Coping With A Death By Suicide:
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over a million people die at their own hands each year. A suicide is not only a tragic loss of a life, but it leaves the survivors gasping, prostrate with grief and unanswered questions.
Grief is a universal experience all human beings encounter. Though death inevitably touches our lives, research shows that many people grieve in varying and different ways. From the textures of emotions, to length of time in mourning, to even the kinds of rituals and remembrances that help heal the irreplaceable loss. Grieving the death of a loved one is never, ever easy.
Suicide, however, has been described as a death like no other … and it truly is. Death by suicide stuns with soul-crushing surprise, leaving family and friends not only grieving the unexpected death, but confused and lost by this haunting loss.
In addition to the shocking, tragic loss of a suicide, survivors of suicide face many social stigmas. Suicide survivors suffer in many, many ways: someone they loved dearly has died, usually in a shocking unexpected way, the death may be considered a taboo for others. The grief surrounding a suicide is compounded by a society that is unable to fully feel and understand the pain of their grief.
Suicide survivors suffer a unique kind of pain – here are some ways to help a suicide survivor heal from their tragic loss. It is important for relatives, friends and the larger community to support people throughout the grief process. The following are some suggestions on how to assist survivors directly.
Respect the timing and pacing of an individual’s grief process. It is a difficult journey. Encourage them to make choices that are right for them.
Be courageous – approach those that have lost a loved one by suicide. Let them know you heard. Ask them how they really are. This is important even if it has been some time since the actual death.
What Makes Suicide Grief So Hard To Handle?
Research has long known that suicide survivors move through very distinctive grief issues. Family and friends are prone to feeling significant bewilderment about the suicide. Why did this happen? How did I not see this coming? Overwhelming < href=”https://www.bandbacktogether.com/resources/emotions-feelings-resources/guilt-resources/”>guilt about what they should have done more of or less of —become daily, haunting thoughts. Survivors of suicide loss often feel self-blame as if somehow they were responsible for their loved one’s suicide. Many also experience anger and rage against their loved one for abandoning or rejecting them—or disappointment that somehow they were not powerful enough, loved enough or special enough to prevent the suicide.
These mistaken assumptions plague survivors of suicide loss for a very long time. Many struggle for years trying to make sense of their loved one’s death—and even longer making peace—if at all—with the unanswerable questions that linger.
Society still attaches a stigma to suicide. And as such, survivors of suicide loss may encounter blame, judgment or social exclusion – while mourners of loved ones who have died from terminal illness, accident, old age or other kinds of deaths usually receive sympathy and compassion. It’s strange how we would never blame a family member for a loved one’s cancer or Alzheimer’s, but society continues to cast a shadow on a loved one’s suicide.
What also makes grieving different is that when we lose a loved one to illness, old age or an accident, we retain happy memories. We can think back on our loved one and replay fond memories, share stories with joyful nostalgia. This is not so for the suicide survivor. They questions the memories, “Where they really good?” “Maybe he wasn’t really happy in this picture?” “Why didn’t I see her emotional pain when we were on vacation?” Sometimes it becomes agonizing to connect to a memory or to share stories from the past—so survivors often divorce themselves from their loved one’s legacy.
Survivors of suicide loss not only experience these aspects of complicated grief, they are also prone to developing symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder—a direct result from their loved one’s suicide. The unspeakable sadness about the suicide becomes a circle of never ending bewilderment, pain, flashbacks, and a need to numb the anguish.
Who is a Survivor of Suicide Loss?
Despite science supporting a neurobiological basis for mental illness, suicide is still shrouded by stigma. Much of the general public believes that death by suicide is shameful and sinful. Others consider it a “choice that was made” and blame family members for its outcome. And then there are people who are unsure how to reach out and support those who have lost a loved one to suicide, and simply avoid the situation out of ignorance. Whatever the reason, it is important to note that the underlying structure of grief for survivors of suicide loss is intricately complicated.
When someone dies by suicide, research shows that at least 6 people are intimately traumatized by the death. Those who are directly affected include immediate family members, relatives, neighbors, friends, fellow students and/or co-workers. And because 90% of people who die by suicide have a psychological disorder, mental health clinicians are also included as a survivor of suicide loss.
From the nearly 800,000 suicides reported from 1986 through 2010 and using the 6 survivors per suicide estimate, it is believed that the number of survivors of suicide loss in the U.S. reaches 5 million people
Suicide Grief in Children and Adolescents
Children and Adolescents
Children grieve in what is called “grief spurts”, they rapidly cycle through their grief and it may be apparent for only minutes at a time. The child may feel for a moment and then quite happy a short time later. They tend to grieve physically with bursts of excess energy.
