Someone you love has ended their own life — and yours is forever changed.
You are a “survivor of suicide,” and as that unwelcome designation implies, your survival—your emotional survival—will depend on how well you learn to cope with your tragedy. The bad news: Surviving this will be the second worst experience of your life. The good news: The worst is already over.
What you’re enduring is one of the most horrific ordeals possible in the human experience. In the weeks and months after a suicide, survivors ride a roller coaster of emotions unlike any other.
Survivors of suicide can often experience different emotions that are unique to this kind of loss. It brings about so many unbearable feelings and emotions in people. If you have a loved one who died by suicide, you may be confused, in disbelief, shocked, filled with self-blame, consumed by guilt, traumatized, overwhelmed, sad beyond measure, and raging with anger. And of course, the grief is heart-wrenching.
Every year in the United States, more than 45,000 people take their own lives. Every one of these deaths leaves an estimated six or more “suicide survivors” —
• Every day, throughout the world, over 1000 people complete suicide
• It is estimated that for every suicide there are 15 unsuccessful attempts
• White males over the age of 50 make up approximately 10% of the population but account for 28% of the total suicide deaths
• Men complete suicide three times more than women, but women attempt suicide five times more than men. Most attempts of suicide are made by women in their 20′s and 30′s.
People who’ve lost someone they care about deeply are left with their grief and struggle to understand why it happened. The grief process is always difficult, but a loss through suicide is like no other, and the grieving can be especially complex and traumatic. People coping with this kind of loss often need more support than others.
Why we say suicide “survivor”
We apply the term “survivor” to our experience because it accurately reflects the difficulties that face people who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Some people prefer the term “suicide griever,” fearing confusion with someone who has attempted suicide themselves.
Suicide is different. On top of all the grief that people experience after a “conventional” death, you must walk a gauntlet of guilt, confusion and emotional turmoil that is in many ways unique to survivors of suicide.
How long will it take to get over this?” you may ask yourself. The truth is that you will never “get over” it, and there is no closure, but don’t let that thought discourage you. After all, what kind of people would we be if we truly got over it, as if it were something as trivial as a virus? Your hope lies in getting through it, putting your loss in its proper perspective, and accepting your life as it now lies before you, forever changed. If you can do that, the peace you seek will follow.
Death touches all of our lives sooner or later. Sometimes it is expected, as with the passing of an elderly relative; sometimes it comes suddenly in the form of a tragic accident, but suicide is different. The person you have lost seems to have chosen death, and that simple fact makes a world of difference for those left to grieve. The suicide survivor faces all the same emotions as anyone who mourns a death, but they also face a somewhat unique set of painful feelings on top of their grief…
Rarely in other deaths do we encounter any feelings of responsibility. Diseases, accidents, old age… we know instinctively that we cannot cause or control these things. But the suicide survivor—even if they were only on the periphery of the deceased’s life—invariably feels that they might have, could have, or should have done something to prevent the suicide. This mistaken assumption is the suicide survivor’s greatest enemy.
When we lose a loved one to disease or an accident, it is easier to retain happy memories of them. We know that, if they could choose, they would still be here with us. But it’s not as easy for the suicide survivor. Because our loved one seems to have made a choice that is abhorrent to us.
The challenge of coping with a loved one’s suicide is one of the most trying ordeals anyone ever has to face, but make no mistake—you must confront it. If you attempt to ignore it—sweep it under the carpet of your life—you may only be delaying an even deeper pain. There are people who have suffered breakdowns decades after a suicide, because they refused or were forbidden to ever talk about it.
Time heals, but time alone cannot heal the suicide survivor. You must use that time to heal yourself and lean on the help and support of
others. It might take years to truly restore your emotional well being, but you can be assured one thing: it
will get easier.
Why did they do it?” This is the question that will occupy much of your thoughts for some time. And if you think you know the answer, you should think again, because chances are you’re only seeing part of the picture.
The Condition vs. The Catalyst. Most suicides are occasioned by a “catalyst” event: the breakup of a relationship, losing a job, or learning of bad news. Misconceptions arise when we mistake one of these isolated events for the cause of the suicide. Instead, it is more likely just the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Scratch the surface and you will likely find years of emotional distress that comprise the suicide victims condition.
