In addition to the usual symptoms and pain of grief associated with death, suicide often leaves survivors with complicated reactions and unanswerable questions. It’s normal to almost obsessively ask “why,” to look for an answer as to why someone would take his or her own life. The impact of suicide is sudden and unexpected — it leaves no time to prepare for the emotional blow it delivers. Whether you’ve lost a friend or family member, shock, disbelief and denial are all common reactions.
Regardless of one’s awareness of the mental or emotional state of the deceased before they died, it’s impossible to be prepared for news of a suicide. We may worry that it could happen, know that it may be on the list of “possibilities,” but that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier when it does happen. It’s still virtually unimaginable, and many people find themselves obsessing over the deceased’s last moments, wondering if they could have said or done anything that would have stopped such a brutal, final decision.
Because suicide leaves us feeling powerless, we blame others or ourselves. We believe someone should have done more, or an institution or medical facility should have been able to prevent it. The unfortunate and devastating truth is that even with medical care and emotional support, there are those for whom suicide is a step they are absolutely determined to take. So the blame is misplaced, although often hard to let go of.
When a person very close to you — a spouse, a child or a partner — commits suicide, a feeling of rejection is also normal. You may find yourself wondering why the deceased decided that death was preferable to living a life with you. While intellectually you may know or recognize that wasn’t the case, as someone deeply hurt by this death, your feelings of rejection and abandonment may persist. Over time they will subside, but early in your grief, it’s important to remind yourself of what is true and to try to regain a more balanced perspective.
Common survivor emotions
Survivors of suicide (i.e., those who have had a friend or family member suicide) may feel isolated or judged due to the stigma sometimes and wrongly associated with suicide. This can complicate your grief, adding a layer of guilt and disconnection that can prolong it. Common feelings include:
Shock: Numbness or disbelief may occur, or you might think the suicide couldn’t possibly be real. You may look for ways to verify or dismiss it.
Guilt: You may wonder what you should have said or done. You may replay “what if” or “if only” scenarios, blaming yourself for the suicide.
Anger: “Why did he/she abandon me?” “Why is death preferable to life with me?” You may also be angry with yourself or others for having missed “clues” that might have revealed the deceased’s intentions.
Despair: As happens with all grief, you may be overcome by sadness or feelings of helplessness. You may feel “crazy,” questioning your own sanity or having thoughts of suicide yourself. While this is not unusual, it can also be a sign of complicated grief. If you think you may be suffering from complicated grief, the intervention of a professional may help you better survive the pain and emotional turmoil associated with it. If you are having any thoughts of harming yourself, please seek professional treatment immediately.
Taking care of yourself
When you’re grieving, it is both important and difficult to take care of yourself. Your loss may take away your energy, your appetite and your emotional reserves.
Allow yourself to grieve: Often we push the grief away, or tamp it down by distracting ourselves with activities or tasks. Trying to avoid grief only leads to prolonging it — it has to be allowed to surface. Unresolved grief can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and health problems.
Express your feelings in a tangible way: This can be done in many ways, depending on your creativity or usual means of expression. You can write about your loss in a journal, or send a private note to the person you’ve lost. You can make a scrapbook, photo album or create an online memorial celebrating his or her life. You can also get involved in an organization or philanthropy that was meaningful to them, or make a donation in their name. If someone chose suicide because they were struggling with a specific issue, consider donating to a group that helps those who are also dealing with the same issue.
Be physically healthy: Your mind and body are connected, and physical health helps with the emotional healing process. It’s natural to feel lethargic or low energy, but if you’re able to take a walk or a run, it will promote the process. Combat your fatigue with an appropriate amount of sleep, and choose foods that provide you not just with comfort but also energy.
Don’t judge yourself, or let others judge you: You are allowed to grieve for as long and as deeply as you need to. No one — including yourself — can tell you when to “move on” or “get over it.” It’s okay to be angry, to cry, not cry, or even laugh — you need to allow for moments of joy in your grief, and feel no guilt for having a moment without pain. We recommend that you read the Mourner’s Bill of Rights to reassure yourself of your “right” to grieve.
One of the critical factors in healing from a loss by suicide is the support of others. Having your family, friends, or a community of others who have experienced grief allows you to feel that someone else “gets it.” Being able to share your story or your feelings is vital to the healing process.
Support groups: There are many support groups for suicide survivors — those who have lost someone through suicide. If this feels intimidating, remember that you can attend a group and just listen. You won’t be forced to speak until you’re comfortable, and you may draw comfort from being in a community of others who have some understanding of the nature and depth of your grief.
Therapists or counselors: Sometimes, talking to a professional with experience with grief counseling (and suicide specifically) can help you work through some of the intense emotions you may be feeling. It’s normal to feel vulnerable after losing someone through suicide — we may feel there’s a stigma attached to it or be feeling guilt, however misplaced. A compassionate third party with grief or suicide survivor experience may help you overcome obstacles to your healing.
Faith-based groups: If you are religious, you may find support in your community or with the leader of your church or temple. They may be able to provide suggestions for rituals or prayer that can help. Because of their role in the community, they may have extensive experience with different types of loss, including suicide.
Community: You may be a private person or not have a local network of support. Regardless, it’s important to find a community of others who have suffered a similar loss. Through this community, you may feel less isolated.
As you experience grief, you must remind yourself of a few key tenets that will help you heal: treat yourself with kindness, compassion and without judgment.
Expect and accept setbacks — things may trigger your grief at times and in places that you don’t expect. And just as importantly, don’t rush yourself. You have the right to grieve, and no one — including yourself — can tell you when it’s time to end that process.
Grief is often a life-long journey. Know that additional support is there if you feel you might have the need to express yours with others who understand.