The child’s response to death is very much age dependent and individualized, previous loss can also play a role in a child’s understanding of what has occurred. Young children (5 and under) are concrete in their thought processes and will not likely understand the permanence of death until they become older.
Children will express their grief through behavior. Some will act out, some will withdraw, some will become anxious in their attachments fearing something else bad might happen. It is normal to see regression in children who are bereaved (i.e. tantrums in children who are well beyond the “terrible twos)
Children and Adolescents Bereaved as a Result of Suicide:
Trying to navigate the path of grief after a death by suicide is tremendously complex to say the least. It is like desperately trying to untangle a knotted ball of string that has woven in upon itself, as soon as one thread is pulled another tightens.
This path can be especially confusing and frightening for children and teens who do not yet have the intellectual ability, the coping skills, life experience to assist them in this process.
One of the most helpful things for a child or teen at this point is the presence of caring and compassionate adults who can listen and support without judgment. Adults who will allow them to grieve in the way that they want to, not how anyone else thinks they should. Teens will tell you there should be “no shoulds”.
Research suggests that child and adolescent bereavement can be internalized as a traumatic event. A trauma response can be considered an even stronger possibility if the child witnessed the suicide, found the body and/or was exposed to emergency personnel attending at the scene of the death. Until the death is ruled a suicide the police operate under the assumption that it might have been a homicide. This in and of itself is incredibly frightening for adults so one can easily understand how confusing and scary this might be when viewed through the eyes of a child or teen.
Suicide Grief in Children
One of the most difficult decisions that adults face is what to tell the children about a death that has occurred as a result of suicide. Discussing death with a child can be heart-wrenching in and of itself without the added layer of explaining suicide.
Finding an age appropriate response to the truth of the cause of death is the direction that most experts will advocate: there is no need to go into the details of the death but speaking in broad terms in child friendly language is important. There are two primary reasons why honesty, although difficult, is required. Children thrive when they are raised in an environment where they can trust the adults they interact with. When children are not told the truth of the nature of the death it can have long lasting impacts. Most children are quite intuitive and will feel the disconnect between what they are told and what is really happening, this can further destabilize them at an already volatile time. If a child is not told of the suicide and finds out later they will “re-grieve”, they will cycle back through their grief experience and relive it all over again as they reshape their view of the deceased and those who did not tell them the truth.
What happens next?
Unfortunately many children who lose a loved one are teased and some seriously bullied. When the death is a result of suicide children too suffer under the stigma of the cause of death. Other parents may create a distance between their own children and the bereaved child. Teachers too, who are so important in a child’s life can have negative reactions’ In this respect the child can be further marginalized and left without community supports at a time when it is most crucial. It is important to teach the bereaved child how to respond if bullying occurs.
Typically the child will work through their feelings about the death through play and art. It can be useful to provide them with a number of outlets to work through their grief. Children are often very physical in their grief so keeping them active can be beneficial. Many care providers might find this difficult as adults tend to see a decrease in their energy while children become more energetic. In these circumstances it is worth considering having a trusted adult or teen to take the role of “playmate”.
A child may express the desire to die as well. This can be very alarming for many adults. Often what the child means is that they want to see their loved one again, to be reunited but it doesn’t mean that they truly want to die. As mentioned, young children don’t understand fully the permanence of death. Of course if the child acts in ways that indicate something further than a passing desire to reunite with their loved one, medical intervention should be sought.
The child will come to a period where they will attempt to re-organize their life in response to the family changes, again one might see this primarily in shifts in play. Control issues will often surface in response to their lack of control over the death. It is important to provide the child with as much control over their life as is reasonable for their age.
In our experience, in order to make sense of the death children will try to understand a causal factor. This search often leads them to some distorted thinking about their own role in the suicide. Such thoughts might manifest as: if I had been a “good” boy/girl Mommy would not have died, Daddy died because I didn’t want to go the movie with him etc. Many children, like adults, feel guilt over things they did or didn’t do and what they did or didn’t say.
As the child moves through the developmental levels they will come to understand the death differently and will cycle back and appear to grieve all over as the impact of the loss hits them at deeper and broader levels.
The impact of bereavement of death due to suicide can hit on a multiplicity of levels. Academics can be affected, behaviours can change, psychosomatic issues can manifest, social engagement can shift. It is important to remember that child development, childhood bereavement and exposure to trauma all come together in a very complex relationship where each impacts the other.
