(Modified from content from HelpGuide.org)
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and almost 800,000 people around the world die by suicide every year. Each one leaves behind a host of “suicide survivors,” people who’ve lost someone close to them in this tragic way. The loss of someone you love from suicide can be devastating. But there are ways to navigate the shock, confusion, and despair and begin the healing process.
Dealing with suicide loss
Facing the loss of a loved one is always difficult, but losing someone to suicide can add another level of pain to your grief. The shock and anguish following a suicide can seem overwhelming. As well as mourning your loved one’s passing, you’re likely also wrestling with a host of conflicting emotions and struggling to come to terms with the nature of their death.
You may feel guilty, wishing you’d done more to prevent their suicide, upset at yourself or others for having missed any clues to their intentions, or even angry at your loved one for abandoning you. Compounding all this is the nagging question “Why?”, the replaying of your loved one’s final act over and over in your head, and the constant second guessing of what you could’ve done differently.
Suicide may conflict with your culture or religious views, some friends and family may feel too uncomfortable to reach out to you. Denied your usual sources of comfort, you can be left feeling isolated and alone in your grief.
It’s likely you’ll always be left with some unanswered questions about your loved one’s suicide—and the sadness at losing them in such a tragic way will never completely disappear—but there are ways to deal with the pain. As difficult as it may seem at the moment, in time you can learn to come to terms with your loss, resolve your grief, and even gain some level of acceptance in order to move forward with your life.
Suicide loss and complicated grief
The suicide of a loved one is often so sudden, shocking, and deeply disturbing it can trigger a condition known as complicated grief—where the sorrow and pain of your loss remain unresolved and don’t ease up over time, preventing you from resuming your own life and relationships.
You may struggle to focus on anything else, feel numb, detached, and empty, or be unable to accept your loved one’s death, looking for them in familiar places or imagining they’re still alive. You may even feel that life isn’t worth living.
Complicated grief can also lead to major depression, psychological trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) where you’re plagued by intrusive thoughts, upsetting emotions, and a persistent anxiety that prevents you from functioning in your daily routine. If you’re depressed or traumatized, it’s important to seek help and make the healing changes that will allow you to find some peace and acceptance.
Grieve in your own way
It is important to remember that your grief is highly personal to you. Everyone’s situation is different and there’s no right or wrong way for you to grieve.
While your life will forever be changed by the loss of a loved one to suicide—and there’s no way to avoid the guilt, sorrow, and heartache that comes with that—there are healthy ways for you to cope with the pain.
Allow yourself to feel and express your emotions. Attempting to avoid your emotions will only delay and deepen your pain. If you allow yourself to feel even the darkest, most disturbing emotions, you’ll find they’ll start to diminish and the pain you’re experiencing will gradually ease.
Keep a journal. Even if you’re not yet ready to talk about the difficult thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing, writing them down can provide an important release for your emotions. It may also help to write a letter to your loved one, saying the things you never got to say to them.
Remember your loved one’s life was about more than their suicide. Their final act doesn’t need to define their life. Try to remember and celebrate the important, joyous aspects of their life and of your relationship together. Mark their achievements and share memories, photos, and stories with others who loved them.
Expect ups and downs. The healing process rarely moves in a straight line. Some days your grief may seem more manageable than others. Then a painful reminder such as a birthday, holiday, or a favorite song playing on the radio will cause the waves of pain and sadness to return—even years after your loved one’s suicide.
Take care of yourself. It’s difficult to think about your own health at a time like this. But the stress and trauma you’re experiencing right now can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health. Try to eat healthy food, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and spend time outdoors, ideally connecting with nature.
Be patient. Don’t try to rush the healing process. Other people may move on or want to stop talking about your loss long before you do. If possible, avoid making major life decisions while you still feel overwhelmed by grief.
Reach out for support
In our society, there remains a stigma attached to both suicide and the mental health problems that are often a contributing factor to not seeking support. Don’t try to tough this out on your own. People who’ve lost someone to suicide often withdraw from others because they’re worried about being a burden on others or having their loved one judged. But leaning on others for support can help ease the burden of grief and, when you feel ready, talking about what you’re going through can be an important first step in the healing process. Until that point, you can still draw comfort just from being around understanding friends and family members who care about you.
Seek out supportive friends and family. Confide in people you trust to be understanding, who are willing to listen when you want to talk, and won’t judge or tell you how you should be feeling.
Join a bereavement support group, ideally one for those who’ve lost someone to suicide. Being with others who’ve experienced a similar loss can offer invaluable support. You can be free to open up about your feelings without fear of being judged or made to feel awkward. Even if you’d rather just listen, hearing from others in a similar situation can provide hope and make you feel less isolated in your grief.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor. If you’re struggling to find adequate support, turning to a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling can help. King County has a robust mental health at work program that includes excellent benefits coverage for mental health needs.
How to help someone grieve a suicide
While it’s normal to feel awkward about consoling someone who’s grieving a suicide, don’t let that prevent you from giving your support. People who lose someone to suicide often feel stigmatized and isolated. They may fear others criticizing, blaming, or judging them or their loved one, so it’s important to reach out early.
Don’t feel that you have to provide answers, give advice, or say all the right things. Rather, it’s your love, compassion, and caring presence that counts. It’s also important to be there for the long haul. While everyone grieves for different lengths of time, someone mourning a suicide will need your support long after the funeral is over.
While the pain of suicide loss may lessen over time, it will probably never fully pass. Be mindful of birthdays, anniversaries, and other times that may be especially hard for the bereaved person. Let them know that you’re there to help them cope with each new wave of pain and grief.