‘You might witness the person you love die and might feel powerless’

The traumatic effect of a sudden death can have a profound impact on those who are left bereaved

In pre-Covid times, the Irish were generally known to be good at death, at celebrating a life, at coming together to send someone off, making light of the finality of it all (You know and so down the road, you know the one, ah you do? Well anyway, they died).

But for the people left behind, we’re not quite as well versed in how to react – what’s comforting to someone bereaved? How do you alleviate living on after tragedy? How do you help in an unimaginable situation?

This question was forced into the spotlight in June where the world held its breath as Danish footballer Christian Eriksen collapsed during a Euro 2020 game against Finland. The cameras zoomed in. His partner Sabrina Kvist Jensen looked on in noticeable anguish. The world watched virtually, transfixed. (What would you say to a woman who thinks her husband – a fit, healthy, professional athlete – has died , this soon, this publicly, this quickly?)

“Everyone was sorta watching in shock and horror. People initially thought he was dead, it was all over twitter, social media, it was quite shocking,” says Doireann O’Mahony, a medical law barrister and volunteer with Croí, the heart and stroke charity.


“It was shocking and disturbing, there were a lot of differing opinions in the media at the time, it was triggering and retraumatising for me personally, but also for a lot of other people as well. They saw this happen, they thought ‘it could happen to my brother or sister, it could happen to me’”.

Luckily, Eriksen survived, but the impact of the incident reverberated globally with people all over googling sudden cardiac arrest.

“Everyone was researching it online, traffic on the Croí website soared in the days and weeks after,” says O’Mahony.

However, it isn’t only those who suffered the cardiac arrest that are impacted, but the mental health of the people in their life, from close family and friends to possible bystanders.

“There’s loads of different ways people can be affected: you might witness the person you love die and might feel powerless, then you could be involved, like a passenger in a car involved in a serious car accident. You could be absent at the time of the loved ones death and find out about it through a guard or something like that, that’s very traumatising, there are loads of different ways these harrowing deaths can occur, and people can be very traumatised.”

Sudden death was something Ireland witnessed weeks later, closer to home when under-20 Monaghan football captain Brendán Óg Duffy died in a road traffic accident, prompting a national outpouring of grief, sympathy and condolences.

“Trauma is a massive thing for people’s mental health, so much of the work I do is dealing with bereaved families, inquests, there’s all sorts of things that happen that leave a massive void in families, circles of friends, communities, in the aftermath of someone’s sudden death,” says O’Mahony.

Root cause

Much of the mental health element following a sudden death is the organisational failures, drawing out the grieving and bereavement process for those left behind.

“You feel like ‘why us?’ Is this somebody’s fault? Is there anything we could have done to prevent this?” explains O’Mahony.

“Is the post mortem going to give us answers? Probably not. Is the coroner going to deal with this? Maybe not. In my experience, it’s those questions that lead people into a solicitor’s office, it’s rarely anything to do with compensation or money or anything like that, it might sound cliché but it’s not about the money, it’s about people getting to the root cause of what happened.

“If we had a more compassionate caring system, more open disclosure in the medical setting it would go a long way towards mediating the trauma and mental health issues for people who do lose a loved person.

“In the work that I do the coroner becomes involved sometimes and that can be very difficult for families who can sometimes lose their sense of connection with the deceased, as they become subject of a public inquiry surrounding the circumstances of their death, especially with the delay between death and inquest, it’s very much a burden on people’s shoulders.”

Often people will be numb in the immediate aftermath of a sudden unexpected death, and weeks or months may pass before they start to come to terms with the new reality, and the wave of emotions and impacted mental health that comes with it.

“Everyone grieves differently, that’s the one thing I’ve learnt, there’s no hard and fast rule. It can be helpful for people to talk about it, to feel listened to, where professionals come in, psychologists, counsellors, even just a sympathetic friend,” advises O’Mahony.

“For those who experience an abrupt death, their world changes in the space of a few short hours, and they may never be able to accept that. People feel denial, depression, anger, eventually acceptance, but everyone is different and has different stages.

“Psychiatric or mental health injuries are entirely subjective, unlike a physical injury where you can confirm a diagnosis with MRI, a blood test, an X-ray, these are hidden injuries, the harm is invisible, it’s unique to the individual”.