To Suicide Loss Survivors

Survivor.  The most accurate term to describe the challenging recovery for those who have lost someone they love to suicide (Jackson, 2003).  It is estimated that 115 people are impacted by a single completed suicide (Survivors of Suicide Loss Task Force, 2015 ).   One in five of these individuals describes the experience as life altering (Survivors of Suicide Loss Task Force, 2015).  Shock. Grief. Guilt. Anger. Loneliness.  Do these sound familiar?  They are only a few of the emotions a survivor of suicide loss (referred to as survivor in the rest of the article) experiences when they hear the loss of their loved one was by suicide.   Grieving the loss of someone to suicide is different than other types of loss.  The following are a few ways coping with suicide is different than other types of loss. 

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Experiencing Shock when Someone Commits Suicide

When first told about their loved one’s suicide, many survivors are in disbelief.  They question the validity of the information given.  You may think “I just saw him”, “They have the wrong person”, or “He would never end his own life.”  Of course, one does not want to believe someone they care about took their own life.  In shock, you may try to go to all the places your loved one could be wanting to prove he is still alive.  On the other hand, some will find themselves unable to see or talk with anyone.  Whatever response you have, allow yourself time to process the life changing news.  Try to accept what you may need in the moment to contemplate the deep loss you have just experienced. 

There are a few survivors reading this article that may have a different experience.  Rather than shock, they are not surprised by their loved one’s completed suicide.  These survivors’ loved one may have had a long history with struggling with suicidal intent along with mental illness.  In their loved one’s struggles, they felt helpless and move into questioning why and could they have done more to prevent the suicide.  

Asking Why When a Loved One Commits Suicide

You may have asked yourself this question a thousand times or maybe you are avoiding this question.  Either way, all survivors question why their loved one took his own life.  It feels that knowing the answer will bring peace and understanding.  Also, survivors may not admit it, but it gives their mind a distraction from the immense sense of loss they are experiencing.  While asking why and trying to find out as much about your lost loved one is part of grief, survivors must understand they may never have all the information to know the why. 

To identify the reason why someone completes suicide can be difficult to pinpoint.  Those who complete suicide are experiencing or have experienced at least one of the following conditions: “emotional illness, prior attempts, morbid thoughts or hypersensitivity to pain” (Jackson, 2003, p. 9-10).  Often a “catalyst” or event sends the person over the edge to seriously contemplate suicide (Jackson, 2003, p. 9).  Suicide loss survivors can focus on the catalyst as the event that caused the suicide when completed suicide seldom is a sudden act (Jackson, 2003).  Suicide is more about stopping unbearable pain than really wanting to end one’s life (Jackson, 2002).  As a suicide loss survivor, you may be tempted to focus on the event that triggered the suicide and blame yourself or others.  In reality, the isolated event is not the cause of the suicide. 

“I Should Have Known…”

As a survivor, this statement haunts you.  Every conversation and every interaction with your loved one has been sifted through in your mind for clues or hints that you may have missed.  Often this questioning and rethinking of conversations and interactions turns into guilt.  The guilt becomes blame of yourself.  There are thoughts of being able to prevent the suicide or being a bad mom, dad, spouse, sibling, or loved one because you did not see the warning signs.  Unfortunately, there are times when even trained mental health professionals miss the warning signs (Jackson, 2003).  

The only one responsible for your loved one’s suicide is your loved one.  That is a difficult statement to take in and accept.  Instead, it can be easier to take the blame on personally because you can handle it.  You would much rather blame yourself than come to the reality that your loved one is responsible for their suicide (Jackson, 2003).  Blame, guilt, and acceptance of a loved one’s suicide is difficult to navigate alone.  If you can relate to any of the above descriptions, it is important to talk with someone who has experience with suicide loss survivors.  One of the worst things you can do is keep the blame and guilt inside and allow it to fester.  Later, this article will contain helpful resources for support groups and individual counseling.  It is very important that you as a survivor understand you are not alone in your experience. 

Grief After a Loved One Commits Suicide

Everyone grieves differently.  While there are steps to grieving, you may not experience them in order or you may return to a step you have already experienced.  Allow yourself time to grieve the loss of your loved one.  Grieve that your loved one was in a great deal of pain to end his own life.  Acknowledge and accept your feelings of helplessness.  You may cry and you may not; however you need to release your emotions is valid.  It could take time for you to realize and acknowledge your emotional reaction to your loss.  While taking time to identify and acknowledge is part of grieving, avoiding your emotions is not helpful.  To avoid the emotions you experience only delays your journey to healing.  If you are prone to avoidance in other difficult areas of your life, it would be best for you to seek professional counseling to help you dive into the emotions you have ignored.  

Anger When a Loved One Commits Suicide

Anger is a normal part of the recovery process for survivors. Of course you’re angry.   You lost someone you deeply care about.  Survivors experience anger at the person they lost.  It is difficult to admit to anger at this person.  Guilt may also accompany the anger because a survivor does not feel she the right to be angry at her loved one.  Instead or along with this anger, the survivor may feel anger toward herself for not noticing warning signs.  There may be anger with another person or situation whom the survivor believed could have prevented the situation.  Remind yourself that anger is normal.   Part of your recovery as a survivor is acceptance of your anger.  It may be strange or difficult to think about accepting your anger.  If you do not work on accepting the anger, it will stay with you until the choice is made to look at and identify the sources of anger.  One way to work on accepting your anger is writing down what you’re angry about.  You may be surprised with how much anger you have held in.  After you have written the list, share it with a trusted person, support group, or individual counselor.  Holding on to anger is a weight too heavy to carry for one person.  

Resiliency of Suicide Loss Survivors

Simply stated, resiliency is surviving through difficult situations.  Survivors of suicide loss are resilient.  Throughout the process of accepting the loss of your loved one, you have endured much hardship.  Yet, you continued your journey and have not given up.  The best thing you can do for yourself as a survivor is to build a community of support.  Your support may be friends and loved ones who understand your loss.  Most importantly, your community of support should include an individual counselor and a support group of other survivors of suicide loss.  Two great resources for finding suicide loss support groups are the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.  The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a specific section on their website for survivors of suicide loss that provides useful resources.  The Suicide Prevention Resource Center also has a section for survivors which has very helpful articles and resources.  Here at MyCounselor Online we have experience with suicide loss survivors and want to help you in your continued journey to acceptance. 

A Note About Stigma Around Suicide

Unfortunately, suicide and the after effects are misunderstood in our culture.  Often, survivors experience “blame, judgment, and exclusion” (Jackson, 2003, p. 2).  Most people do not understand the pain a person is experiencing when contemplating suicide.   Therefore, it is also difficult for them to understand the guilt, anger, and grief a survivor experiences.   You are not alone in your grief and journey to healing this loss.  Do not give up.  Seek others who you know can support you without judgment and accept each step of your journey.  

If you are reading this article and struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is help.   The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day:  800-273-8255.


References

Jackson, J. (2003).  A handbook for survivors of suicide.  Retrieved from  http://www.suicidology.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/SOS_handbook.pdf

Survivors of Suicide Loss Task Force. (2015, April). Responding to grief, trauma, and distress after a suicide: U.S. National Guidelines (p. 1). Washington, DC: National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.sprc.org/resources-programs/responding-grief-trauma-and-distress-after-suicide-us-national-guidelines 

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