When an elderly person passes away, it is often said that they died of “old age” or “natural causes.” What exactly does that mean? Is it possible to die of old age? More pointedly, do we grieve someone who has lived a long life and dies differently than someone whose life ends unexpectedly?

While everyone grieves differently, several factors work together to determine the intensity and duration of the grief. The relationship that we have with the deceased is a significant component for grief. But the circumstances surrounding the death is another vital element.

What Does it Mean to Die of Old Age?

What exactly does it mean when it is determined that someone died “of natural causes?” A death by natural cause generally refers to a death caused by the malfunction of the body’s organs or processes. A person who died from respiratory failure due to pneumonia would be listed as having died by a natural cause. Technically, old age is not a legitimate cause of death – there is always a more direct cause of death associated with age-related diseases.

Most states recognize five different manners of death: natural, homicide, suicide, accidental and undetermined. If a manner of death is deemed to be “natural,” then the victim is thought to have died of an internal disease process or normal deterioration of the body. Outside forces, like chemicals or human intervention, had only a minimal influence. There are some gray areas in these determinations. For example, death by infectious disease is usually seen as being natural, even though the killer microbes come from outside the body.

Sometimes Determining the Cause of Death is Not Easy.

It is not always easy to determine if the death is from a natural cause. Age may also be a factor; what might have been a natural cause for an older person raises suspicions for a younger person. Doctors and law enforcement professionals may need tests and lab results to determine the cause of death. This can delay the release of the body, postponing visitation and funeral plans.

Special Considerations with Death by Natural Causes

When a death occurs from natural causes, some unique elements may come to the surface. Thinking about some of these issues may strengthen your ability to cope with the loss of the loved one.

  1. Is there something that could have been done to slow the process or prevent the death? While pneumonia can be fatal, in younger adults it is often treated successfully. The grieving family wrestles with the guilt involved in not insisting that the deceased receive hospital and specialized care. Even in the case of a much older individual, the family struggles to consider if more could have been done. If the family believes more could have or should have been done to save the loved one, in addition to the feelings of sadness and grief, there will be compounded feelings of guilt. Guilt will both intensify and prolong the process of dealing with grief.
  2.  Authorities and policies often cause delays in the determination of the cause of death. The death of a young man in a fiery automobile accident delayed the funeral 15 days while awaiting results of an autopsy. The length of the delay caused suffering as the family waited, but provided relief that alcohol or drugs were not involved in the cause of death. Determining the cause of death – answering a few of the “why’s” – is a significant factor in achieving closure for the family and friends.
  3.  Time involved in death by natural causes is usually extreme – either totally sudden or very prolonged. Both extremes require special coping skills and unique sensitivity for healing to occur. Sudden deaths can take longer to grieve and recover. Prolonged deaths may bring about feelings of relief for the survivor which often produces intense feelings of guilt.

Does it Lessen the Pain of Grief When the Person Has Died of Natural Causes?

One of the myths of handling grief is the idea that grief is less intense for those whose loved one has lived a long, full life and died peacefully. While there is comfort in knowing that someone has not suffered, the circumstances of death are only a portion of what constitutes grief. If the deceased played a significant role in the life of the survivor, grieving will reflect the sadness and loss of the presence of an important individual.

Grief is real, regardless of the circumstance. Even though dealing with the loss from natural causes has unique factors and emotions that must be handled in order for true healing to take place. Ultimately, the person grieving must come to rest that nothing more could be done and that some of the questions surrounding the death may never be answered.