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Helen had the awful experience of her brother dying suddenly, find out how she coped

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Out of the blue

Out of the blue's story

Helen Thomson had the awful experience of her brother dying suddenly. She movingly explains some of the issues and feelings she has dealt with, as part of our series of blogs for Dying Matters Week.

“When my brother died it was completely out of the blue. I was meant to be meeting him to go for a walk that day but he didn’t turn up. My conclusion was that he’d overslept; he worked in a bar and hadn’t finished till 3am that morning. I assumed he had turned off his alarm and rolled over for more sleep. When my dad rang me that evening I knew something must be up, because he never just calls for a chat.

It’s hard to describe how I felt when I heard the news. There aren’t really words to do it justice, and anything that you do say sounds cliché and overused. But I don’t think I’m being melodramatic to say that I felt like I’d been punched in the gut, all the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t comprehend the news, everything in my brain was screaming that it couldn’t be true, that there must be some mistake. How could my baby brother who I spoke to just yesterday possibly be dead?

Helen Thomson and her brother 1

The days that followed are a bit of a blur. I met my parents at the hospital and we went to view his body. There’s something unsettling about seeing a body but knowing that the occupant has left. He was too still, laid on his back, a cruel mockery of sleep. Far too tidy for someone who used to turn somersaults in his bed. My sister came home from France the following day. My mum crumbled, my dad dealt with the practical aspects and kept himself busy. My sister and I tried to hold everyone together. I took on the job of ringing family friends with the news, updating his Facebook profile to a memorial page, creating JustGiving pages for donations to charity instead of funeral flowers, made sure information about the funeral was posted on Facebook so that his friends would know what was happening. Meanwhile we waited for the results of the post mortem and hoped it would offer us some answers.

Grief is more complicated than I ever imagined. I had mourned before, most recently when my Grandad died. But he was 97 and had been fading for years, so despite the loss there was an element of relief because he was no longer in pain. Not so when my brother died. The wave of emotion featured loss, pain, confusion, and, most surprising to me, anger. And then, of course, guilt for feeling angry. Because my brother hadn’t intended to die, we knew that much, and he hadn’t known there was anything wrong with him, so how could I possibly be angry? I found myself full of rage I couldn’t properly express. Angry because he’d left us, because it meant my sister and I would have to share the burden of our mum’s anxiety two ways instead of three, because it meant our mum’s anxiety would only get worse, because I couldn’t ask him all the things I wanted answers to, because I hadn’t made the effort to stay in touch more when he was alive, because I’d thought I had all the time in the world and I didn’t. Because he wasn’t meant to die young and he wasn’t meant to die before me.

More than 200 people came to his funeral, meaning we filled up both chapels at Lawnswood Crematorium. The service was a lovely as could be expected, given he died young and we still didn’t have a confirmed cause of death.

At the hotel where we had refreshments afterwards, my dad had a great time talking to my brother’s friends about their memories, my mum managed not to run away and hide. I got through most of the day without crying because I wasn’t allowing myself to feel the grief.

One thing I found was that people tend to forget you when a sibling dies. The focus was always very much on my parents – I got asked time and again how they were doing with very little attention paid to how I was doing. And to be fair I did much the same – my sister and I spent a lot of time and effort looking after our mum. Children aren’t meant to die before their parents and it broke her. In the months that followed one of my main concerns was that she was going to follow him to the grave – she had given up on life that completely. I spent so much energy worrying about her that I forgot to worry about myself.

The official cause of death was eventually returned as Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome. The British Heart Foundation describes it as “when someone dies suddenly following a cardiac arrest and no obvious cause can be found.” Since then, the rest of us have been tested for heart conditions that may explain what happened, but nothing has been found, which means we really still have no idea what killed him. For some reason he is no longer with us and I am learning to live with that.”

Lawnswood 2

More information about Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome is available at and

Both Leeds City Council and Leeds Bereavement Forum can signpost individuals to a range of local and national bereavement services and sources of advice and support.

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