5. Coping with the Unexpected

Five examples of the challenge responding to the sudden death – of a spouse, a son, a mid-career teacher, a recently retired teacher wife and mother; and a teenage neighbour.

Philip Giddings

  • Book Chapter


Philip Giddings

No warning

‘If only we had had time to talk.’ Death does not always give warning. One of the most moving aspects of 9/11 was the recording of airline passengers speaking their final words to their loved ones as the planes hurtled towards their targets. If only we had had more time. For the victims of the London bombings, as movingly shown in the television programme A Song for Jenny,1 there was no time to talk at all: the relatives and friends of many had to wait for days hoping against hope that the worst had not happened. The deaths were all the more agonising because they were arbitrary as well as horrific. There was no time to prepare.

What to say?

Apparent arbitrariness is also a feature of the deaths in traffic accidents or accidents at places of work, and these can be horrific too. What can we say to those experiencing the agony of such a bereavement? Words seem necessary, yet inadequate. Many of us find that we are struggling ourselves to articulate our feelings. These are circumstances in which simple presence with the bereaved and, when appropriate, the touch or an arm around the shoulder say more, and more adequately, than anything that words can convey. This was certainly my own experience when my wife died suddenly in October 2015.

A climbing accident

Part of the agony in such cases is the suddenness with which our world is turned upside down by the news of the loved one’s death. Derek and Mary2 were about to help with the catering for an Alpha group in their church when a phone call came through with news of a horrible accident. Their eldest son Michael was training to be a doctor. He and a group of his friends decided to take a few days break climbing in Spain. He loved climbing. But during the climb a rope broke loose and Michael fell to his death. A popular and gifted young man snatched away.

The effects on family

Derek and Mary were in different places when the first phone message came. They did not know whether each other knew. And they had to tell Michael’s brothers and sisters, one doing his A-levels. They were understandably distraught. As Michael was living away from home doing his hospital training, there was the added complication of telling his friends. Derek felt numb. Mary initially could not take it in, experiencing a kaleidoscope of emotions, jagged bits and pieces of memory. She felt as if her brain was shutting down.

The intrusions

For Derek and Mary, numb as they both felt, life had to go on. They had, in particular, to care for their other children. They had to cope with visitors and the likelihood of press interest – one reporter ‘just turned up on their doorstep’. These were the early days of Facebook so the news and reactions to Michael’s sudden and tragic death spread rapidly in that medium – but for Derek and Mary this was their first encounter with social media. Feeling emotionally numb, Mary could not face driving: she did not feel safe. In fact, she did not like going out at daytime or shopping in the supermarket as she did not want to meet people.

The practicalities

Getting to grips with the practical things that had to be done was ‘a killer’. Michael had no life insurance and, as the climbing trip was a ‘spur of the moment’ idea, he had no travel insurance either. Anxieties about arrangements for his body to be brought back to England were relieved when the undertakers took care of what needed to be done. As Michael had no longer been living at home, in addition to the funeral, there was a thanksgiving service to be organised in the town where he was training. They received so many cards that the postman enquired, embarrassingly, why they had so much post all of a sudden. They read the cards a few at a time. They were also sent lots of cuttings about Michael: Mary found this difficult and put them in a big box – and they were still there several years later.

‘Good bye’ events

Mary and Derek were very grateful for the support they received from their local church, and from their vicar in particular. He visited them several times, did not stay long, and ‘made no attempt to gush’. Having a son of a similar age, he had some understanding of what they were going through. Discussing the funeral was a challenge. Mary did not want the coffin to be in church, so there was a service at the crematorium for family and close friends, followed by a thanksgiving service in the church they attended. Lots of people wanted to speak in that, and the same was true of the service held in the hospital where Derek had been training. ‘Getting through’ these occasions was emotionally draining, but both Derek and Mary were relieved that they were able to do so without weeping in public.


After the funeral there is often a sense of anti-climax. And as time goes by, the challenges of coping with sudden death change. They come in waves, and some, such as those during anniversaries, Christmas and New Year with special memories, can be predicted; others catch you unawares, occasioned by a place, a particular sound or smell, or a memory prompted by something you read or see on television or in a film. The first anniversary of the death can be particularly difficult: in Michael’s case it was marked by planting a tree in his memory in the city where he had been studying, an event organised by his friends and colleagues. Some people send cards on the anniversary, which can be a mixed blessing – ‘fine if it helps them, but…’ was Mary’s comment. The risk is that the scar tissue which is beginning to grow is broken and the painful wound again exposed.


And what of the inevitable question – why? Initially, the numbness of shock meant that Derek and Mary felt they had nothing intelligent they could say; no rationalisation they could offer. As time went on, Derek still did not feel he wanted to ask the question why. 'God chooses when we go; He is in charge and He had taken Michael early.' Mary felt she had a choice: to be bitter and twisted or to accept what had happened and move on. 'We cannot live in the past, in the “what might have been.”' Both were conscious of the needs of their other children. Michael’s brother, who was 18 at the time of Michael’s death, did not want to talk to Michael’s friends about it until several years after the event. Time heals – but can life ever be the same again?

