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Losing a loved one to suicide is a particularly devastating kind of loss, one that research has shown is often experienced differently than deaths caused by illness or accident. No matter what your relationship was with the person who died, people who lose a loved one to suicide often experience a toxic mix of grief, shame, isolation and blame. The specific dynamics of suicide make it even more traumatic for surviving family members while society’s unease with death in general and suicide in particular often leave these family members to grieve and suffer alone.
If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, though, you are not alone. Suicide is much more common than many people realize—it claims the lives of more than 40,000 Americans every year. Yet our collective unease with the idea that someone chose to end his or her own life means that suicide isn’t talked about and people who have lost a loved one to suicide often feel like their experience and grief is solitary.
The Reality of Grieving a Loved One’s Suicide
If you’re grieving the suicide of a loved one, you’ll likely feel a mixture of the following emotions… perhaps even more intensely than other bereaved family members would. The following emotions are common in those who’ve been left behind by a suicide:
- Suicide survivors often find themselves wondering if they missed warning signs or what they could have done to prevent the suicide. This guilt is often intensified by questions and/or blame from other family members or even strangers, who might accuse a bereaved individual of “pushing him/her to the brink.”
- Some families of suicide victims don’t want to publicize how their loved one died, and/or they feel ashamed that he or she committed suicide.
- If your loved one had been murdered, it would be natural to be angry at the murderer. But when the perpetrator and the victim are one and the same, it can be hard to reconcile your (entirely legitimate) feelings of anger with your overall sadness that the person is gone.
- Some suicide survivors feel like their loved one didn’t love them enough to live, or like the suicide was a verdict on their relationship. In addition to feeling rejected by the loved one who died, family members of people who die by suicide often feel rejected by their friends and community.
- For some people, there is also relief when a loved one who has been clearly suffering dies. If your loved one had talked about harming him or herself in the past, or had talked about harming you or others, his or her death can bring a sense of calm and relief.
The complex and intense emotions that come when a loved one dies by suicide make it especially important to seek out help from a professional counselor who has experience working with people bereaved due to suicide. I can help you work through the complicated and unique emotions that your loved one’s death left you with.
Facing The Family and The World
Unfortunately, suicide still carries a major stigma in many communities. Some religions won’t give a full burial to people who died by suicide. In addition, some families point the finger at each other, assigning blame where there really is none. The loved ones of people who die by suicide often find themselves isolated from their community, bombarded with uncomfortable and/or insensitive questions and unable to talk openly about how their loved one’s life and death. Here are some common challenges suicide survivors face when interacting with families and community members.
- If your loved one had died in a car accident, no one would consider lying about the cause of death. In the case of suicide, however, it’s not uncommon for one or more family members to try to conceal the fact that it was a suicide, or even to outright deny that it was a suicide. This can cause an enormous amount of conflict between family members, as some want to acknowledge what happened, both privately and publicly, and others refuse to.
- Other loved ones might blame the deceased person’s spouse, children, parents or others. Sometimes families openly blame one or more family member, saying things like “you drove him to kill himself,” or “you didn’t pay attention to her calls for help.” Almost as damaging are family members who insinuate that someone’s suicide is your fault, without ever overtly laying the fault at your feet. Sometimes blame comes from close family members, but even near strangers can make comments to suicide survivors that feel like a pointed finger.
- Probing questions. Suicide survivors often find that they are bombarded by questions about their loved one’s mental health, whether or not there was a note, the exact manner of death and if they “saw it coming.”
Most suicide survivors already feel massive guilt, and the blame placed on them by other family members and society in general can make it even harder to heal and move forward. Researchers at Harvard have, in fact, found that many people who die by suicide exhibit no warning signs beforehand, and that suicide is often an impulsive, unplanned act.
Working with a counselor can help you not only manage your own grief, but also give you the tools to manage your relationships with others in your family and your community. Here are some of the ways I can help support you as you grieve and heal following a suicide:
- Building a toolkit for how to talk with family members, friends and coworkers about your loss, including how to deal with questions you’d rather not ask, how to talk about your deceased love one in a way you feel comfortable with and how to react when you feel like someone is blaming you.
- Working through the guilt and self-blame that most suicide survivors struggle with. Addressing your guilt—and recognizing, both intellectually and emotionally, that you are not responsible for your loved one’s death in any way—is a key part of healing after a loved one’s suicide.
- Giving you a safe place to talk about and acknowledge the full breadth of your emotions after your loved one’s death.
People who lose a loved one to suicide are more likely to experience long-term, debilitating grief than those whose loved one dies by other means. I understand the challenges suicide survivors face in overcoming their grief and building a happy, healthy life post-loss. I can help you find a path forward that’s right for you and where you are in your life.
Losing a loved one to suicide will shake you to the core, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your life, too. Suicide survivors can and do rebuild their lives and are just as happy as before their loved one’s death. I can help you get there.