Bereavement due to traumatic death

Road and railway deaths

Hearing the news that a friend or relative has been killed is deeply shocking (also see ‘Changing emotions and physical reactions'). Cynthia’s daughter was riding her bicycle when she was hit by a cement truck.


Two policemen told Cynthia that her daughter had been killed. She was in a terrible state of...

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Age at interview: 64
Sex: Female
Well I was at work, it was a Wednesday in June, I went out at lunchtime and when I came back from my lunch break  my boss came into my office and said that there were two policemen who wanted to speak to me. And I immediately thought, “What have I done wrong? Have I done something awful?” And started panicking about what I could have done, that two policemen needed to come and speak to me about it. Then they sat me down in his office, with him, and someone from the personnel department. And I thought, you know they’re going to give me the sack or something. And then they said that they wanted to tell me that my daughter had been killed by a lorry. And I couldn’t take it in. I couldn’t understand, I was in such a state of shock, I couldn’t understand what they were saying and I asked where she was, and they didn’t know where she was because they hadn’t been briefed properly, so they didn’t actually know anything about what had happened. And I, it was just such a, such a shock because I’d been talking to her the night before, on the phone. We spoke, we spoke or e-mailed or something most days. She was in a flat share with a friend, but we did communicate in someway or other most days and I’d been talking to her the night before about her hair cut, because the following, a couple of days later there was going to be a party at the firm where she worked, which was also coincidentally the first anniversary of meeting her boyfriend, and so they were going to have a celebration of their anniversary as well, and so she’d arranged to have her hair cut and we were talking about her hair and what she was going to wear and so on. And I just couldn’t reconcile that conversation the night before with what these policemen were saying about the fact that she was dead. And I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to see her, and eventually after about an hour and a half they managed to find out where she was, which was the mortuary at the City of London Coroner’s office. So my boss grabbed a taxi and took me over there. And I asked the Coroner’s officer where she was, and he said that she was in the next room. And I said, “Well can I see her?” And he said, “No you can’t.” “I just need the name of your dentist because we’ll need her dental records to identify her.” And, it’s its still unbelievable in in a way. Although I do know that that is what happened. But I was finding it very hard to take in, and I was in a state of shock for quite a long time, for several months, I was just kind of reeling from it, and I assumed that people who had a job to do in connection with it would tell me what they were doing.

In 2014, 1,775 people died on the roads in Great Britain. Of those 797 were killed in a car crash, 339 killed when driving a motorbike and 113 killed when using a bicycle and 446 pedestrians were killed. Sarah’s husband, Russell, had been driving a bus when he was killed. The driver of another vehicle pulled out suddenly and caused the incident.

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Sarah explained what happened when the policemen came to her at work and told her that the bus...

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Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
It’s very, and the whole of that is very, very clearly imprinted in my mind in a very funny kind of way. I had a very, very peaceful day at work, in the office mostly tidying, and , it’s a very funny thing now whenever I have had a similar day when I’ve just been quiet and in the office tidying, I’ve had an incredible sense of foreboding and you know, kind of what’s going happen?
And our secretary stuck her head around the door, I can see her head now, and said, “There’s someone to see you.” So I said, “Show, show them in.” I’d just picked up the phone actually and I was ringing somebody else, so two policemen came in, I said, “Just sit down till I finish the phone call.” And there’d been a situation the day before when somebody’s car had rolled away in the car park and bumped into somebody else’s, and I just thought, “Oh Gosh, I hope to goodness my car hasn’t rolled away.” And then the other thing is there might have been somebody being naughty at work, which obviously would’ve been an issue, and I just hung on for a moment, and the person, it was twenty five to, it was after half past four, twenty five to five, and I just said, “Blooming part-timer, they’ve gone home already.” ‘Cos they didn’t answer the phone, and turned round, and one of the policemen came up from the table, sat on like a filing cabinet by my desk, and just said, “There’s been an accident to Russell’s bus, he’s rather badly injured and we’ve come to take you to the hospital.”
Ah, it must’ve been awful.
You just dropped everything and went.
I dropped everything, I stood up and had my coat half on and said, “Oh no, I think I’d better go in my own car,” and that was very, very funny, because I then said, “So that I can come back when it’s all over.” And so subconsciously I must’ve thought that this is a death situation. But equally in my logical head, must’ve, and I thought that’s a terrible thing to say, and I changed it and said, “To come back at the end of the evening.” Thinking like, and he said, “No, no, no, we’ll stay with you all night if need be. You come with us now.”
You didn’t think perhaps it was something, a minor thing that you could just sort of see him at the hospital and come back again to the office? You thought it was…
No, because he did, he actually said to me he’s seriously injured and he did say he’d fractured lower legs, upper legs, pelvis and had abdominal injuries, so I knew.
You knew it was serious?
that that it wasn’t, this wasn’t just, and anyway policemen don’t come and take you to you to hospital because they’ve, you’ve broken your leg.
So I must, and I must’ve sub-consciously known that it was a death situation, because of the fact saying, and I said, “I’ll need my car to get me back when it’s all over.” And then knowing that that was the wrong thing to say, and changing it to say, at the end of the evening.
So did you…
So they then, I just bobbed my head around my colleague friends door, and said I’m off to the hospital and Russell’s been injured, and then knocked, knocked, on walking out knocked my head into my bosses door to say, “I’m going because there’s been an accident and they’re taking me to the hospital.” She then actually came out and said, “I’ll come with you.” And he said, the policeman said, “No we’re going now.” And she said, “I’ll follow you.” And he said, “You won’t, we’re going on a blue light.”

