Help for survivors of bereavement by suicide
Posted on 31st March 2021 at 14:53
Every loss is unique, as is every person who has suffered loss. But those who have been bereaved by suicide know that there are aspects of this type of loss that are particularly painful, hard to accept, challenging to explain to others and seemingly impossible to overcome.
We would like to talk about some of the unique aspects of bereavement by suicide to help those left behind as well as those who would like to provide them support.
Suicide is a sudden, often unexpected and/or violent death
Those who have been bereaved by suicide often feel like their entire world has been shattered – this is partly due to the fact that they have usually had no time to prepare for the loss, may not have seen it coming and because the nature of the death has been violent. Each one of these aspects contributes to the overwhelming feelings of grief that they experience. They may struggle to fathom what has actually taken place and feel like everything they believed to be true in life was a lie. Some say that they feel like they have died themselves, and without a doubt they have lost the life they had prior to the loss. It’s no wonder that studies show those bereaved of suicide are far more likely to die by suicide themselves - even if the death was not of a family member.
It’s not uncommon for those bereaved by suicide to show symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well. If they were present at the death or discovered the body of their loved one, they may have painful lasting images that they can’t shake, or suffer from nightmares or flashbacks. Even hearing about the death may evoke painful images or nightmares, whether the images are real or imagined. Then there’s the pain of knowing that a loved one has died in such a traumatic way. It certainly increases the complicated nature of the grief, feelings of despair and unbearable pain.
Stigma around suicide makes it hard to grieve and find support
Isolation, loneliness, feeling misunderstood and wanting to appear “fine” in front of others are extremely common after a loss of any kind. There is still a great stigma attached to death in our society, and myths around suicide can make that stigma even greater.
Those grieving a loss due to suicide often experience guilt and possibly shame, and they may fear judgement or insensitive comments made by others. Sometimes families decide not to reveal the cause of death, which can add to isolation - it increases the likelihood that family members will grieve alone and not seek help for fear of revealing the "secret". Friends and colleagues may struggle with the fact that they don't have information about the death and are left to wonder what happened.
The intensity of grief and yearning cause many to feel like the person who has died is the only one who could now truly understand their pain – it helps them feel closer to their loved one, but takes them further away from people who would be able to provide true support.
Suicide leaves many unanswered questions
Perhaps the greatest barrier to finding relief from the pain of a suicide is the number of questions that plague those who are left behind.
Suicide makes you question yourself.
How did I not know?
Why didn’t I take him/her seriously?
How could I not notice the signs?
What kind of mother/father/brother/sister/wife/husband/son/daughter/friend am I, that I couldn't do anything to stop this?
Why didn't I return his/her calls?
Could I have done anything?
Suicide makes you question the relationship.
How was he/she feeling when we were on that holiday/at the party last week/on Christmas?
How long have they been thinking about this?
Were they even happy for any of our relationship?
Did this happen because of me?
Wasn't I enough to make them want to stay?
Suicide makes you question the person.
How could they do this to me?
How could they leave me with all of this pain to figure out on my own?
Why didn't they leave a note?
How could they not know how many people cared about them?
How could they do this to the family?
Of course, given the nature of the death, we know that our loved one was in such pain that they may not have even had answers to these questions themselves. But they still keep us up at night and bring us back into pain when we've started to feel a bit better. The questions never seem to end.
It’s hard to accept that questions will remain unanswered
One of the most challenging aspects of bereavement due to suicide is coming to terms with the fact that these questions will inevitably go unanswered. As human beings living in a very logical, black and white world, we rarely feel comfortable with ambiguity. We’re used to going online and getting an answer to any question under the sun, no matter how obscure. Unanswered questions are frustrating to say the least; the idea of spending a lifetime with these unanswered questions can be unbearable. Even in cases where a farewell note or explanation was left behind, it can often raise more questions that will go unanswered or cause us to feel even more angry, frustrated or hurt.
Suicide ends the conversation
Regardless of whether or not they left a note, suicide closes the door to a response. Suicide ends a relationship without permission, without advance notice, without saying goodbye. In a close relationship, we may be hurt, angered, shocked by the fact that our partner, child, friend, parent or sibling made this choice without our input, and without giving us a chance to stop it from happening.
Perhaps you’ve already heard that people contemplating suicide develop tunnel vision – that they can no longer consider the impact of their death on others. This knowledge may provide some temporary comfort. Knowing intellectually that our loved one was simply unable to consider our feelings at the time of their death may help us feel better – at least briefly. But the nagging, emotionally charged questions eventually come back.
That’s because knowing facts about suicide may help us understand the death on an intellectual level, but they don’t help us on an emotional level.
