How do you cope with a death that is so sudden, so tragic, and would appear to some to be so preventable? The grief reaction felt by those that are left behind after a person dies from suicide are similar in some ways to any loss, but simultaneously unique in so many ways too. The anger and guilt that accompanies many situations of grief is often heightened further in suicide loss. Anger at one’s self for not having known to stop the suicide or help the person; anger at the person for seemingly choosing to leave their family and friends behind; guilt that there is some relief that the person may finally be out of the pain they lived with if they suffered from a psychiatric disorder such as depression. There are so many conflicting and challenging emotions that may be felt after a death from suicide. Police investigations, media coverage, and stigma or perceived blame make the challenge of grieving this type of loss particularly difficult. Intrusive thoughts of how the death occurred or what you may have seen during or after the person’s death may play in your mind. This is normal, but should become less frequent with time and with work to process through the feelings and emotions you are experiencing.
In some situations (not all – any threat of suicide should be taken seriously), a person who gives an indication that they may attempt suicide is reaching out for help whereas a person planning to follow through with suicide may not give any warning so that no one will try to stop them. Sometimes, a person who has suffered from a psychiatric illness such as depression may even seem as though they are improving leading up to a suicide attempt. The point is that in many cases, this type of death may not be preventable or anticipated. Guilt is a normal feeling in grief and you may replay situations when you should have seen a sign or could have stopped this from happening, but it is important to test the reality of those statements because typically there was nothing that you could have done to anticipate or stop this death from occurring. My number one rule in groups and therapy is never “should” on yourself or anyone else and never let anyone else “should” on you.
It may be difficult to figure out what to tell people when they ask you how your loved one died. This can only be decided by you, however many people say that they find it easiest to say that the person died by suicide. The term “committed suicide” is generally not used anymore as this infers a criminal act and contributes to the stigma of suicide. Most people now say “died by suicide” as this is a more sensitive and understanding description of this cause of death.
Grief is unique to every individual and each person’s needs will be different. However, it is important to support one another as friends and family to begin to work through this difficult process. With time and with some grief work, the good memories and positive feelings you have about the person who has died will come back. You can choose to allow them to be more than just the way they died in your mind – you can remember who they were as a person and honor that memory. If you are having difficulty working through the grieving process following a suicide loss, reach out for help – talk to family, friends, spiritual or religious advisors, and if you need professional help, don’t be afraid to seek it.