Suicide is not an uncommon occurrence. Nearly a million people die from suicide around the world annually. It is one of the top ten leading causes of death across all age groups. During the last year in the United States, almost 9 million people over the age of 18 reported having made a suicide attempt. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors vary by age, gender, region and a variety of other demographic characteristics.
When a loved one commits suicide, overwhelming emotions can leave the deep scars on the survivors left behind. According to Jacqueline Cvinar, author and professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, in an article published in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, “Bereavement following suicide is complicated by the complex psychological impact of the act on those closest to the victim.”
The process is also hindered by society’s perception that suicide is the failure of the victim and family to properly deal with an intense, emotional issue. In many circles, society seems to lay the burden of blame at the feet of the survivors. This additional social stigma places such an additional weight that many survivors cannot enter into a normal grieving process without significant professional help.
There are a handful of things that can be helpful if you are called upon to support someone following the loss of a loved one to suicide.
Be Prepared for Powerful Emotions
A loved one’s suicide can trigger an intense emotional response. Expect emotions to be raw; mentally prepare to be sympathetic and strong. Here are a handful of emotions that will rise to the surface:
- Shock. While a degree of numbness and denial surrounds any death, the loved one’s suicidal death will intensify these feelings. It is also likely that the amount of time that the shock lasts will be longer.
- Anger. The emotion of anger may well permeate every waking moment. The survivor may be angry with the loved one for choosing this path or for being abandoned. There may be anger that the loved one left such intense grief behind without thinking of those who survive. There may be anger with other family members for failing to be supportive. The feelings could even be directed inward for not seeing clues about suicidal intentions.
- Guilt. It becomes very easy to play the “what if” or “if only” scenarios. The result almost always is intense guilt, where the survivor blames himself for the loved one’s death.
- Despair. It is easy for the sadness of the moment to cause an avalanche of emotions of hopelessness, helplessness and abandonment. The feelings can often lead to physical symptoms, illness or collapse. More so than other types, death by suicide is often stigmatized in today’s culture. Though professional counselors and the media have worked hard to sensitize the public to the perils of mental illness, depression and suicide, many survivors feel uncomfortable talking about it. The stigma placed on suicide creates a huge barrier for many in the healing process.
- Trauma. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), survivors of suicide are more likely than any other group of bereaved people to develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some survivors are the last to speak with the deceased, may have witnessed the procedure, or may have been the first to discover the body. The images of death and a dead body will be emblazoned upon the mind of the survivor for years to come. Traumatic distress, along with despair and a preoccupation with the deceased, are more intense than under less severe circumstances.
One grieving a suicide loss may continue to feel these intense emotions for months after the suicide loss.
Embrace Healthy Coping Strategies
The aftermath of a loved one’s suicide can be physically and emotionally exhausting. As the process of grieving begins to unfold, several factors emerge as foundational for recovery.
- Keep in touch with people. Encourage the survivor to reach out to loved ones, friends or others for comfort, healing and understanding. The person needs to be surrounded by support and strength.
- Grieve in a way that best suits personality and needs. The grief process is unique for every individual. It is even more the case with suicide. Encourage the person to take small steps, one day at a time.
- Watch out for painful reminders. Help the survivor see that anniversaries, birthdays, holidays or other special occasions will likely trigger painful memories. These hurtful times are normal. You can provide support by your presence – even through cards or emails – on these special days.
- Do not rush the recovery. Challenge the survivor to allow themselves the privilege of healing at their own pace. Do not allow the expectations of others to put pressure or turmoil upon the process.
- Expect setbacks. The survivor can expect some days to be better than others. They may also find that some days have emotional triggers that appear to be several steps backward. Encourage the friend to not be down-hearted. Healing rarely occurs through nothing but progress.
Consider Finding a Support Group
Sharing the story of grieving a death by suicide with others who are experiencing several similar feelings is both therapeutic and transformational. Local counseling centers, hospitals, hospices and religious organizations may be able to provide assistance in connecting with local support groups. Connections made with healthy people and healthy approaches to recovery will be invaluable to the healing and restoration of the life of a grieving person.