Pat’s son was killed on his motor bike. He was overtaking a line of cars. The driver of the car in front did not see Matthew before she turned right across the road.

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Pat was devastated when two policemen arrived at her house and told her that her son, Matthew,...

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Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
Well my son died on a Sunday in January. He was… he loved riding his motorbike and he died on his motorbike. He was 34 years old. And he was not a, he was by no means a novice motorcycle driver. He was very experienced. And other experienced drivers had told me that they thought he was a good driver.
So although I had always been a little anxious about his motorbike driving because being a driver myself I know that it’s the other car drivers that often put motorbikes in danger. I did comfort myself always with thinking that he was a sensible, a sensible driver. And he, he, he’d always been… had an affinity with driving and road. And on this Sunday night in January, I live on my own, about twenty five or thirty miles away from where my son lives. And I it was late at night. I wasn’t in bed but I would’ve been going to bed. It was about eleven o’clock in the evening and dark of course. And there was a ring on the doorbell. And I went to the door to find two policemen in their fluorescent jackets and their hats, outside. And I let them in.
Oh it must’ve been awful.
And my mind had already I think, started to deny the fact that there was any thing serious wrong.
Now a few hours beforehand my partner who used to spend the weekends with me had left to go home. And so it flitted through my mind that something might have happened to him. But I did push it away. And my mind … I could, I can now say was already starting to push things away immediately.
And I invited the policemen in and invited them to sit down, and invited them to have a cup of tea. And mostly very quickly the younger of the two, said that, asked who I was. And was I the mother of my son. And said that he’d been involved in an accident that evening. And he had during the … as a result he’d lost his life. That was how he put it. He’d lost his life. And I couldn’t, I don’t think I grasped it at all. I don’t think I grasped it. And looking back now, I am astounded at the grip that shock puts, put me into anyway.
And I think I was in the grip of that shock for many months. I would say for a year. I would say that I couldn’t grasp it. And I didn’t cry. I just was … I don’t know how I was. But I was I know I was asked to phone my partner who, who is my ex-husband, and my son’s father. And I was asked where he was and could I contact him. And I did dial the number and he came onto the phone. And I started to tell him and I was unable to; my voice just wasn’t working properly.
So the policeman took the phone and spoke to him. And I think I was quite agitated and I remember even though it was cold I opened the, the door to my kitchen and was walking outside, and just walking up and down. And I remember my, my ex-husband then contacted my daughter and spoke to her partner. And her partner told, told my daughter about it. And after that my daughter rang me on the phone. And I can remember distinctly I said to her, “It’s not true, it’s a mistake, it’ll be all right don’t worry.” And my need was to make it right for her.
And I could not, I couldn’t, I couldn’t conceive of the fact that I was presented with this as a fact and I could not make it right. I couldn’t change it.
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Tamsin heard about her brother’s motorbike accident from her father. The police drove her to the...