Suicide Grief in Adolescents
Along with many of the factors listed above, grief for teens has an added complexity as a result of their stage of development. Adolescents want to fit in with their peer group, this is how they further develop their sense of self. Yet, when death directly impacts their life they are instantaneously different than their peers. When the death is of a peer (classmate or teammate) there is the added component of teens facing their own mortality at a time when, developmentally, they still feel invincible.
The majority of bereaved teens express a sense of isolation and loneliness that seems to be even more pervasive when the death was by suicide. The longer term impact of this experience appears to be a lack of trust of relationship, an overarching sense that they will be abandoned by whomever they connect with. Asteens move through adolescence they may develop grieving patterns similar to adults (i.e decreased energy). Often, teens will keep and wear an article of clothing of the deceased. This can cause adults some concern but it is normal.
Teens appear to be exposed to potentially more triggering environments than children. Films viewed or books read at school, activities in drama class and even the use of the term“suicides” as an exercise in gym class can be very difficult for these teens to deal with. Added to that they can feel even more isolated if they publicly react and more closed off if they say nothing.
Helping teens to find a voice to express their experience can be difficult. For teens especially the ability to be surrounded by others their age who have had a similar tragedy touch their life can be very beneficial to their healing process.
Understanding The Motivations Behind Suicide:
While no single reason can account for each suicidal act, there are common characteristics associated with completed suicides. Perhaps they can help you to understand why someone you love died by suicide.
1) The common purpose of suicide is a solution. Suicide is many things, but it is neither random nor pointless. To those who choose to end their own lives, suicide is an answer to an unsolvable problem or a way out of a horrible dilemma. Suicide is somehow the preferred choice to another set of dreaded circumstances, emotional pain, or disability, which the person fears more than death.
2) The common goal of suicide is to cease consciousness. Those who die by suicide want to end the conscious experience, which, for them, has become an endless stream of distressing, preoccupying thoughts. Suicide offers oblivion.
3) The common stressor in suicide is frustrated psychological needs. People who have high standards and expectations are extra vulnerable to suicide when progress toward goals is suddenly frustrated. People who attribute failure and disappointment to their own shortcomings may come to view themselves as worthless, unlovable, and incompetent. In adults, suicide is often related to work or interpersonal problems. In teenagers, suicide is often precipitated by family turmoil.
4) The common stimulus in suicide is intolerable psychological pain. Excruciating negative emotions (i.e. sadness, shame, guilt, anger, and fear) from any circumstance frequently serve as the foundation for suicide.
5) The common internal attitude in suicide is ambivalence. Most of those who contemplate suicide – including those successful in carrying out their suicidal plans -are ambivalent. They do want to die, yet they also wish they could find another solution to their dilemma.
6) The common emotion in suicide is hopelessness and/or helplessness. A pervasive pessimistic expectation about the future is even more important than other types of negative emotions (anger, depression) in predicting suicide. A suicidal person is convinced that nothing whatsoever can improve the situation; that no one else can help.
7) The common cognitive state in suicide is constriction. Suicidal thoughts and plans are like tunnel vision. The suicidal person is unable or unwilling to engage in any effective problem-solving behaviors and may see everything in all or nothing terms.
8 ) The common interpersonal act in suicide is communication of intent. There’s a harmful myth that those who really want to die by suicide do not talk about it. However, at least 80% of those who do end up killing themselves have spoken to others about their plans or have attempted suicide before.
9) The common action in suicide is escape. Suicide provides a way to escape from intolerable circumstances.
10) The common consistency in suicide is life-long coping patterns. During crisis periods that precipitate suicidal thoughts, people tend to use the response patterns they’ve used all of their life.
How To Cope With A Loved One’s Suicide:
If you are reading this because you are trying to cope with a loved one’s suicide, let me tell you that I am so very sorry for your loss. Here are some tips for learning to survive the suicide of a loved one:
One of the biggest challenges a suicide survivor faces is the struggle to answer, “why?” Here is a guide to understand the most common motivations behind a suicide.
Deal with the facts of the suicide – the “hows” and the “whys” of a suicide can help alleviate any doubts that the death was, indeed, a suicide.
Grief is as unique as the person who experiences it – your grief will be different than anyone else’s.
Don’t compare your grieving process to someone else’s. We all grieve differently.
It’s okay to grieve – grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide means that you loved, you really loved, this person.
It’s also okay to heal. Don’t let your healing process be overshadowed by guilt for “not grieving enough.”
You may experience physical complaints (insomnia, headaches, exhaustion) that are brought about by your emotions. Talk to your general doctor about these symptoms and see what can be alleviated.
Cry if you want to cry. Don’t be afraid to let it out. And if you don’t or can’t cry? That’s okay too. Everyone grieves differently.
