While losing a loved one is always painful, losing a loved one to suicide can be extremely difficult. You may find yourself dealing with several confusing and conflicting emotions, ranging from shock, grief, despair, and loneliness to anger, guilt, and shame.
Suicide grief can be harder to deal with because of the stigma surrounding suicide. Apart from struggling with painful emotions, you may also find it difficult to tell others your loved one has died of suicide.
However, if you have lost a loved one to suicide, remember that you’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that suicide is the leading cause of death in the United States, 46,000 people have died of suicide in 2020, leaving behind bereaved family members and friends. Moreover, approximately 85% of people living in the U.S. know someone who has died by suicide.
This article explores what grieving a loved one’s suicide can feel like and suggests some strategies that can help you cope with suicide grief.
The Impact of Suicide Grief
These are some of the emotional experiences you may have in the wake of a loved one’s suicide, according to Megan Goslin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate research scientist at Yale School of Medicine.
Guilt and Shame
As human beings, we try to make sense of our world and our experiences, often developing theories to explain events that are out of our control. When a loved one dies by suicide, we may have a range of unhelpful and inaccurate thoughts, which contribute to painful feelings.
For example, you may blame yourself for the suicide and repeatedly question what signs you missed or what you could have said or done differently to prevent the tragedy.
Anger and Betrayal
Alternatively, you may blame the person who died and develop inaccurate or unhelpful thoughts about their suicide.
You may start to believe that the person did not love you enough or that they were weak or selfish. These beliefs can then lead to intense anger or feelings of rejection and betrayal.— MEGAN GOSLIN, PHD
Because many people feel uncomfortable ‘speaking ill of the dead,’ these feelings of anger may then contribute to further shame and guilt.
Losing a loved one can be painful under the best of circumstances. The world is a different place without them in it. However, when someone that we care about dies by suicide in a violent, unexpected, or very sudden way, the mourning process may be further complicated by traumatic grief. Additionally, losing someone triggers an emotional trauma response in the brain.
As part of the mourning process, we often reflect on the memories of the person who has died. In many cultural traditions, family and friends come together to share stories about the lost loved one. However, when the death has been experienced as a traumatic loss, this process of reminiscence may be derailed by upsetting thoughts or images of the way the person died, interfering with processing the death and moving forward.
Symptoms of Traumatic Grief
According to Dr Goslin, traumatic grief can cause you to experience nightmares at bedtime or intrusive thoughts of suicide during the day, which may contribute to:
- Sleep difficulties
- Inability to concentrate
- Major depression
- Complicated grief
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Thoughts of suicide
Mental Health Conditions & Additional Trauma Responses
For those that lose a loved one to suicide, their risk of developing a mental health condition (e.g., depression, PTSD) increases.5 They can also experience suicidal thoughts themselves. Moreover, because suicide is difficult to talk about, survivors may be reluctant to reach out for help.5
Behavioural and Emotional Responses to Trauma
Everyone’s trauma can manifest in different ways. Other trauma responses may include:
- Substance use
- Avoiding things and places that remind you of the loss
- Digestive issues
- Emotional numbness
- Feeling powerless
How Your Relationship to the Deceased Person May Affect Your Grief
Depending on your relationship with the person who died by suicide, the impact may manifest differently:
- Romantic partners: If the person you were romantically involved with dies by suicide you might feel betrayed or left behind. You may blame yourself for not being a good partner and for not seeing the signs or maybe there were signs and you think you could have done more. If you already have children, you’ll have to help them cope with their grief and your own while still caring for them.
- Siblings: Siblings often have a deep bond as a result of growing up together and may feel a sense of guilt that they’re alive while their sibling is not. They might also wonder if they could have done more to protect their sibling.
- Parents and Children: If you are the child of someone who died by suicide, you may feel abandoned and rejected. You might also see your other grieving parent in a distressed state which also takes an emotional toll on you. If your child dies by suicide, it can be heart-wrenching as parents do the best they can to protect their children. They might feel as if they’ve failed their child or failed as a parent.
- Friends and Coworkers: If you are friends with or a coworker of the person who died by suicide, you might grieve the loss of that friendship, and wonder what you could have done to help. As a coworker, you may feel a void in your professional life.
Coping With Suicide Grief
Dr Goslin shares some strategies that can help you cope with suicide grief:
It takes time to mourn and mourning can be lengthened or complicated when the person’s suicide leads to traumatic grief.
Do not set unrealistic expectations for yourself or an unreasonable timeline for when you should be “over” the person’s death.
Social support is one of the most important resources for people coping with the loss of a loved one to suicide.
Social support can be provided informally by family, friends, religious organizations, and school communities. Consent can be delivered more formally via counselling, psychotherapy, and support groups.
Find Comfort in Rituals
Many people take comfort in their culture’s rituals associated with death and mourning. Participating in these activities can help you feel more connected to your loved ones.
Learn About Common Reactions to Suicide
This can be an important step to help you understand and put words to the uncomfortable and confusing thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing.
Finding words can then help you communicate with others and get the help you need. It can also be a relief to learn that the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing are common, which in turn can help you feel less alone.
Get Professional Help If You Need It
At the same time, it’s important to recognize when to seek more formalized support. If your grief persists, interferes with your ability to function, or causes significant distress, talk to your primary doctor about a mental healthcare referral.
Evidence-based treatments have been developed to address traumatic grief and related conditions. In particular, if you start to experience suicidal thoughts, it’s important to get help, including a thorough assessment and treatment, right away
Coping Methods to Avoid
If you have lost a loved one to suicide, these are some coping mechanisms that may not be helpful:
- Bottling up your feelings: You may find it difficult to talk about your loved one’s suicide, especially at first. However, it’s crucial to open up to trusted friends and family members and share your thoughts and feelings.
- Isolating yourself: Don’t isolate yourself from loved ones or avoid activities you used to enjoy. Spending time with friends and family, following your daily routine, and participating in activities you used to enjoy can help return a sense of normalcy to your world.
- Neglecting self-care: Don’t neglect yourself while you grieve. It’s important to make sure you’re eating healthy meals and getting adequate sleep.
- Cooping yourself up at home: It can be helpful to spend time in nature, to get some fresh air and a change of scenery.
- Rushing any major decisions: Avoid making any major decisions for some time, until you feel better able to cope. Talk to your loved ones and get their input on any big changes.
- Drinking alcohol or using drugs: It can be tempting to use alcohol or drugs as a refuge, to help numb the pain. However, these substances don’t remove the pain and only worsen things.
- Taking risks: After you have lost a loved one, you may find yourself thinking “What’s the point?” and engaging in risky behaviours, such as driving too fast, jumping from heights, or swimming at night. If these thoughts cross your mind, seek professional help or locate a loved one and immediately tell them how you’re feeling.
Losing a loved one to suicide can be a traumatic experience. You may feel shocked at their death, angry at your loved one for leaving you, guilty about not being able to prevent it, or ashamed of yourself for having these thoughts. You may find yourself constantly questioning why it happened and be unable to find peace if answers aren’t forthcoming.
Rather than avoiding your emotions or withdrawing from people, it’s important to let yourself grieve and seek comfort from friends, family members, your routine, and any cultural practices or rituals related to mourning. Practice self-care and seek therapy if you need it. Joining a support group can help you connect with others who have had similar experiences.
Grief doesn’t disappear overnight, but its burden reduces gradually over time until eventually, you will be able to accept the loss of your loved one and the circumstances of their death. Acceptance doesn’t mean forgetting your loved one or pretending they didn’t die of suicide; rather, it means being able to live again, while remembering your loved one and coming to terms with the fact that their death could not be prevented or changed.