Coping with the Loss of a Loved One Through Suicide

Processing death by suicide can be exhausting, lonely, and gut-wrenching.  Often times loved ones are riddled with guilt, shame, and endless questions about the “why’s” surrounding the death.

Stigma

The loss of a loved one is painful, no matter the cause.  What makes grief and loss associated with suicide more complex is the stigma that surrounds suicide.  Often people do not know what to say or do, so they say or do nothing. Worse yet, some people can make hurtful or judgmental comments contributing to shame, blame, social exclusion, and confusion.  Know that not all people stigmatize suicide.  Finding the right supports can help you through the grieving process.

Feelings and Questions

There are so many emotions accompanying loss through suicide.  These emotions can go through peeks and valleys and even occur simultaneously!  There is utter shock and disbelief: how could this happen, how did I miss the signs, what are the signs?  There is anger: how could they leave me, why did they not say something, why did I not say something, why did somebody not say something?  Guilt slips in with awful little thoughts like: I should have asked, I should have known, I should have stopped it!  You may feel abandoned or betrayed: how could they?  You may feel relief that they and/or you no longer have to carry their emotional burden.  Then there is sadness, maybe even clinical depression if these feelings are unresolved or if you are already prone to depression.

Some people may have intrusive memories, dreams, flashbacks, negative changes in thought pattern, mood, arousal and reactivity which may be symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, especially if you witnessed the suicide.  You may experience thoughts of suicide, at which time you should immediately reach out for help.  Sometimes there is complete numbness and detachment from all emotion.  There can be confusion when you are trying to make sense out of something that has no logic attached to it.  Please know that people who die by suicide suffer from such immense emotional pain that they have no hope for reprieve.  They have such constricted thinking that they truly believe there is no way out of their pain, no choice other than suicide.

Concrete Steps to Surviving the Loss

Every person grieves in their own unique way and at their own time.  You may feel pressure from your loved ones, employer or school to “get over it” or “move on” but you have to work through your loss in a way that is sensitive to your unique needs.  It can be helpful to schedule time when you are able to process your grief and loss on your own terms rather than pouring all of your energy into staying busy and avoiding your thoughts and feelings.  While alone time can be helpful, also make an effort to connect with people that are understanding and supportive through this difficult time rather than merely isolating.  Find a way to forgive yourself for what you did or did not do or say to prevent this loss from happening.  Find a way to forgive your loved one for what they did or did not do or say to prevent this loss from happening.    Find a way to celebrate that which you loved about them prior to the memories becoming clouded by suicide.  Journaling, a memory box, scrapbook, or celebration of special dates can be healing.  Accept that you may never have the answers to all your questions.

Understand that grief is not a linear process.  You will have good days and bad days.  You will be bowled over by emotions and reminders, sometimes  expectedly, other times completely out of the blue.  Be kind to yourself and allow yourself the time and support you need to heal.  It may be helpful to connect with a mental health therapist if your find yourself stuck or unable to work through your grief independently.  A therapist is a trained professional that can brings objectivity and support and can assist you in overcoming the relentless internal questions and “stuck points.”  A support group for those who have lost loved ones through suicide can be especially helpful in processing the unique experience of this type of loss.

Supporting Children through Death by Suicide

Depending on stage of development, children often do not have the words to express what they are feeling and may rather express emotions through play or behaviors uncharacteristic to them.  You may see regression to behaviors of earlier stages of development previously conquered, such as bedwetting.  It can be tempting to shield a child from the facts surrounding a death; however, it is best to avoid confusion by providing your child with information at a developmentally appropriate level.  They should know who are appropriate people to talk with about their emotions and thoughts but not be forced to talk until they are ready. For younger children it is especially important to not use ambiguous terms such as “going to sleep” which can cause confusion and fear.  It is important to normalize emotions and clarify misunderstanding.  It is also helpful to dispel any notions that the child caused or contributed to the death.  It may be helpful to seek out the support of a mental health therapist that is versed in grief work at a developmentally appropriate stage for your child.

Siquilla LiebetrauSubmitted on behalf of the Regional Mental Health Coalition of Northeast Indiana and written by Siquilla Liebetrau, Psy.D., HSPP, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Director, Otis. R. Bowen Center.

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