Those Left Behind: Dealing with the Suicide of a Loved One
The loss to suicide of a friend or family member is a heart-wrenching experience for those left to pick up the pieces. We all feel grief and shock at the sudden loss of a loved one, but suicide leaves us deeper feelings of ambivalence, anger, even guilt.
You’ve probably heard of the “Five Stages of Grief”, a framework for recognizing and understanding the feelings experienced by those receiving a terminal diagnosis, or the bereaved following a death.
The late Swiss-American psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who introduced the five stages, never intended for them to be a hard and fast list of grieving milestones. She and her colleague, David Kessler, stressed that no two situations are alike.
They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. —David Kessler
Those who experience grief after loss to suicide should take comfort in these words because cultural attitudes often make survivors feel isolated. Survivors often experience each stage from a different viewpoint, including from a position of feeling guilt.
The Five Stages of Grief Following a Suicide
No amount of intellectualizing can neutralize our feelings when we’re experiencing them in the moment, but the knowledge that your feelings are normal can help soothe the pain of your grief.
Even before our rational mind has the chance to kick in, our gut reaction is to recoil and scream, “NO!” when we receive shocking news. It’s much the same as holding our hands in front of our faces when we experience a close call with physical danger. Denial is our way of protecting ourselves from pain.
Denial in grief doesn’t just manifest itself in that one instant; it can stay with us as we continue along the path of healing. Denial can be integral to our experiences during the other stages of grief, and we may use it as a tool to “save” us from perceived or real stigmas—those which we hold ourselves, or those imposed on us by society.
Expressions of denial vary, but commonly include:
- Telling friends, colleagues, family members or clergy that the death occurred under accidental circumstances.
- Shutting out our feelings by dismissing the person as weak, selfish, or undeserving of our grief.
- Engaging in unhealthy coping strategies or dangerous behavior to mask our feelings.
“How could she do this to us?” Those left behind after a suicide often feel abandoned. We wonder how a loved one could do something to cause us so much agony.
When getting a deceased loved ones personal belongings and finances in order, we’re less likely to feel resentment, frustration, and anger than we would toward the same person had she committed suicide.
The important thing to remember is that your loved one did not commit suicide to cause you pain or inconvenience. Those who end their lives aren’t being selfish.
Whether a suicide is triggered by an overwhelming circumstance or the deceased simply struggled beyond their capability with ongoing mental illness, their decision to end their life is ultimately a reaction to psychological pain. In many cases, those who discuss plans for ending their lives truly believe that their loved ones will be better off, that their own lives and ability to contribute will not improve.
You’re still entitled to your feelings. No matter the intent of your lost friend or family member, youare in pain, and that’s okay. Don’t feel guilty for being angry with someone who, himself, suffered; you and the rest of those grieving the deceased are going through a painful, disruptive period in your lives. Experience the pain, but take care not to express it inappropriately by blaming others…or yourself.
Bargaining, like denial, is our way of staving off the pain of grief and self-blame. It’s not so much about striking a deal with a higher power (“I’ll man crisis hotlines every Tuesday until the end of time if you just bring him back”) as it is about reflecting on all the times you “could have” intervened.
Even with all the best psychiatric help, even with the most compassionate and present loved ones, those who are suffering serious psychological pain can and do end their lives. No one thing you could have said or done—or not said or done—is to blame for that person’s actions.
Be mindful of how you treat yourself. Be cautious of statements that begin with “I should have”, or “If only.” And, if on some level you’re having a difficult time not blaming yourself, don’t think you’re obligated to take on all aspects of “cleaning up” the aftermath of a suicide yourself. Self-punishment is not a healthy way to cope with feelings of self-blame. Include friends, family, and professionals as necessary, and safeguard your own well-being as you heal.
It’s normal to feel deep sadness and loss. You might feel nobody understands what you’re going through, and in this, you may be correct; no two people experience grief in the same way.
Situational depression, such as that experienced after a tragic loss, usually subsides after a few weeks. Once you begin to feel better, you may have more frequent “ups and downs” than you had before your loved one’s suicide.
You might feel guilty as you reflect upon the pain your loved one experienced before their death; don’t. Your pain is your own.
Give yourself permission to seek out professional or peer support. Voicing your feelings can help you sort them out, and the very act of getting them “off your chest” is healing.
Be patient with friends who want to be there for you. They may say the wrong things, but their hearts are in the right place.
If you find that your depression is affecting your ability to function within your family or work environment after a few weeks, be sure to seek professional help. If you witnessed the suicide or discovered your loved one’s body, you may be experiencing emotional trauma, which could profoundly affect your mental health. Seek the aid of a psychiatrist as soon as you are able after the event, and make your own well-being a priority.
When you are able to adjust to your life without the presence of your lost loved one, you’re entering the acceptance stage. You’ll always feel pain and loss, but you’ll have managed to keep these feelings in perspective.
As with all the other stages of grief, our progress toward acceptance may backslide here and there. We may feel we’re not quite ready to give up the pain, or we may feel guilty that we’re beginning to enjoy our lives or smile when we remember happy moments with our deceased loved ones.
We might worry that family members or our community might think we’re not grieving long enough, or more deeply.
Your emergence from the darkest depths of grieving is something you can’t force, and it doesn’t adhere to so-called social norms. There’s no roadmap to recovery after the sudden loss of a loved one to suicide. The best you can do is be mindful of your feelings, and be kind to yourself.
Don’t Go It Alone
If you’ve lost someone close to you to suicide, you deserve to take care of yourself during the grieving process.
Psychiatry Today’s Psychiatrist Database: Locate a psychiatrist near you with the most comprehensive online database of mental health professionals
Suicide.org Suicide Survivor’s Forum: An online community of people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Resources for all aspects of mental health, including support groups for caregivers, survivors, and mental health patients.
Bio Recovery: Nationwide company dedicated to restoring homes, vehicles, and offices to pre-trauma condition after a suicide or unattended death. Bio Recovery works with insurance companies or participating municipalities to provide licensed, affordable, and thorough cleanup and repairs.