The grief that ensues after losing a loved one to suicide is often very different than that experienced after losing someone to another cause. Survivors of suicide are often left with a myriad of unanswered questions regarding why the person committed suicide and what they could have done themselves in order to prevent it. Questions such as Did I miss the warning signs? What could I have done to prevent it? Why did this happen? race through one’s mind and often lead to feelings of guilt. And, even though there has been found to be a neurological basis for depression and suicide, it is often difficult for a survivor to truly grasp this, as feelings of self-blame tend to override their thought processes.
The stigma that exists around suicide also contributes to the complicated grief that a survivor experiences, as our society, at times, tends to blame, criticize and socially exclude those who are mourning a loss due to suicide. Sometimes the exclusion is not intentional, but rather due to the uncomfortableness that many experience when talking about suicide therefore leading to their reluctance to discuss the matter with those who are mourning.
According to Dr. Deborah Serani, a writer for Psychology Today (2013), the memories of the deceased may also be tainted by the fact that the person died by suicide, as a survivor may start to question if their happy memories of the deceased are actually false. Questions such as Did he really enjoy that vacation that we went on? Was she just hiding the pain when she seemed to be having so much fun? may arise leaving the survivor wondering about the quality of those memories.
All of these factors lead to a mix of feelings including sadness, grief, self-blame and anger leaving the survivor to question how they can even start to cope with the loss. Many psychologists have written on this issue and in general, some good steps to take are the following:
- Stay connected: Although there might be temptation to isolate yourself when grieving, research has proven that social connectedness helps foster resiliency. Stay connected to friends and family members who can offer support. They might not always know the right thing to say in each and every moment, but their mere presence and your accepting of any help that they might offer will help you work through the grieving process.
- Resist the urge to self-blame: Remind yourself that depression and suicide is neurologically based and therefore you are not at fault for your loved one’s suicide. People thinking about committing suicide rarely talk about their suicidal thoughts with others and therefore it can be difficult to recognize when someone is contemplating doing so.
- Allow yourself to feel: Intense feelings of shock, anger, guilt, despair, confusion and rejection can ensue after a loved one commits suicide. Allow yourself to acknowledge, experience, and express these feelings and to talk about them with your support circle.
- Seek help: Seek the help of friends and family members, as well as a trained professional if necessary in order to help you process your reactions and feelings regarding the suicide.
- Allow yourself to retain positive memories of the deceased: Everyone, even those who have committed suicide, have had positive moments in life. Remember them and allow yourself to reminisce about them with others.
Written by Erika Stapert, PsyD