Unexpected or sudden death

Sudden or unexpected death is often associated with circumstances that may include emergency services, the police, safety investigators, the health system, and the justice and court system. Most people usually respond to an unexpected death by trying to understand what has happened and what caused the death. Sometimes there are no answers, only an empty void and missing person. It is natural to try to make sense of the death, and finding support to understand the chain of events may help to work this through.

If your child died unexpectedly, or shortly after an operation or procedure in hospital it is likely the Coroner will need to be notified. The Coroner may require a post-mortem. When a child's death occurs without warning, parents and family members may not be able to spend time with their child's body immediately after death. Not having the chance to say goodbye is just one aspect of sudden death that complicates the process for people. Grief in these circumstances may be more complicated because:

  • the death may be traumatic to witness or imagine
  • getting information may be difficult or impossible
  • it may have been preventable
  • your child's body may be badly damaged or may not be found
  • intrusive aspects of sudden death may include the justice system, safety laws, media reporting (with or without your permission), public interest
  • your child's death happened overseas.

When a child dies unexpectedly or suddenly in the community or hospital the attending health and emergency service professionals will take responsibility for advising the appropriate authorities.

Self-care is important at all times when working through grief. The added complications with sudden death may build up on top of grief, making self-care essential.4


4 Adapted from A Thompson and T Irving Hendry, 2012, “Beyond Words: grieving when
    your child has died”, Skylight, NZ

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