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Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
I saw my brother on the morning of… a sunny Sunday morning in January when he came round to borrow my bike leathers so that he could taken his girlfriend safely on back of his bike for the first time.
And we had a twenty-minute conversation. He discussed with my partner where they might go and where would make a nice little ride that wouldn’t be too much for her. And I lent him my leathers and off he went.
I remember very clearly him looking out of the window of his car as he drove past the front the house and pulling a face at me as he often did. And then that was that. And then much later that evening we’d had supper. I was actually in the bath. I heard the phone. And partner picked up the phone and spoke to my father, who said that my brother had been in an accident or was thought to have been in an accident. And that the police were with my mother and that they, another car was coming to get my father who lives separately.
And not too far from where I live. So my partner got me out of the bath and told me what was going on. And I phoned my mother and said I need to come down to the hospital where they thought they had Matt.
And so the police were fantastic and they organised between themselves for the car that was picking up my father up to come here and pick me up as well. And then they drove us as quickly as they legally could to the hospital, which is about thirty miles away, from where I live, a very bizarre car journey with my father.
With nobody really knowing very much what to say. I spoke to my mum before I left. And I remember her saying, “It’s not true”, which I’d actually forgotten about until she reminded about it when we were talking about this interview. And I remember saying to her, “No of course it’s not”.
But actually I knew it was. I don’t know why but I was very sure as soon as I heard that that was Matthew, that was my brother.
And I wasn’t going to see him again. So we, we arrived down at the hospital. And it’s all a bit blurry. I remember meeting my mum and obviously us all being very upset and very shocked. And just looking to the policemen to direct us. And walking through the hospital’s A & E department, which on a Sunday night you know is quite busy.
And going to the quiet chapel and then sitting for ages while people explained things to us. And that was quite hard because I know there’s a lot of legal detail that needs to gone into and that those people were trying to support us.
But actually all we wanted to do was find out whether it was him.
So you weren’t sure really in your mind that it was at that stage?

In my mind I was.

But he hadn’t been identified and nobody had seen him.
What happened after that? Did you have time to feel anything at this stage?
Yes, I think, I think there is an element of shock but for me it was very real, almost from, from the phone call. And certainly by the time we left the hospital it was very real. So, yeah, it was full on, I haven’t got a brother any more.
I’m so sorry.
But it, it’s so big and so painful and so incomprehensible that you’re not going to see this person again that it’s almost as though you can only, I’ve read about people discussing it as something you sort of sidle up to, or something that, that you look round a corner and remember and then come back again…
Because you can’t keep it, you can’t keep that knowledge in your head all the time. So the next few days were a really odd combination of, of feeling absolutely devastated and being unable to comprehend why the world was still turning and people were still going to work and there were still cars on the road, and, and yet having to do the practical things like phone work and say, “I’m not going to be in for a few days.” And trying to be with my family and, and offer whatever comfort I could to my family, particularly, well, just my mum and dad and my partner, who was fantastic. And other times, you know, because we were talking about my brother and he was a very special person, he was my brother of course…
But he was, and he always looked on the bright side and he always had a joke and he could always make me smile and we did a lot of laughing during that time as well.

Peter’s son, Tim, was killed in a car crash. He was in a friend's car. The friend was drunk, lost control and the car hit a tree. Tim died at the scene.


Tim died in a terrible car crash. Peter described what happened when the drunk driver lost...

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Age at interview: 60
Sex: Male
It was Sunday morning of the May bank holiday of the 29 May. And they’d gone out, they’d gone out the Saturday night and they were having too much fun, the driver had had too much to drink lost control of the car and they Tim died on the scene and the driver died the following day, he had a donor card and with oxygen they were able to keep his heart going but there wasn’t really any life in the lad. He was a couple of years older than Tim, he was about 23 and Tim was 19 and a half. And after like about 11 0’clock here all his friends were outside with flowers, there was probably about 30 of them  they couldn’t believe it either and by then  my wife’s mum & dad were here and some of the other family turned up, trying to make some sense of what was going on.
And as the day went on we were able to drive to [the local town] and pulled up at the scene of the accident and we were on our way to the mortuary to see Tim. And at the scene of the accident, it was a horrendous crash the three cars that they overtook and lost control as they went past and took the lamppost out, the car sort of exploded and parts of the car were raining down on the three cars that they’d just overtaken. Which consequently pulled up; the car bent the lamppost double and sprung out of that and went into a big tree that wasn’t moving for anybody and the car in two parts ended up some way down the road and the road was blocked. So by the time we got there about 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon most of the debris had been cleared but we found his house keys, we found his driving licence, his ID keys bits and pieces, other keys, bits and pieces there that should not have been there and of course the place smelt of drink which was in the boot, the kids carry drink in the boot, he had a fridge in there as well, so he was like considered a cool dude, you know, to have chilled drinks in the back of his car.  

Some people were very angry and blamed others for the death of their friend or relative (see 'Changing emotions and physical reactions'). However, others were convinced that their child, partner, or other relative's death had been an accident and that no one else was to blame.

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Elizabeth couldn't believe it when the policemen told her that her daughter had not survived a...