A fatal step

Elisabeth was a much-loved and respected teacher. With her husband William, they led a house-group in their local church and offered generous, and much appreciated hospitality to students at the nearby university. When Elisabeth retired, she, William and one of their daughters went away for a celebratory weekend at a south coast resort. Walking out on the harbour wall, Elisabeth paused and looked up at a helicopter overhead. To get a better view she stepped backwards, slipped and fell onto the rocks below. Within the hour she had died.

It was by any reckoning a devastating blow. Yet Elisabeth’s funeral was a celebration of her life and gifts as a teacher, a mother, a hostess and a Christian leader, and a deep expression of care and sympathy for William, and their children and grandchildren. No-one could even begin to address that nagging question why – but in the funeral sermon the congregation was reminded that this event underlined the brutal fact that we simply do not know when death will come. And therefore, we should be ready for it, as Elisabeth was, and her family knew she was.

Dying alone

Sylvia had had to retire early from teaching because of ill health. Being unmarried she lived on her own but had a large number of friends, not to mention godchildren, and once free from the pressures of school, was able to live a normal life. One weekend, her friends could not contact her at home. After repeated attempts the police were called and entered her flat to find her dead from – it was later revealed at the inquest – an allergic reaction to some food she had eaten at an evening out. She had been alone when she died. Her many friends and her sister and nephew were devastated. It was so sudden, so unexpected, so undeserved.

For Sylvia death came suddenly. Happily, she was ready – she was a Christian. And she knew too the pain of bereavement. After her own mother’s death she had written: ‘So what can I say? God is good all the time – all the time God is good. He has done everything well’. Those words were not written lightly. She added, ‘I miss Mum so much and sometimes the pain of loss is almost physical.’ Her experience of suffering and deep disappointment in her own life, even before her mother’s death, equipped Sylvia with a deep sensitivity to the needs of others which shone through both in her career as a teacher and in her care for other people, particularly children. Though she died alone, her funeral was a celebration of a deeply appreciated teacher, colleague, and friend whose life of care and service had been suddenly cut short.

A biking accident – and guilt

Peter, a bachelor in his early twenties, loved his motor bike and enjoyed going out in the evening with his friends. His parents, and particularly his mother, tried not to worry about him getting back late but, after several occasions when he was later than normal, his mother asked him to try to come home earlier so that they did not have to wait up too long for him.

The knock on the door did not bring good news. The policeman told Peter’s distraught mother that he had been involved in an accident and was unconscious in hospital and very seriously ill. A few days later he died without regaining consciousness. From that day on, his mother blamed herself: if only, she said, she had not badgered him about being late, the accident might not have occurred. For many years after she lovingly tended his grave, but sadly from the day of his funeral she could not bring herself to attend church again.

No time to prepare

In all the instances recounted above neither the person who died nor their relatives and friends had time to prepare. Earlier generations in our culture were more familiar with sudden death, whether from disease, accident or war. My parents' generation were only too familiar with the sight of the telegram boy bringing the dreaded news of a husband, a father or a son who had been killed in action in the world wars. In mining communities, and amongst those whose livelihoods depended upon the sea, the possibility of tragic accidents was ever present. Few would actually talk about it but the possibility was always there in the background.

In the current era, with – thankfully – limited wars, and significant advances in medicine and health and safety procedures, the incidence of sudden death is rarer, and death and dying are sidelined from our conversations, if not from our thinking. We expect that governments and the medical professions will be able to extend life expectancy, and adjust our life-styles accordingly. In consequence, we do not think or talk about dying, and when we are confronted with it we find coping all the more difficult. To address this deficit in our thinking and our talking is, of course, the main purpose of this book.

The shared experience

When, as in the instances related above, we have to deal with the fact of the sudden death of someone we know and love, it is helpful to know that others have been this way before and that we can draw some reassurance from hearing of their experience: the initial numbness, the sense of bewilderment and the inner aching pain; the struggle between the desire to be alone with one’s grief and the need for comfort, consolation and practical help to get through even today; the need, in the midst of one’s own pain and grief, to provide comfort and support to other members of the family, particularly children; the added complications of the ‘formalities’ which have to be undergone, particularly if there is an inquest or press interest; the weariness at having yet again to explain what has happened to those who have not yet heard; and, after the immediate furore, that aching gap in one’s life and the awareness of the need, the desire, somehow to recover positive memories of the one we have lost. Life must go on, but it cannot be the same. We cannot, and need not, give in to the temptation to think that there can be no hope.


1 A Song for Jenny, BBC2, 9 July, 2015

2 Names and some details changed to ensure anonymity.