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When a loved one dies by suicide, overwhelming emotions can leave you reeling. Your grief might be heart-wrenching. At the same time, you might be consumed by guilt — wondering if you could have done something to prevent your loved one’s death. A loved one’s suicide is a challenging, confusing, and painful experience.
As you face life after a loved one’s suicide, remember that you don’t have to go through it alone.
The Immediate Aftermath – Practical Information
If you have just experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide, the following information is here to help guide you with practical information.
Speaking of your loved one
Many who have lost a loved one to suicide understand the pain their loved one was suffering. Suicide was a means for them to end what they experienced as the unbearable pain they felt due to mental illness, intolerable stress, or trauma, not as a means to leave us. Using the term ‘commit suicide’ is both outdated and often harmful.
The word ‘commit’ comes from a time when suicide was treated as a crime. To portray suicide as a crime or sin stigmatizes those who experience suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide. This stigma, in turn, can deter people from seeking help from friends, family, and professionals. The more we can use language that accurately and sensitively describes suicide, the more we encourage a healthy and respectful way to talk about and prevent suicide.
Replace “Committed Suicide” with more supportive terminology.
Supportive terms include:
- Died by suicide
- Ended their life
- Took their life
As survivors, we are charged with educating the public with the understanding that suicide does not discriminate against who it affects any more than cancer does. Using more appropriate language to describe suicide is one way to remove the stigma.
Why Suicide Loss is Different
An excerpt from SOS, A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide by Jeffrey Jackson.
Death touches all of our lives sooner or later. Sometimes it is expected, as with the passing of an elderly relative; sometimes it comes suddenly in the form of a tragic accident. But Suicide is different. The person you have lost seems to have chosen death, and that simple fact makes a world of difference for those left to grieve. The suicide survivor faces all the same emotions as anyone who mourns a death, but they also face a somewhat unique set of painful feelings on top of their grief…
- GUILT. Rarely in other deaths do we encounter any feelings of responsibility. Diseases, accidents, old age…we know instinctively that we cannot cause or control these things. But the suicide survivor–even if they were only on the periphery of the deceased’s life–invariably feels that they might have, could have, or should have done something to prevent the suicide. This mistaken assumption is the suicide survivor’s greatest enemy.
- STIGMA. Society still attaches a stigma to suicide, and it is largely misunderstood. While mourners usually receive sympathy and compassion, the suicide survivor may encounter blame, judgment, or exclusion.
- ANGER. It’s not uncommon to feel some form of anger toward a lost loved one, but it’s intensified for survivors of suicide. For us, the person we lost is also the murderer of the person we lost, bringing new meaning to the term “love-hate” relationship.
- DISCONNECTION. When we lose a loved one to disease or an accident, it is easier to retain happy memories of them. We know that, if they could choose, they would still be here with us. But it’s not as easy for the suicide survivor. Because our loved one seems to have made a choice that is abhorrent to us, we feel disconnected and “divorced” from their memory. We are in a state of conflict with them, and we are left to resolve that conflict alone.
A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide
As a step toward your healing, we would like to send you a free copy of A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide. Click Here and add “requesting a handbook” in the comments
Please note the handbook is currently out of print. Please continue to request it and we will send it to you as soon as it becomes available. For a pdf copy please click here
More reactions you may experience after suicide loss
- Shock. Disbelief and emotional numbness might set in. You might think that your loved one’s suicide couldn’t possibly be real.
- Despair. You might be gripped by sadness, loneliness or helplessness. You might have a physical collapse or even consider suicide yourself.
- Confusion. Many people try to make some sense out of their loved one’s death or try to understand why their loved one took his or her life.
- Feelings of rejection. You might wonder why your relationship wasn’t enough to keep your loved one from dying by suicide.
- Unexpected reactions from friends and family. When a loved one dies by suicide, it can bring about unexpected reactions from friends and family who you relied on in the past for support.
How To Take Care Of Yourself
Self-care is integral to moving forward after a loved one’s suicide.
- Find a support group: You don’t have to cope with your loss alone. There are support groups specifically for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Click for a list of local support groups.
- Do what feels right to you: Don’t feel pressured to talk right away. If you choose to discuss your loss, speaking can give your friends and family the opportunity to support you in an appropriate way.
- Ask for help: Don’t be afraid to let your friends provide support to you, or to look for resources in your community such as therapists, co-workers, or family members. Call us at 239-253-6600 to learn more about local support.
- Write: You may find it helpful to write your feelings or to write a letter to your lost loved one. This can be a safe place for you to express some of the things you were not able to say before your loved one’s death.