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Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
On the 7 August 2006 Marni was killed in a car accident. It was during the day, it was about half past two actually and she just veered across the road and smashed straight into a lorry and there doesn’t seem to have been any, well at the time we thought there was no reason for it. Later on they found out that she’d got a medical problem and that was probably the cause of it.
She was driving?
She was driving yes.
How did you first hear about it?
The police came to the door, I was here, it was quarter to five on the same day and I’d spoken to her earlier in the day and she was in the local town, because I was at work, and she phoned me and I said “Oh are you going to come up to work and see me?” she said “No, I’m going to get home because I want to look at something on the computer”, so she was, not in a rush or anything, it was something she needed to do. And when I got home, she wasn’t home and I sort of thought “Oh that’s a bit odd” but I thought she’d probably called on a friend and I thought, you know, don’t be silly, don’t worry. But I’d got a funny sort of feeling, but you get that a lot don’t you when you’ve got children and then the police came to the door.
Were there two of them?
Two yes, two men.
Did they come in or what?
Well yes, they came to the door and I thought “Well that’s a bit odd” and I knew that she and her friend, well her friend actually, had been in the town a couple of weeks before and her friend had got really silly and Marni had had to sort of pull her away from a fight, and I thought that was what they’d come about and I thought “This is a bit heavy isn’t it”, and I wouldn’t let them in and they said “Can we come in?” and I said “No, no you can’t, what’s all this about?” and they insisted on coming in and I thought “What on earths the matter with these people?” you know, haven’t they got better things to do. Anyway they came in and they sat down and they asked me if I knew Marni and of course I did and they told me that she’d, she’d been in an accident and they said, “And she hasn’t survived.” And I thought “What do you mean” I couldn’t understand what it meant, I couldn’t understand what, ‘she hasn’t survived’ meant and of course I understood but it wouldn’t go into my brain….. I asked them where she was and I just wanted to get to her because I thought….., I thought I could make it better, you know, and I felt sure that there was something I could do.
What were your feelings at that stage?
Well I think it was disbelief really and it still is actually. It still is, I didn’t really, I just thought it was, I kept thinking I’d wake up, you know, that it was some dreadful nightmare, I kept thinking I’d wake up. But I didn’t go to sleep. I didn’t sleep for a long time actually.
Did you get any help from your GP?
No I didn’t because my feeling was that it was a very natural thing not to sleep actually and I preferred to let nature take its course. I knew that if I wanted to I could go and get something to make me sleep but I thought, “Why would I want to sleep?”, you know, I wasn’t worried about not sleeping. I was just worried about her and where she was and whether or not she’d been frightened and scared and whether or not now if she’s frightened and scared and lonely but I don’t think she is actually.

Josefine’s husband was killed in a car accident. The police called at the house to tell her what...

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Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
In June, 3rd June in 2001 my husband Nicholas was killed on a Sunday evening in a little country lane he’d been to see his mother for tea whilst I was at home having been busy. On the way to the station, as they drove out of the little country lane, out of the drive into the country lane, a car came up and just as they had stopped to turn and see if the road was free, if the road was free, this car came up, it was an inexperienced driver and hit full frontal and the car turned around, spun around and Nicholas died of a broken neck.
And I don’t want to feel, I have never held the people responsible, neither his mum nor the other driver, I feel this accident could have happened any other time and  I feel I was in absolute shock when, I never suspected anything was wrong at all when Nicholas didn’t come back at 9 o’clock or something when I ran a group at home and it had ended and I was washing up and I didn’t think anything when the police came, two policemen came to the house. And it was half past eleven and I thought something happened to somebody else and they came in and said nothing and I said “What is it, is it my son?” and they said “No”, because I have one son who was at that time in Germany, working and I’m German. And  then I asked “Is it my husband?” and they said “Yes”. And because Nicholas and I had set up The Natural Death Centre together and The Natural Death Centre was set up in  1991 and The Natural Death Centre had taken us into becoming experts on green funerals family organised funerals and it had, it was sort of, being a psychotherapist death, you know, embracing death is part of life, that is sort of my daily mantra to, to live more consciously and more fully so I had even that very day as we lay in bed in the morning been thinking here I am lying in bed with you, one day, I imagined I mean, you know, no magical thinking involved, one day you will be dead, but here we are together alive, look at me and he did look at me but he didn’t really look at me in the way I expected. He looked straight through into the distance and I thought, “Well I don’t know what’s going on with him”, I thought our relationship had it’s difficulties and we had some arguments and  I thought it’s going to change and I’ll just take it lightly I won’t intrude and ask him what’s going on. And we had a wonderful parting that day and just really amazing and when he left that day to see his mum for tea, and I was about to work, I said to him, as I kissed him goodbye what do you say “Come back to me safely” and I never say anything like that. And he didn’t come back, you know, he didn’t come back and that night the policemen, they were probably feeling terrible and I was just blank when they told me he had died in a car accident. 

