Dealing with an Unexpected Death

| Grief Expert and Counselor

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Unexpected DeathIn dealing with death and recovery there are four situations that seem to be very difficult. They are either an unexpected death or the relationship was so intense that the partner could not really prepare for the life after. The unexpected deaths are categorized as: sudden, premature, and violent. These deaths catch us off guard and force us to grieve without any warning. When the death of a partner of an intense relationship occurs, difficulties arise due to extreme dependence.

In addition to these four is a rare fifth factor adding to the difficulty of the occasion: the absence of a body. Without a body the finality of death is vague. Closure is important and necessary not only for the grieving process, but also for the healing process, and cannot occur easily when a body has not been found.

The following are the three main categories of an unexpected death:


A seventy year old man, John, had been to the cardiologist for his annual physical. After running a variety of tests, the doctor declared that John was not only physically fit, but had the heart of a twenty year old. One week later, John and his wife were at the airport ready to take their vacation. While John was carrying the suitcases, he suffered a massive heart attack and died in his wife’s arms.

The death of a significant person in one’s life is never easy to accept. Moreover, when the death occurs suddenly, as in the case of John, with a heart attack, or in a car accident, it is extremely difficult to accept. As Therese Rando suggests in Loss arid Anticipatory Grief: “… the more anticipatory grief behavior engaged in prior to death, the less abnormal grief was present following the death.” In the case of John’s wife, there was no time for anticipation; therefore, there were even greater emotional risks with accepting the death and getting on with the grief behavior.

For a few months following a sudden death, it can be like walking a tightrope. At any time one could fall and eventually break under the strain. Remember, though, this feeling of trying desperately to keep your life balanced is very normal.



“The greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment.”

John’s death can be classified a premature death as well as a sudden death, because he did not live to the average life expectancy. An American male’s average life expectancy is to age 75; an American female is to age 78. When a person dies before the expected time, it is considered premature. The expectation one has for the future is suddenly and drastically altered. This is true in the case of a child’s death because the future expectations were so great.

It is also true when the death of a parent, partner, or friend occurs short of the average life expectancy. When someone loses a parent, he has lost a part of the past; when someone loses a partner or friend, he has lost a part of the present; and, when someone loses a child, he has lost a part of the future. The survivor is disappointed because expectations are left unfulfilled.

If the loss of this important person in your life has thrust you into despair, perhaps you should ask yourself: What were my expectations? How have they changed?



There are two types of violent death: Homicide and Suicide.


In 1988 over 20,000 reported homicides occurred in the United States. For each homicide, there are seven to ten close surviving family members. To add to this is the fact that the case may not come to trial for five to seven years. It is this latter area which makes the survivors’ lives so difficult: They are unable to grieve because there has been no resolution to the case; and, each time the case is brought before the courts, the survivors must re-experience the acute grief first felt.

In order to function “sanely” in this situation, a survivor may fantasize about what he “would, could, and should do” to the murderer. Revenge becomes important to the survivors so they begin to wonder about themselves. Is this normal behavior to think about doing to the murderer what was done to the victim? YES. The desire to fantasize about revenge is not only normal, but very healthy because it releases an enormous amount of energy enabling the survivor to function.

Another reaction the survivor may have is to withdraw into a deep emotional depression. The survivor(s) needs to find a support person or system that will listen. A reordering of issues must occur: realizing that there were things which could have been done differently; but, others over which there was no control.


Control is what a suicidal person appears to be exerting. Although suicide is committed for various reasons, it is the ultimate act of control as illustrated in the following case history:

Bill was 15 years old and had two very strong, domineering parents. They expected and wanted a lot from/for him. There were also very strict guide lines which were enforced by them to ensure these expectations. As he resisted and rebelled in minor ways, there were conflicts between his parents and himself. It was after a major conflict for control that he went to his bedroom, put a shotgun to his chest and pulled the trigger. He left a note which said: “I am in charge. I am in control.”

Anger and rage would be the normal reactions to the suicide individual. After all, the control was yanked from the hands of the survivors and placed in the hands of the suicide. In Bill’s case, the parents at least had a starting point for understanding because he left a note. On an average, however, only 15% of suicide individuals leave notes. There is a lack of understanding in most cases because of this. The survivors must deal with the guilt produced by such an action, but it is very difficult because where does the survivor begin to rationalize and understand? Questioning what they could have done, or what they didn’t do all needs to be worked out in the survivor’s mind.

Statistics tell us that most suicide individuals really want to live, are not crazy, have not inherited the tendency, and would seek help if directed to it. However, when one is faced with the real situation that a family member, or close friend, has committed suicide, there is little comfort in these statistics. The survivors must find a support group that will listen and not make judgments. They have already judged themselves enough.


After an unexpected death, the fourth situation that is very difficult to handle is death of a partner in an intense relationship.


Mary and Tom were married 52 years. Because they had no children, they were dependent upon one another for their support system. They “worked” together, played together, worshipped together: They lived their lives for each other. Simple routines became integral parts of their lives. Tom’s daily stop at home to have lunch with Mary became very important to both of them. That is why when Tom died, Mary said: “I suddenly realized that half of me had been cut away.”

Marriage alone does not make an intense relationship. An intense relationship is one that has a deep and loving bond. It is an interdependence of two people, or when one person is very dependent on another.

Some parents who rely on their child to fulfill their needs; a mother whose only importance is through her child, or an elderly parent who depends on an adult child for care are examples of dependence. A child over the age of three has a more difficult time transferring his dependence to a new caregiver. Siblings can be very close, or fiancées who are at the beginning of their lives together, can form an early dependence and intense relationship.

Certain religious backgrounds, as well, are predisposed to intense family relationships. In other words, relationships do not fall into one particular kind. They do, however, have one element in common and that is the dependency of the people involved with each other.


We are never fully prepared for anyone’s death. It is always unexpected to some degree. These four examples give us a better understanding of the degree of an unexpected death. Whether a person close to us dies prematurely, suddenly, or violently, there will always be some guilt and some depression. It is important to remember that these feelings are normal. It is also important to remember that feelings of guilt and depression should not continue for a long period of time. If these intense emotions stay with you for more than a month, you should find a support group that can help you.



1. Take a moment to think through the details surrounding the death of your loved one.

2. Begin keeping a journal. Write your initial responses to the death of your loved one in your journal. Try to write something daily.


Canine, J. D. (1990) I Can I Will: Maximum Living Bereavement Support Group Guide. Birmingham, Michigan. Ball Publishers.


| Grief Expert and Counselor

Dr. John D. Canine, Ed.D., Ph.D. is a noted author, professional speaker, educator and leading expert on grief and bereavement. He is currently the CEO of Maximum Living Consultants, Inc. and he...