Bereavement can be devastating in any situation, but a sudden death brings additional layers of shock, horror or disbelief.  The reality of what has happened may be very difficult to accept and you may be desperately searching for meaning and understanding. When the death is unexpected, you may have regrets over lost opportunities and unfulfilled plans. With no chance to say goodbye, there can be a sense of unfinished business, and a need to go over and over the events of what happened.

If a coroner is involved, or there’s a need for a post mortem examination, this may affect the options of seeing the body of the person who has died, or it can delay arrangements for a funeral. This can make the death seem even less real, and make it very hard to believe what has happened or start to grieve.  There may also be media attention, especially when a death is violent. This can be particularly distressing and intrusive to the family.

Things that may help in a sudden death include:

  • Knowing how to contact the professionals involved who can keep you informed, such as a Coroner’s Officer or Family Liaison Officer.
  • Having a friend or contact who may be able to help you keep in touch with agencies or liaise on your behalf.
  • Being able to talk to someone – family and friends, or someone neutral. You can call our Helpline on 0800 02 888 40.

Bereavement after an accident

I will never forget the phone call from my father. He told me Ollie had had an accident and that I needed to meet them at the hosiptal A&E.

Alongside the feelings of grief, shock, and anger that come with any sudden death, an accidental death may leave you with a great longing to go back in time to change the course of events or intense anger at the senselessness of the accident. You may be angry with someone or something specific, or angry with yourself.  You may have thoughts like ‘if only…’ ‘why didn’t I do..?  Or you may just ask ‘Why?’ over and over again.

Some information about the event may come from the professionals involved, or from an investigation. This may help answer some of your questions about why the accident happened. It may be far harder to face the ‘if only’ questions because they are part of a search for meaning when nothing seems to make sense and there may not be an answer.

When children and young people are affected

Sometimes, children and young people are there at the scene, or they might be exposed to an event that is distressing or frightening in general.  Even if they are not directly involved in the incident themselves, they may be frightened and disturbed in a number of ways. 

It can help to reassure children that feeling scared, anxious or upset for a while is OK and normal, but that they are safe and their routines will continue.  Encouraging them to talk about the event or draw it can help them to make sense of it. Children may re-enact the event through play, for example smashing toy cars together after they’ve learned about a car crash. This is a normal way for children to process information about what has happened, and it can be helpful.

Supporting children after a frightening event

Bereavement by suicide or possible suicide

Any death may be difficult to understand or make sense of, especially when it is sudden or unexpected. A death by suicide is likely to be even more difficult for families to face and to understand.  There can be specific challenges for the whole family, and for children and young people when grieving after a suicide.

When someone may have died by suicide

Honest, age-appropriate information helps children, and this can be given in stages. 

Supporting children and young people bereaved by suicide

The following short guidance film may also be helpful: Supporting your child when someone dies by suicide

Bereavement by homicide

The additional challenges when bereaved by homicide (murder or manslaughter) can be immense.  They may include unwanted media attention, additional pain if the perpetrator is known or is not convicted, and the fact that your world can now seem a very unsafe place.

Child Bereavement UK ran groups for young people aged 11-25 living in London, who have been bereaved through murder or manslaughter.

The young people talked about the impact on them, including feeling helpless, overwhelmed and at a loss, and scared or unsafe when out in the street.

What they said helped them included:

  • Space to grieve and acknowledge what has happened,
  • access to support programmes or counselling, and
  • people around them who were able to support them, including friends to just spend time with.

The things they found unhelpful included:

  • Media attention,
  • untrue stories about the death, and
  • unhelpful or unkind reactions from other people.

Supporting children and young people bereaved by murder or manslaughter     

> Books and resources: Sudden death

> More information:  Supporting bereaved children and young people