Car journeys are more dangerous than rail journeys, but one train crash can cause many deaths and injuries. Major train crashes in the UK include one at Potters Bar, on 10 May 2002. On that day seven people died when a train was derailed. Nina and her husband, Austen, were on the train. Austen was killed and she was seriously injured.


Nina could not remember much after the train crashed at Potters Bar. Her husband was killed and...

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Age at interview: 84
Sex: Female
Please could you tell me your story, with as much detail as you want to include.
We, my husband Austen and I were going to Cambridge from London, our house in London, to a party, it was somebody’s 80th birthday, and it was to be a river, a river cruise. We decided to spend the night in Cambridge, and make a, make a small holiday of it. And so we left the house a bit unnecessarily early, because I always do. We nearly, we, we and I think we caught the train before the one we had intended to as a result, which was a mistake.
You left on the earlier train?
Yes, we left the house earlier than we needed to, as I say we caught the, I think we caught the earlier train, I couldn’t be absolutely certain, anyway we, we, we got into a first class carriage, because we were on holiday, and we got out our magazines and books, and general travel toys. There was just one other person in, in the coach with us, who was, will loom quite large in the story. And we were sitting there smiling, and we both felt quite happy. It was a nice day. We were wearing the right clothes for a trip on the river, it was a party, and the birthday, or a birthday party, and a celebration, then we were going to have a, spend the night in a good, nice expensive hotel, and that’s that really, that’s all I remember.
I had had a series of operations. I knew that after a time, a time. They didn’t complete the operations they were going to do, one of which was to amputate my left foot because they thought I was going to die, and it wasn’t worth putting me through another miserable operation. Anyway I survived, and kept my foot which I was rather grateful for. But I didn’t really realise what had happened. I remember my son saying from a long distance away, “You’ve been in a train crash, and Austen is dead.” And I didn’t think I believed it. I mean I knew, I knew I was lying on this rather uncomfortable couch, so I assumed something had happened, but I assumed it was some kind of dream or, and I can’t remember when I actually believed it had happened.

In July 1995 Godfrey’s son, Adrian, was seriously injured as he tried to board a train. The train was leaving the station as Adrian tried to open a door. He fell and hit his head, and was taken to the local teaching hospital, where he died in the intensive care unit.


Godfrey went to the hospital as soon as he heard that Adrian had had an accident. He could hardly...

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Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
Well it’s still very clear in my mind, even though it’s now nearly 14 years ago, and it was on the 31st July, 1995, at 7.30 in the morning, a Monday morning, I’d just got into my office, and it was usual for me to get in there just after 7, which I did. And the telephone rang, an unusually early telephone call, 7.30 in the morning, and it was a doctor who I knew who was the accident surgeon at the hospital, [name] hospital, and he said, “Godfrey, I’m afraid Adrian’s had a bit of an accident,” Adrian was my son. So my initial reaction was not too concerned. I said, “Okay, where is he? Is he in casualty?” And he said, “No, he’s in the intensive care unit,”
And of course I immediately knew that this was something pretty awful. So without asking anything more I said, “Right, I’ll come straight away.” So I drove, I tried to ring my wife, she wasn’t at home, I knew she wouldn’t be at home because she went swimming at that time in the morning, so I decided I just had to go straight there, and I drove there which took me about ten minutes. Traffic was quieter in those days, and when I arrived there he was just being taken to the operating theatre, and I was shown this; that he had a head injury and they showed me the scan, and it was immediately obvious to me from the scan that I saw, even though I was no expert, that it was pretty serious stuff, and the prospect of him recovering was probably not very great.
So I very quickly had to get used to the idea that here was my son, a fit healthy young man, never had a days’ illness in his life, was almost certainly going to die, and, well it was unbelievably painful of course, and it became very clear over the next few hours that there was really no prospect of any successful management of the situation.
So I went back home, got my wife, went up there and spent the best part of 24 hours with him in the intensive care unit and eventually had to make the decision to switch off the machinery. And we were very much helped with that by the surgeon, who as I say was a personal friend, and, well life changed dramatically in the space of a very short time.

Last reviewed October 2015.
Last updated October 2015.

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