What to Know about “Grief Work”
Grief work is finding a way to put your loss into perspective and to weave your loss into the fabric of your life. It is allowing feelings, working through them, asking for and receiving comfort. It is remembering the good times and the bad and getting them in perspective. It is memorializing your lost loved one in your heart or in many other ways. It is honoring your lost loved one by going forward a better person for the gift of that person’s life in your life, no matter how brief.
- Staying physically healthy: Depending on what kind of grieving we are doing, it can be a trying physical experience. It is essential to maintain the best diet, sleep schedule, and exercise as is possible each day
- Meaning-making. This is a piece of ancient wisdom that is deeply embedded in all spiritual traditions and existential philosophies. When we can make sense out of what happened, derive meaning from it, and put it into a context, we feel better.
- Honoring the loss: In bereavement, a lot of people feel better when they find ways to carry on the legacy of the person and solidify a sense of remembering that will endure over time. Many people do this through some kind of art, activism, prayer, or community involvement.
- Time for loss and time for life. When we are really consumed by grief, it can seem impossible to continue living as we normally do. It can be valuable to mark a difference between focusing on the loss, and focusing on our daily lives. When you are able, stay functional in your work and daily activities, and then also make time to focus on the loss. This is not always clean and easy but becomes easier over time.
- Don’t judge your feelings: Judging our feelings only serves to make our lives more difficult. In grief, above anything else, it is very important to allow whatever feelings emerge, the space to breathe. They don’t necessarily need to be expressed or felt for long periods of time, but allowing them to be valid in your own mind will go a long way toward relieving tension and helping you stay on track toward healing.
Two steps forward…and sometimes three steps back
You might continue to experience intense reactions during the weeks and months after your loved one’s suicide — including nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal and loss of interest in usual activities — especially if you witnessed or discovered the suicide.
- Keep in touch. Reach out to loved ones, friends and spiritual leaders for comfort, understanding, and healing. Surround yourself with people who are willing to listen when you need to talk, as well as those who’ll simply offer a shoulder to lean on when you’d rather be silent.
- Grieve in your own way. Do what’s right for you, not necessarily someone else. There is no single “right” way to grieve. If you find it too painful to visit your loved one’s gravesite or share the details of your loved one’s death, wait until you’re ready.
- Be prepared for painful reminders. Anniversaries, holidays and other special occasions can be painful reminders of your loved one’s suicide. Don’t chide yourself for being sad or mournful. Instead, consider changing or suspending family traditions that are too painful to continue.
- Don’t rush yourself. Losing someone to suicide is a tremendous blow, and healing must occur at its own pace. Don’t be hurried by anyone else’s expectations that it’s been “long enough.”
- Expect setbacks. Some days will be better than others, even years after the suicide — and that’s OK. Healing doesn’t often happen in a straight line.
- Consider a support group for families affected by suicide. Sharing your story with others who are experiencing the same type of grief might help you find a sense of purpose or strength. However, if you find going to these groups keeps you ruminating on your loved one’s death, seek out other methods of support. Click to learn about our weekly group.
Survivor Stories – Read encouraging words from other suicide loss survivors, who share their stories to let you know that it is possible, with time and grief work, to go beyond just surviving. Click to read survivor stories
Compiled by the Mayo Clinic. Click to read more
The journey through grief
- Refraining from working on your grief delays the healing process.
- Each death we encounter brings back previous deaths.
- Learning how to heal is vital to living a rich, fulfilled and rewarding life.
- Coaching works at the rate you decide. Grief is never rushed.
- Grief coaching can be done by phone and in the comfort of your own surroundings.
- Grief bottled up simply reappears in some way.
- When in pain, learn not to fight it.
- Grief causes vulnerability, especially after a traumatic, sudden death.
- Emotional wounds need time and help to heal.
- Cry, cry and cry some more. Release those tears of toxins to begin to feel better.
- Learn that you are able to bend and you will not break.
- Know you can heal and that is a choice “you” make.
- Know that the reality of grief is terribly lonely and takes work to heal.
- Learn the language of feelings to teach others how to treat you.
- There are no rules about the length of time you will take to heal.
- Grievers need to talk and talk to come to grips with what has happened
From Bob Riley, Grief Coach Read More
Jackson, J, A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide, Retrieved from https://www.suicidology.org/Portals/14/docs/Survivors/Loss%20Survivors/SOS_handbook.pdf
AFSP, Practical Information Immediately Following a Loss, Retrieved from https://afsp.org/find-support/ive-lost-someone/practical-information-for-immediately-after-a-loss/
Riley, B, Living with Grief and Understanding Grief Cycles, Retrieved from http://www.bobrileycoaching.com/grief_coaching.html
Mayo Clinic Staff, Suicide grief: Healing after a loved one’s suicide, Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/suicide/art-20044900/in-depth/art-20044900