?

This type of grief often takes much longer to cope with. It takes much longer to find perspective on their loved one, where death is only one chapter, not the whole.

People in this situation are often those who seek out grief support, whether from a peer group, organised support group or a counsellor. They might research the cause of their loved one’s death. They might identify failings in a service and campaign for change. All of this is part of their necessary journey.

How difficult is your grief for you at this moment?

All grief is painful. Losing someone you care about deeply hurts deeply, no matter your circumstances nor how your loved one died.

As you reflect back on the losses in your own life, you will probably be able to think of the deaths that were part of the natural progression. As we get older, we all get more experience of coping with these. Grandparents, older family members, and so on.

But now perhaps suddenly you are faced with something entirely different – an unexpected or ‘out of order’ death that has thrown you completely. You maybe discovering that grief can be both ferocious and overwhelming. Your long-held beliefs might be shaken – whether beliefs in yourself, or your spiritual beliefs.

If you are in this situation at the moment, I want to encourage you that it won’t last forever, but also encourage you to help yourself through this time.

That might mean talking with other people who have been bereaved in similar circumstances. There’s nothing quite like being in a safe space with other people who understand what you’re going through, because they’ve been there too. Such a safe space could be online or in person.

It might mean seeking out some support, such as from a personal counsellor or grief therapist. It might mean talking with your GP.

Nothing will change the reality of what has happened. Finding ways to cope with what this bereavement has done to you is not going to be easy, but there is a way through. I hope you find yours.


Read more: Coping with Sudden Death

Getting support – a useful page of support organisations

A supportive retreat (Sussex): In August (pandemic-permitting) I’m running a small retreat for those bereaved unexpectedly or ‘out of order’. This is taking place in August. Find out the details here (scroll down to ‘Penhurst’).

An unexpected death can be confusing. It makes things look out of proportion and out of focus
Hopefully in time you will be able to fit the circumstances of your loved one’s death into the bigger picture of their life and who they were.

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