Losing a loved one to suicide is a uniquely painful and difficult experience. Suicide loss survivors – people who have lost a loved one to suicide – can be at risk for elevated rates of complicated grief.
Surviving the suicide of a loved one is a life-changing ordeal that requires all of the resilience that a survivor can muster, and all of the support that family and community can provide.
In this post, we hope to highlight some themes in the grief of suicide loss survivors. It is our aim to help you to understand your own complicated grief, or to empower you to help support a friend, family member, colleague, or client who is grieving a suicide loss.
Thoughts and feelings common to suicide loss survivors
First, it's important to understand the thoughts and feelings that often arise after losing a loved one to suicide. Each of the emotions described below are normal and understandable reactions to surviving a death by suicide.
Often, suicide loss survivors try desperately to attempt to understand how their loved one could have felt like suicide was the only option. This could look like replaying events leading up to the death and analyzing what could have been done or said differently to “save” their loved one.
At first, the suicide of a loved one may have come as a shock: they did not give any indication that they were thinking of taking their own life, they did not seem depressed, the signs did not seem to be there. However, looking back, some survivors feel that the signs now seem obvious. Suicide loss survivors may blame themselves for not knowing what was going to happen which can lead to feelings of guilt and anger. Although feelings of self-blame are common, the loss of a loved one is not the survivor’s fault.
Social disruption and isolation
Other people in the community who hear about a suicide may retreat from discussing the subject, out of discomfort or insecurity about an appropriate reaction, which may result in isolation or long-term changed relationships for the survivor. Alternatively, survivors may isolate themselves when they feel like people who have not experienced this type of loss cannot possibly understand what they are going through.
While it is improving, there is still stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. Suicide loss survivors may feel judged by others, as well as themselves, for not preventing the death. This feeling of being judged can escalate feelings of guilt and isolation.
Suicide loss survivors may feel anger at themselves, at the person who died, or at family members or friends. Sometimes born from feelings of rejection and abandonment, anger can be exacerbated by secondary losses, such as the loss of a home, relationships, or financial security.
Shock and horror in the form of trauma can bring up many related feelings. Even for those who did not find the body of the lost loved one, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not uncommon. Survivors may also be hypervigilant, wondering if they may miss signs of suicidality in someone else or in themselves.
Survivors may also feel relief after their loved one’s death. The death may have indicated the end of suffering if their loved one had been struggling with chronic physical or mental illness. The relationship also may have been complicated, where the person who died was perhaps hurtful, threatening, or cruel. Relief may come when you feel as though there is some sort of resolution and no more uncertainty.
Suicide loss survivors are at a heightened risk for hopelessness or suicidality.
Not always as obvious, these feelings can be passive (e.g., “I just want to be with them”), especially as survivors feel a loss of their identity or role status (e.g., “If I am not a mother/husband/etc., then what am I?”).
While suicidal feelings in those grieving a loss to suicide are not uncommon, especially early on, particular attention should be paid if loss survivors find their thoughts shift from passive suicidality (e.g. “I wish I wouldn’t wake up tomorrow”) to active suicidality.
Common myths about grief
Understanding common myths about grief to be just that – myths – can help normalize your experience throughout the process.
Here are three myths about grieving to be aware of:
Myth #1: "Grief happens in stages"
It is a detrimental misconception that grief happens in stages – that a grieving person should move through each stage making progress toward “healing.” In actuality, grief is not a straight line, or something that goes away permanently after a certain period.
There may be extended stretches when a survivor feels that they have their grief managed or forget it is even there. When it reappears, it may make a survivor feel as though they have made no progress at all. This is not true. Grief can be repetitive. The goal is for the intensity, frequency, and duration of these feelings to lessen over time.
Myth #2: “Time heals everything.”
Grief needs time to heal, but time does not heal grief. Loss survivors cannot just wait it out and hope it will get better. Doing the work to process grief is essential for survivors.
Myth #3: “Everyone grieves the same.”
Grief is not one size fits all. Everyone’s plan and journey moving through their grief is very individual.
Factors that can protect survivors
Growth is possible as survivors begin to build a support system of care to protect themselves as they travel through their grief.
These supports include:
- Access to effective mental and physical health care
- Strong connections with friends, partners, family, and community
- Optimism and reasons for living
- Sobriety and/or impulse control
- Self-worth/esteem and a sense of personal control
- Healthy coping skills, such as problem-solving and resiliency
- A reasonably safe and stable environment, including restricted access to lethal means
- Responsibilities and duties to others, such as family, friends, and pets
Helpful resources for survivors
It is crucial to know that you are not alone in your journey. There are resources that can help you cope, heal, and connect with others whose experiences are similar to yours:
- Peer-to-peer programs, such as support groups, online message boards, and home visits
- Mental health professionals, especially those trained in bereavement after suicide and grief therapy
- Support from communities including statewide, regional, and local coalitions
- Volunteer opportunities with suicide prevention organizations
What growth can look like after a tragic loss to suicide
While loss survivors do not ever fully recover from their grief, they can move forward from it and learn to carry it better. Emotional fortitude and strength can come in a number of different ways:
The loss of a loved one to suicide may give a survivor a new perspective of the world. With the realization that people grieve differently, a respect for others’ opinions and feelings may emerge. This perspective shift will likely come with a stronger sense of empathy and awareness of others’ emotions.
Survivors may begin to appreciate many things in their lives more fully than they ever had, especially when there is a more positive focus on the time they had with their loved one, instead of a focus on the time they will not have again.
Many survivors find an inspiration to help others after their loss. This may mean making major life changes as they prioritize time and resources to making their community a more positive place.
By surrounding themselves with other survivors, many who have lost a loved one to suicide can start to feel a renewed sense of hope that they can survive this loss and find a new normal that includes happy times again.
The suicide of a loved one can have a profound and devastating impact on those left behind. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, please know you are not alone in your grief. Above all, be fair, gentle, and compassionate with those grieving a loss from suicide.
This is a guest blog from our friends at Samaritans. Samaritans' mission is to reduce the incidence of suicide by alleviating despair, isolation, distress, and suicidal feelings among individuals in the community, 24 hours a day; to educate the public about suicide prevention; to help those who have lost a loved one to suicide; and to reduce the stigma associated with suicide.
The organizations provides free and confidential life-saving suicide prevention services throughout Greater Boston, MetroWest, and across Massachusetts.