“Why?” is an emotional statement
It’s perhaps the most obvious, most repeated question of all when it comes to suicide: Why?
We may have been left a goodbye note, or we’ve read the journals, we’ve listened to the experts, we’ve learned about the facts in books. Even if we knew all the answers, we would still be asking, “Why?” That’s because this isn’t an intellectual question, waiting for an answer. It’s an emotional one. What we’re essentially asking is, Why did this have to happen? How will we get through it? How will I be able to live like this? How can life possibly go on? Will I feel like this forever? Can I survive this kind of pain?
You have emotional needs
Suicide changes our lives forever. In all of our asking of questions, isolation and pain we can become obsessed with what has happened. In an attempt to help ourselves feel better by looking for answers, our minds can actually do more harm than good – we may become caught in an endless cycle of asking, seeking, feeling guilty, asking “why” and starting all over again.
When we lose someone to suicide, they become the most important person in our lives. Even relationships that aren’t commonly regarded as “close” increase in magnitude after this type of loss. We can become infatuated with the person’s inner world, trying to fathom what has happened and why.
As much love and empathy we have for the one we’ve lost – and the feelings of sadness we have on their behalf can be staggering – we are also human beings with our own emotional needs. Our mind may try to answer all possible questions, and learn all it can about suicide in an attempt to help us feel better (it’s really the only way the brain knows how to fix a problem). But unfortunately, the problem isn’t with your mind. The problem lives in the heart, and the heart isn’t getting its emotional needs met by learning more facts.
Our striving to answer questions is covering up our basic emotional need for being understood, accepted, loved, seen and heard. Even when the grief is all-consuming, we still have our own fundamental emotional needs. When we experience a loss, it’s an opportunity to explore our own feelings, values and selves. This is seldom possible with friends and family, who may also be grieving or have their own opinions and needs. We need to take action in order to get our own needs met, and often this means seeking outside support.
Most of what we’ve learned isn’t true
Many of our articles discuss the “myths of grief” - beliefs around loss and bereavement that our society continues to reinforce and pass down to younger generations. All of these myths apply to those bereaved by suicide as well. They are faced with comments such as “At least he is no longer suffering,” or “she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” They’re told to be strong for their children, their partners, their friends. They’re forced to grieve alone for fear of being misunderstood, ridiculed or making others sad. They keep themselves busy with work, social obligations, housework or distractions. They’re told that time will heal their wounds and that they just need to be patient – or, that the pain of loss will never heal and that life just needs to go on while the wound remains sore. Most of these statements aren’t true, and none of them are helpful. Those who have suffered a loss due to suicide deserve support from someone who is willing to listen, be present, and is aware of the uniqueness of each loss and each individual.
Get your free How to support a friend bereaved by suicide
When someone dies by suicide, the shock can be profound and widely felt by families, and friends, colleagues, and professionals. There are many reasons behind what drives someone to suicide, leaving those left behind with a multitude of questions, a whole wealth of emotions, and many things left unsaid.
We have put together this ebook to help you to support your friend with their grief. Our focus is to help people deal with the aftermath of the act of suicide and highlight the emotional loss and grief suffered by them and give you some tools to help them. Many people shy away from talking about death, especially suicide. We hope we give you the confidence to reach out to your friend.
Download for FREE - click here
The only evidence-based programme for grief
The Grief Recovery Method is an action plan for those who have been bereaved by suicide or any other loss and are looking for a way to begin living again. It is the only programme of its kind that has an evidence base to support its effectiveness. For loss due to suicide in particular, it takes into account the questions that have been left unanswered and provides us a way out of the never-ending cycle of pain and overthinking. It also provides relief from the pain caused by the traumatic death, so that you can remember the entirety of the relationship, not just the final painful images.
If you’re interested in learning more, watch our interview with Grief Recovery Specialist Mandy Baxter, who completed the Grief Recovery Method programme following the loss of her husband to suicide. She was so changed by the Method that she decided to participate in one of our training programmes and become a Grief Recovery Specialist herself. If you’re interested in learning more, please visit our training page or find your nearest Specialist.
Bereavement by suicide can be lonely, devastating, and unbelieveably painful. Please do not grieve alone or believe that no one will be able to understand what you're going through. Time alone will not heal your pain. Please reach out to us so that we can get you the support you deserve.
*The title of this article - Help for survivors of bereavement by suicide - indicates that those who are grieving a loss by suicide are "survivors" of the loss. This is a popular term, but it's one we didn't use in the rest of the article. That's because this label often becomes a new identity for those who have lost a loved one to suicide and can be detrimental to their recovery process. You can learn more about this in The Grief Recovery Handbook.
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