It’s like a bad dream.”
“It’s like walking in quicksand.”
“I feel as if they’re going to walk through the door any minute.”
“I feel like they’ve killed me, too.”
“All I do is cry.” “How will I ever be happy again?”
The shock and grief that consumes us after we lose someone to suicide is overwhelming. It feels like a hole out of which we cannot possibly climb. But these are natural feelings that will dull a bit as you pass beyond the early stages of the grieving process.
Stages of Grief
While you may hear or read about a detailed list of “grief stages,” it’s truly different for each person. Some of the common emotions experienced by anyone who mourns are listed below. You may encounter some or all of them, and in no particular order…
SHOCK. The daze one feels immediately after a tragedy is actually the mind’s first line of defense. It insulates you from having to process the entire magnitude of it, allowing you to function until you can get your bearings.
DENIAL. Death is the most difficult of all realities to accept. It is common to feel a sense of impossibility, or that it’s all just a bad dream. In time, our minds become more able to analyze the tragic event in a rational, realistic way, allowing denial to give way to less troubling emotions.
GUILT. Guilt comes from a mistaken belief that we could have, or should have, prevented the death from happening, or from regret over irreconciled aspects of the relationship. In truth, we all do the best we can given our human shortcomings. We cannot predict the future, nor do we have power over the events in our universe. It is human nature to subconsciously blame oneself rather than accept these truths.
SADNESS. Once the “reactive” emotions have either passed or become manageable, the basic sadness that accompanies any loss moves to the forefront. This may be felt more acutely when confronted with reminders or special occasions. As we gradually learn to accept our loss and embrace happy memories of our lost loved one, we make room in our hearts for happiness to re-enter.
ANGER. It is common to feel anger toward the person you have lost. Many who mourn feel a sense of abandonment. Others feel anger toward a real or perceived culprit.
ACCEPTANCE. This is the mourner’s goal, to accept this tragic event as something that could not have been prevented, and cannot be changed. Only with acceptance, can you move on with your life.
One of the more painful emotions felt by survivors comes when we try to empathize with the severity of this pain. We try to envision what we would have to feel to make the same choice, and when we imagine our loved one in that kind of pain it’s almost too much to even consider.
But there is a flaw in this thought process. You are imagining what suicidal depression looks like through your eyes—the eyes of a rational, healthy mind. The suicidal person has a distorted view of their world. Problems that seem solvable to us seem impossible to them. Pain is amplified beyond reason and death appears to offer the only possible relief.
The Suicidal Mind.
Attempting to decipher precisely the thoughts of the suicide victim is much like trying to under- stand a foreign language by eavesdropping on a conversa- tion. You can analyze the sounds and syllables all day long, but it’s not likely you’re going to understand much of what was said.
Based on the accounts of those who have attempted suicide and lived to tell about it, we know that the primary goal of a suicide is not to end life, but to end pain. People in the grips of a suicidal depression are battling an emotional agony that, to them, is so severe as to make dying a less objectionable alternative than living. One likened the feeling to “being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole and, rather than fighting to get out, wanting to burrow deeper into the bottom.”
Choice implies that a suicidal person can reasonably look at alternatives and select among them. If they could rationally choose, it would not be suicide. Suicide happens when… no other choices are seen.
The suicide of a loved one is often so sudden, shocking, and deeply disturbing it can trigger a condition known as complicated grief—where the sorrow and pain of your loss remain unresolved and does not ease up over time, preventing you from resuming your own life and relationships.
You may struggle to focus on anything else, feel numb, detached, and empty, or be unable to accept your loved one’s death, looking for them in familiar places or imagining they’re still alive. You may even feel that life isn’t worth living.
Complicated grief can also lead to major depression, psychological trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) where you’re plagued by intrusive thoughts, upsetting emotions, and a persistent anxiety that prevents you from functioning in your daily routine. If you’re depressed or traumatized, it’s important to seek help and make the healing changes that will allow you to find some peace.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and almost 800,000 people around the world die by suicide every year.