You will struggle with the “why” of a suicide until you’ve gotten your answer, an answer that makes sense to you, or no longer need to know why.
You might feel crazy as you run the gamut of feelings – anger, guilt, confusion, forgetfulness, those are all very common reactions. You’re not going nuts – you’re grieving a very difficult loss.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by your feelings.
Find at least one person who gives you the permission to grieve and lean on them.
Remember that you can postpone grief, but you can’t outrun it. If you’re living with unresolved grief, it becomes harder and harder to cope with other every day stresses. Let your grief out. Although it may be tempting, don’t throw yourself into work or other projects as a means to avoid your grief. You must deal with your grief.
Now is the time to let others know that you need help. Chances are, many people are simply unsure of how to help you. Tell them what you need, even if it’s someone to make a run to the store for you or throw in a load of laundry.
Don’t be too proud to ask for help.
Don’t withdraw from the world. Keep in touch with other people – friends, family, spiritual leaders. Use them for support, comfort, and healing.
Surround yourself with people who will listen when you need to talk and those who simply offer a shoulder if you’d rather be silent.
Prepare yourself for anniversary reactions – holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other significant dates will be very painful reminders for you and can amplify your sense of loss.
On those special days, don’t force yourself to do or be anything. Allow yourself to do whatever it is you feel like doing – if that’s dumping an old family tradition because it’s too painful? So be it.
There will be setbacks – some days, months, and years will be better and worse than others. That’s okay. Grief and grieving doesn’t follow a straight line.
Find a support group in the area for suicide survivors. There can be a lot of strength in knowing that others have experienced a suicide as well. In a support group for suicide survivors, you can share your story, learn other coping techniques, and lean on one another for support.
Commemorate your loved one in a tangible way. Plant a tree. Dedicate a bench. Plant a garden. Create a scrapbook of memories. Put together a shadow box for the wall. These are things that can help you to feel connected to your loved one.
Write it out. Take some time to write a post for The Band about the suicide.
Keep a private journal and make writing in it a priority. Writing is one of the most effective forms of therapy.
Don’t abuse alcohol or prescription drugs as a means to cope. In the end, it will only hurt you.
Don’t concentrate all your energy on comforting others reeling from the suicide – it may be your way of avoiding the grief.
Be prepared for others to say cruel and thoughtless things to you about the suicide – they may be lashing out in grief.
It may feel like it, but not everyone is blaming you for the suicide.
The old way of thinking was that suicide should be hushed up, never discussed; but it’s come to light that this is a bad way to handle a suicide. Talk about the suicide. Talk about your feelings.
Guilt. It sucks. Talk about your feelings of guilt with someone you love and trust.
The suicide is not your fault. You will probably feel that you could’ve done something more to prevent it, but that’s not the case. You cannot assume responsibility for the actions of another. PERIOD.
Forgive yourself – the suicide is not your fault. You couldn’t prevent it.
Try setting up a picture of your lost loved one and talk to it. It may help to articulate all of the things you’d wished you could say to the person.
Depression is very common in suicide survivors. If you find it to be prolonged or particularly hard to deal with, seek professional help. Learn more about depression here.
Know when you can no longer manage on your own – and seek professional help. Trained grief experts are available to help you learn to cope with the grief.
Let the anger out. There’s lots of anger surrounding a suicide and it has to go somewhere. Chop wood. Scream. Hit a punching bag. Punch a pillow.
Take your grief one day, one second, one moment at a time.
You didn’t have a choice or any control over the suicide, but you DO have the choice to live through the aftermath. Choose to live.
How To Help A Suicide Survivor Heal:
When a loved one loses someone from suicide, you want so badly to help, but it’s so hard to know what to do. Here are some tips for helping to comfort a suicide survivor.
Make a special effort to go to the funeral home. The shock, denial, and shame are overwhelming for the suicide survivors. They need all the support they can get.
Suicide survivors may be a bit more paranoid due to the guilt associated with a suicide. The guilt is only increased by noting that certain people did not attend the funeral of their loved one. If you cannot attend the funeral, make an effort to send flowers, a note, a text, an email, ANYTHING, to let them know you’re thinking of them.
You may not know what to say to a suicide survivor at the funeral – simply treat the death as you would any other death, “I’m so very sorry for your loss.”
Don’t be afraid to cry openly if you were close to the person who died. Often, your tears will help the suicide survivors see that they are not alone in their grief.
The grief following a suicide is extremely complex. Survivors of suicide don’t simply “get over” their loss. Instead, they can hope to reconcile themselves to face the reality.
Don’t be surprised or alarmed by the range and intensity of their feelings – grief can sneak up on a suicide survivor and overwhelm them with their intense feelings when least expected.
