Surviving the suicide of a loved one is terribly painful. You may experience a lot of emotions all at once. You may feel shocked, confused and even angry. A common emotion that survivors of suicide have is guilt. People tend to think of what they might have done differently to help prevent the suicide. These are all normal thoughts and emotions, and, although it will take time, with the right support you can continue on successfully with your life.
There is no one way of grieving the loss of a loved one through suicide. Grief is a process of healing that people experience in different ways. Even if you are far along in the healing process, it may come up again at special times, such as a holiday, a birthday or even a season. Your grief may never be entirely over, but it can become more and more manageable in your daily life. Try not to set time limits on your grief or compare your feelings to anyone else's. Here are some things you need to know about the stages of grief:
Shock — Some people react initially to a loss with shock or a feeling of numbness. You may go through the motions of notifying relatives and making funeral arrangements without tears or displays of emotion. This is a normal reaction and should not be interpreted as a lack of caring in yourself or anyone else.
Denial —Thoughts such as "This can't be happening" are common when someone close to you dies by suicide. Denial actually protects us from feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of our anguish so that, in the beginning, we can get through each day. If it stays too long, however, it can work against the healing process.
Guilt — During this stage, you may obsess about what could have been done to prevent the suicide. You may blame yourself or dwell on all the "what ifs." "What if I had taken her straight home?" "What if I had gone downstairs and checked on him?" Try to accept that guilt is a normal part of grief. Remember that deaths by suicide usually have very complex causes, and you did not cause the death. Talk with others about how you feel, or turn any guilt you feel into positive action such as giving time or money to an important cause.
Sadness — As the reality of your loss begins to sink in, you may feel overwhelmed by sadness and wonder how you can go on without the person you lost. You may begin to show signs of depression such as changes in appetite, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, feeling tired, body aches and pains, agitation, or frequent crying. These symptoms, if they persist, indicate that you may need grief counseling.
Anger — One aspect of grief is anger. You may blame doctors or others for not preventing the death. Or you may blame the person who died for taking his or her own life. This kind of anger is normal, although it can be disruptive if anger is very high. Following are ways to manage your anger:
- Tell yourself that it is OK to feel very angry, and try to avoid blaming yourself for emotions you can't help.
- Talk about your feelings with friends or family members you trust.
- Use exercise to control anger. Taking a walk or a bike ride can calm your racing thoughts.
- Avoid directing your anger at others. Taking your anger out on others may drive away people who want to help you.
- Express your feelings in a journal or poem or through music or art.
Acceptance — Acceptance is the final stage of grief and the time when you realize that your life is going on. At this stage you may have more energy and feel better able to plan for the future. The loss is still there, but it does not dominate your life.
Coping with the loss
Following these recommendations can help to ease your pain during each stage of grief.
Ask for help from family and friends. Stay in touch with the people closest to you and let them know what you need. After a loss, you may find it difficult to do simple tasks. This kind of concrete help will help you get through the initial shock.
Talk with people you love about your grief. Sharing your pain may make you feel less alone with your loss. Expressing your feelings is critical after a loss. Give yourself time and permission to grieve. Grief can't be rushed or ignored.
Take care of yourself. Keep up your usual sleep and exercise routines, and make sure you eat regular meals even if you eat less than normal. All of these will help you find the energy you need to keep moving forward despite your loss.
Respect your beliefs. Spiritual beliefs can be a comfort after a loss. You may find reassurance, stability and peace in the rituals and customs of your faith or culture.
What to tell others
Breaking the news of suicide can be one of the hardest things you will ever do. Here are some tips to make it easier:
- Tell your closest relatives and friends first. These are the people who will be able to support you best right after a suicide.
- Make sure people are in a safe and quiet place or are with others who can support them when you tell them about the suicide.
- Be gentle but direct. Avoid saying that you aren't sure what happened if you know that someone died by suicide. This could strain your relationships at a time when you need support if people hear the truth from others.
- Give reassurance. Remember that people who were close to the person who died may need to understand that the suicide wasn't their fault. You may want to explain that people who kill themselves are often suffering from depression or another psychiatric illness.
- Think carefully about what to tell children. Give them information that's appropriate for their age, so they'll be able to understand it. Very young children may or may not fully understand what "death" is and may feel even more confused by the word "suicide." It may be best to give them basic information now and provide details when they are old enough to understand them.
Living with the loss
You will always remember the person you lost, but most people find that over time the pain eases. Here are some ways to move forward:
- Find a special way to observe days you associate with the person you lost. Get together with close family or friends or arrange to talk by telephone if you live far apart so that you won't feel alone on days such as birthdays and anniversaries.
- Remember that beginning to laugh and enjoy life again doesn't mean you've forgotten the person who died. This can be one of the best ways to honor the memory of someone you love.
- When you feel ready, consider finding a permanent way to honor the person you lost. You may want to plant a tree, donate money to a cause the person supported or do volunteer work for an organization concerned with a physical or mental health condition that the person had.
- Celebrate the person's life, rather than focus on the way the person died. Given the often unexpected and tragic circumstances surrounding a death by suicide, it’s normal to focus initially on the act itself. Remembering all of the wonderful contributions of a person's life, the things the person accomplished and the ways the person touched others can be tremendously healing and a positive way to remember the loved one that has died.
If you believe you may be stuck in any of the stages of grief, or you feel unable to take these steps to ease your pain and regain your enjoyment of life, talk with your doctor about how to find a counselor or support group in your area. You may also contact your installation’s chaplain, Family Support Center, local faith community, or Military OneSource to connect with a non-medical counselor.