While many other people have suffered a similar loss, it’s important to remember that your grief is highly personal to you. Everyone’s situation is different and there’s no right or wrong way for you to grieve. So, don’t judge yourself by how others are coping or believe that you should be thinking or feeling a certain way.
With any loss, grief often comes in waves, ebbing and flowing, rather than in a set of predictable stages. Any grieving process can take a long time and throw up many difficult and unexpected emotions, but following a suicide, the normal responses to bereavement are often intensified.
While your life will forever be changed by the loss of a loved one to suicide—and there’s no way to avoid the emotional barrage of guilt, sorrow, and heartache that comes with that—there are healthier ways for you to cope with the pain.
Allow yourself to feel and express your emotions. You may think it’s better to try to hold yourself together and avoid experiencing all the difficult emotions you’re feeling at the moment. But they exist whether you try to ignore them or not. Attempting to avoid them will only delay and deepen your pain. If you allow yourself to feel even the darkest, most disturbing emotions, you’ll find they’ll start to diminish and the pain you’re experiencing will gradually ease.
Keep a journal: Even if you’re not yet ready to talk about the difficult thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing, writing them down can provide an important release for your emotions. It may also help to write a letter to your loved one, saying the things you never got to say to them.
Remember your loved one’s life was about more than their suicide. Their final act doesn’t need to define their life. Try to remember and celebrate the important, joyous aspects of their life and of your relationship together. Mark their achievements and share memories, photos, and stories with others who loved them.
Expect ups and downs. The healing process rarely moves in a straight line. Some days your grief may seem more manageable than others. Then a painful reminder such as a birthday, holiday, or a favorite song playing on the radio will cause the waves of pain and sadness to return—even years after your loved one’s suicide.
Take care of yourself: It’s difficult to think about your own health at a time like this. But the stress and trauma you’re experiencing right now can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health. Try to eat healthy food, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and spend time outdoors, ideally connecting with nature. While it’s tempting to turn to drugs and alcohol to help numb your grief, self-medicating won’t ease the pain and will only create more problems in the long-term.
Be patient. Don’t try to rush the healing process. Other people may move on or want to stop talking about your loss long before you do. If possible, avoid making major life decisions while you still feel overwhelmed by grief.
Reach out for support: Don’t try to tough this out on your own. People who’ve lost someone to suicide often withdraw from others because they’re worried about being a burden on others or having their loved one judged. But leaning on others for support can help ease the burden of grief and, when you feel ready, talking about what you’re going through can be an important first step in the healing process. Until that point, you can still draw comfort just from being around understanding friends and family members who care about you.
Seek out supportive friends and family. Confide in people you trust to be understanding, who are willing to listen when you want to talk, and won’t judge or tell you how you should be feeling.
Join a bereavement support group: Ideally one for those who’ve lost someone to suicide. Being with others who’ve experienced a similar loss can offer invaluable support. You can be free to open up about your feelings without fear of being judged or made to feel awkward. Even if you’d rather just listen, hearing from others in a similar situation can provide hope and make you feel less isolated in your grief.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor. If you’re struggling to find adequate support, turning to a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling can help. If you don’t have access to therapy, some organizations offer survivor outreach programs where you can talk one-to-one with a volunteer who’s also experienced suicide loss.
Move beyond the question “Why?”
When you lose someone to suicide, one question can run over and over in your mind more than any other:
“Why did they do it?” Unless the person had been battling a terminal illness and chose suicide as a way of hastening the end, for example, most answers you come up with may feel inadequate. Suicide is very complex. There tend to be many different contributing factors, and rarely any neat, simplistic explanations. Even those who’ve attempted suicide and survived often struggle to provide a clear answer to the question “Why?”
Most people who die by suicide have a mental or emotional health problem such as depression, bipolar disorder, or PTSD, even though less than half have previously been diagnosed. Relationship problems, substance abuse, physical health issues, bullying, legal difficulties, and financial stress can also be major contributors.