Survivors of suicide may struggle with extreme explosive emotions – guilt, shame, and fear – much more so than any other type of death.
Be patient with and understanding of the feelings of your loved one as he or she grieves the suicide.
Helping a suicide survivor means that you must break down the silence surrounding the death – it begins with being an active listener.
Being physically present and willing to listen without judgment is critical for your friend. Being able and willing to listen is the best way to allow your loved one to just talk.
The feelings and thoughts a suicide survivor may feel can be very scary and hard to acknowledge. Worry less about what you say and concentrate on the words your loved one shares.
Often, suicide survivors want to share the same story again and again. Listen attentively each time. This repetition is part of the suicide survivor’s healing process.
Remember: you don’t have to have the answer to help your loved one.
Allow suicide survivors to talk, but don’t push them.
Survivors of suicide need help to come to an understanding of the reason their loved one suicided – this is extremely important for those who survive a suicide.
Give your loved one permission to express his or her feelings about the suicide without fearing criticism.
Tears are a natural and appropriate reaction to the pain associated with a suicide – don’t be afraid of the tears.
Remember that not everyone who grieves will cry – everyone expresses their feelings differently.
Grief is not restricted to a certain time-table.
Respect the need for a suicide survivor and their family to grieve. The grief of family members of someone who has suicided may be kept a secret. If the suicide cannot be openly discussed, the grief may go unhealed.
You may be the only one willing to listen and talk to the suicide survivors – you are more important than you know.
Know that the grief of a suicide is unique and that no two people will react the same way.
Anniversaries and holidays may be especially hard for a suicide survivor – these dates emphasize the absence of someone who is no longer alive.
Pain is a part of the normal grieving process – you cannot (and shouldn’t try) to take it away from a suicide survivor.
Use the name of the person who has died when talking to suicide survivors – using his or her name can be comforting and reminds the grieving survivors that you haven’t forgotten this important person.
Support groups for survivors of suicide can be one of the best ways for suicide survivors to heal. In a support group, suicide survivors can connect with others who have experienced the same type of loss and share their stories. You can help by locating a support group for suicide survivors for your loved one.
Let your loved one teach you about their feelings of faith and spirituality. They may believe that those who die by suicide are doomed to hell. Rather than contradict them, just listen and learn, non-judgmentally.
Survivors of suicide struggle to know why their loved one suicided – if they ask you, “why?” simply say, “I don’t know – maybe I’ll never know.”
Be aware that the guilt for a suicide survivor is often so painful that it’s sometimes easier to deny that it happened – be patient and understanding of this. Denial can give the suicide survivor a breather before the reality sinks back in.
Suicide survivors have the right to be extra sensitive – often others will deliberately avoid the survivor, pretend not to know the person, or ignore any type of contact made. This compounds the guilt the suicide survivor already feels.
People will often make cruel, vicious remarks to a suicide survivor – this hurts the survivor intensely. Don’t repeat the remarks and do what you can to go to the source to let them know that their words hurt the suicide survivor.
How Not To Help A Suicide Survivor:Sometimes, without meaning to, we can hurt those we care about the most by saying something inappropriate. Nowhere is this more common than following the death of someone by suicide. Here are some things to avoid saying to a suicide survivor.
Cliches and other trite comments are often more wounding than saying nothing at all. Cliches often diminish the loss by giving simple solutions to very hard realities. Avoid them.Things NOT To Say To A Suicide Survivor:
“You’re holding up so well.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
“You’ll get over it in time.”
“Think of what you have to be thankful for.”
“You have to be strong for your children (or others).”
“Well, he (or she) was crazy.”
“I know just how you feel.”
“Snap out of it.”
Avoid passing judgment or providing simple reasons for the suicide.
Don’t allude to the mental state of the person who suicided – you don’t know if this person was “crazy” or “mentally ill,” and it further complicates the feeling of the suicide survivor.
The grief of a suicide survivor is unique – don’t criticize what you think of as “inappropriate” behavior.
Learn more about grief and grieving here.
Don’t try to comfort the suicide survivor by saying, “it was a terrible accident.” The suicide survivor must deal with the fact that their loss was due to a suicide.
Don’t compare your grief about other deaths to your loved one – the grief of a suicide is very different than most other types of deaths.
Don’t tell stories to suicide survivors about your friend or someone else you know who tried to commit suicide, which means you totally understand how they feel. Whomever you knew who attempted suicide lived, theirs did not.
Don’t go over the signs of suicide with a suicide survivor, as the suicide has already taken place. Saying things like, “there must have been some signs of depression,” only compounds the suicide survivor’s guilt.