Though death inevitably touches all our lives, people grieve in many different ways. From the emotions we experience and the length of our mourning to the rituals and remembrances we embrace to help ourselves heal, grieving the death of a loved one is never easy.
But suicide is something altogether different. It’s a death like no other.
Suicide stuns with soul-crushing surprise, leaving family and friends not only grieving the unexpected death, but confused and lost by the haunting loss.
What makes suicide different?
The death of a loved one is never easy, whether it comes without warning or after a long struggle with illness. But there are reasons that set death by suicide apart and make the grieving process more challenging.
- Stigma and shame. There can be a powerful stigma attached to suicide. Religious beliefs or family differences may make it difficult for survivors to speak openly about what has happened. If a decision is made to keep the suicide a secret, isolation and confusion may follow.
- Need for reason. After a suicide, “what if” questions can be extreme and self-punishing, unrealistically condemning the survivor for failing to predict the death or to successfully intervene. Sometimes you’ll find answers to your questions. Other times, you may have to learn to accept the fact that there are some things no one can know.
- Risky coping behaviour. People who have recently experienced a loss by suicide are at an increased risk of having suicidal thoughts themselves. It’s not uncommon to wish you were dead or to feel the pain is unbearable.
- Mixed emotions. After a death by illness or natural causes, feelings may be less complicated than when the death is by suicide. In the case of suicide, you may mourn the person’s passing while also holding intense feelings about the circumstances of their death.
Brace yourself for powerful emotions
When a loved one dies by suicide, overwhelming emotions can leave you reeling. Your grief might be heart wrenching. At the same time, you might be consumed by guilt. Why did this happen? How did I not see it coming? What should I have done? As a survivor of suicide loss, it’s common to experience a range of intense emotions.
- Shock. Disbelief and emotional numbness may set in. You might think that your loved one’s suicide couldn’t possibly be real.
- Anger. You might be angry with your loved one for abandoning you, or angry with yourself or others for missing clues about suicidal intentions.
- Guilt. You might replay “what if” and “if only” scenarios in your mind, blaming yourself for your loved one’s death.
- Despair. You might be gripped by sadness, loneliness or helplessness. You might have a physical collapse or even consider suicide yourself.
- Confusion. Many people try to make some sense out of the death or try to understand why their loved one took their life.
- Rejection. You might wonder why your relationship wasn’t enough to keep your loved one from dying by suicide.
Ways to cope with your grief
Unfortunately, there’s no one method for overcoming grief. We all have our own ways of dealing with loss and suicide is no different. The aftermath can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Be kind to yourself as you work through your grief.
- Forgive yourself. Maybe you were unaware of the warning signs. Maybe there were none. You can’t help someone if you don’t know they need help or they don’t want help. Acknowledge that perhaps there was nothing more you could have done. Forgive yourself for not being able to save them.
- Keep in touch. Reach out to loved ones and friends for comfort, understanding and healing. Surround yourself with people who are willing to listen when you need to talk, as well as those who’ll simply offer a shoulder to lean on when you’d rather be silent.
- Grieve in your own way. Do what’s right for you. There’s no single “right” way to grieve. If you find it too painful to visit your loved one’s gravesite or share the details of your loved one’s death, wait until you’re ready.
- Be prepared for painful reminders. Anniversaries, holidays and other special occasions can be painful reminders of your loved one’s suicide. Don’t chide yourself for being sad. Instead, consider changing or suspending family traditions that are too painful to continue.
- Don’t rush yourself. Losing someone to suicide is a tremendous blow, and healing must occur at its own pace. Don’t be hurried by anyone else’s expectations that it’s been “long enough”.
- Expect setbacks. Some days will be better than others, even years after the suicide – and that’s OK. Healing doesn’t often happen in a straight line.
- Seek support. Sharing your story with others who are experiencing the same type of grief might help you find a sense of purpose or strength.
- Know when to seek professional help. Seeking professional help is especially important if you think you might be depressed. Unresolved grief can turn into complicated grief, where painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that you have trouble resuming your own life.
Supporting family and friends
Knowing what to say or how to help someone after a death is always difficult, but don’t let the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing keep you from reaching out. Just as you might after any other death, express your concern, pitch in with practical tasks and listen to whatever the person wants to tell you. Here are some practical considerations.
- Accept the intensity of the grief. The grief that follows a suicide is always complex. Don’t be surprised by the intensity of their feelings. It’s important to accept that survivors may struggle with explosive emotions – including guilt, fear and shame – well beyond the limits experienced in other types of deaths. Be patient, compassionate and understanding.
- Acknowledge the death. Extend your condolences and express your feelings of sorrow. Make sure you used their loved one’s name. Many people who lose someone to suicide have a broken heart and need your empathy, compassion and understanding to heal.
- Ask if and how you can help. Though they may not be ready to accept help, asking signifies that you are there. You’re not avoiding or distancing yourself from the tragic event. The notion of being there if needed can be extremely comforting.
- Don’t ask for an explanation. Survivors often feel as though they’re being grilled. Was there a note? Did you suspect anything? They may be searching for answers, but your role for the foreseeable future is simply to be supportive and listen to what they have to say about the person, the death and their feelings.
- Listen with your heart. Be a compassionate listener. The greatest gift you can give someone you care about who has survived a suicide loss is your time, reassurance and love. And don’t be surprised if they relate the same story about the death over and over. Listen attentively each time. Repetition is part of the healing process.
- Avoid cliches. Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a suicide survivor. They’re trite comments and can tend to diminish the loss by providing simplistic solutions to difficult realities. Comments like “time heals all wounds”, “think of things you have to be thankful for” and “they’re in a better place” aren’t constructive.
Facing the future
As you face life after a loved one’s suicide, you’ll never “get over” the loss you’ve experienced, but you can “get through” it. Eventually, the raw intensity of your grief will fade and the tradegy of the suicide won’t dominate your days and nights. And understanding the complicated legacy of suicide and how to cope with your grief can help you find peace and healing, while still honouring the memory of your loved one.
Where to go for help
- Lifeline – 1300 659 467 (24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services)
- Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800 (24/7 counselling and support services for young people aged 5-25 years)
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467 (free phone, video and online counselling for anyone affected by suicide)
- GriefLine – 1300 845 745 (counselling service for people suffering grief)
- MensLine – 1300 789 978 (24/7 support for men with family and relationship issues)
- Support After Suicide – (03) 9421 7640 (support, counselling and information for people who are bereaved by suicide)