Even if your loved one left a suicide note, that may not provide the answers you’re looking for. Someone who is suicidal has a skewed view of what’s happening to them. They are in so much pain the only way they can see to escape that pain is by taking their own life. They’re not thinking of the devastating effects their actions will have on you, they’re just trying to escape the unbearable pain they’re experiencing. Most wish for an alternative way to end their suffering, but are so blinded by negative emotions they can see no other solution.
While trying to understand everything you can about your loved one’s suicide is a normal part of the grieving process, it’s likely that you’ll be left with questions that can never be answered. Even if you do uncover all the answers, it won’t change the past or ease the grief and loss you’re experiencing. In time, however, it is possible to move beyond the question “Why?”, accept the unknowable, and start to heal.
Let go of guilt, anger, and blame: Enduring the loss of a loved one to suicide can leave you riding a roller coaster of powerful, often negative emotions. In many cases, whether you’re a friend, parent, spouse, sibling, or other relative of the person who died, you’ll likely feel a strong sense of guilt, anger, and blame.
Your anger may be directed at others—someone who should’ve taken better care of the person, someone who let them down, or even your loved one for leaving you to deal with all the pain and fallout. Alternately, your anger may be turned inwards and you blame yourself for your loved one’s suicide. You may feel that you should have done more to spot the signs, get them help, or not make the situation worse, for example.
As a parent, guilt may stem from feeling that you somehow failed your child in their upbringing or as their protector. As a spouse, sibling, or close friend, you may feel guilty that you said or did something wrong or that you weren’t there for the person when they needed you the most.
As your grief begins to become more manageable in the months or years following the suicide, you may experience new feelings of guilt as you start to gradually move on with your life. But healing doesn’t mean forgetting; it just means looking at feelings of blame and guilt in a more realistic way.
Accept that some things are beyond your control. While we have control over many things in life, we can’t control everything—including the actions of other people, even those we love. Is the blame you’re assuming for your loved one’s death justified? Could you really have prevented them from taking their own life? The truth is we have far less power over others than we like to believe.
Separate responsibility from blame. Trying to find someone to blame is a common response to such a painful loss whether the blame is directed at yourself, your loved one, another person, or even God. While your loved one is the only person “responsible” for their suicide, that doesn’t mean they—or you—deserve blame. The blame lies only with the pain/grief/depression/addictio
Understand that anyone can miss the warning signs. Even mental health professionals can miss suicidal intentions in someone. People who are suicidal don’t always appear desolate or hopeless. In fact, many display a sudden calmness once they’ve settled on a plan to end their life. We can never truly know what’s going on in someone else’s head, any more than we can predict the future and see what’s coming.
Look forward: When you lose a loved one to suicide, life is never the same. But it can be happy, fulfilling, and meaningful again. As you cope with the pain of grief, it can help to reflect back on your loved one’s life and the good times you shared together. It’s also okay to allow yourself moments of joy and to look forward again.
Instead of feeling guilty about leaving the person behind as you start to heal, find ways to celebrate your loved one’s life as you gradually move on with yours.
Create a memorial or tribute to your loved one. You could create a memorial site online, write a blog, make a scrapbook of your loved one’s life, start a campaign for suicide awareness, or donate to a charity in their name, for example. Even simply lighting a candle or visiting a special place to mark important dates can help to promote healing.
Use your loss to help others. Use your experience to volunteer at a bereavement, suicide prevention, or mental health organization, for example. Or reach out to others in your community who are in need of help. This website is an example of something positive that emerged from the pain of suicide loss.
Pursue activities that bring meaning to your life. Whether it’s a favorite hobby, interest, or sport, there’s comfort in resuming activities that are important to you. It can also help you connect with others and come to terms with your loss. Acquiring new skills or staying physically active by enrolling in an adult education or fitness class, for example, can also help to ease stress at this disturbing time.
If you are a suicide survivor, life will never be the same, there will always be an emptiness, a missing seat at the table, a missing person in family photos, during holidays, and day to day life. You are walking through the unthinkable, your life has been forever changed. Please remember to be kind to yourself, you can and will get through this. Take comfort knowing “They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it, for death is no more than turning us from time to eternity, death cannot kill what never dies.”