Coping with the Suicide of a Loved One
Death by suicide not only affects the person who died, but those who cared deeply about them. These friends and loved ones are called suicide survivors. If you are a suicide survivor, processing the loss of a person might be one of the more difficult experiences you’ve needed to navigate. There is no one way, or specifically helpful way to grieve, as we all experience grief differently.Still, it can be helpful to recognize some of the feelings you may experience, to know you are not alone in your grief, and to understand that you may never get over the loss of a person, but you can learn to persist through it.
Understanding Stages of Grief
Shock and grief can exhaust you after you lose someone to suicide, and you may find that it all becomes quite overwhelming. It might feel like you’re walking through a dark, never-ending tunnel that you can’t see a way out of. These are natural feelings which will likely vary as you move through your grieving process. No two people experience loss in the same way, and the order in which people experience stages of grief may vary. Some physical symptoms such as headaches, changes in appetite, and/or shifts in sleeping patterns may also impact you. A person in grief may experience some or all of the following feelings in any order:
Shock: I feel numb.
Feelings of being detached or suddenly stunned are common responses to trauma. Shock can protect the mind from becoming completely overwhelmed, which allows a person to continue functioning through incredibly difficult times.
Denial: I feel fine.
Sometimes people can consciously or unconsciously refuse to accept the facts and information about another’s death. This can be even more complicated if there is little information or reasoning about a person’s suicide. As you gather specifics and begin to accept that you may not be able to know everything you’d like to, you eventually start to process the reality of your loss. Over time, our minds become more resilient and better able to analyze the tragedy, which allows denial to fade away. Processing all the feelings and emotions that accompany your loss can then begin.
Guilt: I think it was my fault.
Feelings of guilt following a suicide are very common. Guilt comes from the mistaken belief that we should or could have prevented the death from occurring. Guilt can also arise if there are unresolved issues with the deceased or regret about things said or not said. No person can predict the future, nor can they truly know all the reasons for another person’s actions. It’s in our nature to blame ourselves when experiencing a loss. Sometimes that blame we impose on ourselves is easier to understand than it is to accept that some things were out of our control.
Sadness: Why bother with anything?
Once the initial reactions to the death by suicide have subsided, feelings of sadness and depression can become more pronounced. These feelings can be present for a long time and can be continually triggered by memories and reminders of the person lost. Feelings of hopelessness, frustration, bitterness, and self-pity are all common when dealing with a loss of a loved one. Gradually, you learn to accept their loss and embrace all the memories you have, regardless of whether they’re happy or sad.
Anger: How could they do this to me?
Feelings of anger towards the person you have lost can occur. Many who mourn feel a sense of abandonment. Others feel anger with a real or perceived culprit. When these feelings are directed toward the person who died, they can become additionally complex and distressing to experience. It is important to remember that it’s possible to be upset and saddened by the loss while being angry at them at the same time. Sometimes anger is needed before you can accept the reality of the loss.
Acceptance: I can miss them and still live my life.
The ultimate goal of healing is to accept a tragic event as something that could not have been prevented and cannot be changed. Acceptance is not forgetting. Acceptance is learning how to live fully again. Acceptance is being able to take that deep breath and feel peace, to be able to open your heart fully, while still remembering and honoring the person who has died.
What Makes Suicide Different
Losing a friend or loved one is never easy, and when you lose someone by suicide, it can feel different from other types of loss. Several circumstances can make death by suicide different, which makes the healing process more challenging.
Stigma and Isolation:
Talking about suicide can be difficult for those who have experienced the loss. Each culture and religion views suicide in different ways, and sometimes discussing it can be a challenge depending on the environment you are in. Suicide can be isolating because the shared loss in a community is being grieved by survivors very differently. Finding the right people in your support network who are able to help you move through your loss is important. Sometimes, this may mean seeking professional assistance in order to help you cope with your loss. During these times, we recommend that UIC students contact the UIC Counseling Center or a local therapist, and that faculty and staff contact the Employee Assistance Program or a therapist local to you.
When a death is by suicide, you might mourn the person’s death while also managing strong feelings about the circumstances surrounding their death. Feelings of anger, abandonment, and rejection can all occur after a suicide at the same time as positive feelings about the deceased themselves. Sorting through these diverse feelings can make the healing process more challenging.
Wanting to Understand Why:
Understanding the circumstances of a death by suicide can sometimes lead us to asking, “Why did this happen to this person?” You may second guess your own actions, wish that you had noticed signs earlier, or wished you had done something differently. This need to understand why may be a difficult road to navigate, as the circumstances surrounding the person’s death could be unclear or not readily known. Some questions may never be answered. Sometimes you will find answers to your questions, while other times, you must learn to accept the fact that there are some things no one can know.
Risk for Survivors:
People who have recently experienced a loss by suicide are at increased risk for having suicidal thoughts themselves. After living through a death by suicide, it’s not uncommon to wish you were dead or to feel like the pain is unbearable. Remember, having suicidal thoughts does not mean that you will act on them. These feelings and thoughts will likely decrease over time, but if you find them too intense, or if you’re considering putting your thoughts into action, seek support from a mental health professional.
Healthy Ways to Cope with Grief and Loss
You may never get over the loss, but you can get through the loss. You have been changed by this loss, but you can learn how to survive and develop from this challenge. The following are suggestions for healing in healthy, holistic ways:
It’s important to find people in your life who are good listeners, who are willing to be there for you when you’re in need of extra support. You may find it helpful to talk to a friend, family member, partner, mental health professional, or spiritual advisor. You may find it useful to be around other suicide survivors by attending a support group. No matter what support looks like to you, it’s important to pay attention to how you’re feeling and find ways to reach out when you need it.
Just as you may be feeling a range of emotions, people around you may also be sorting through their feelings. Be gentle, kind, and patient with yourself and others. Remember, everyone grieves and demonstrates support in different ways, so give thanks to those able to step up and lend support and time and space to those who may not fully grasp what you’re going through. Your feelings, thoughts, and emotions are valid; limit contact with those who tell you how to feel and what to think. Take time to heal. Set limits for yourself. It’s difficult to make decisions when you’re feeling overwhelmed; you may decide it’s best to put off important decisions until you believe you’re ready to make them with a clear mind.
Take each moment as it comes; you can better accept what you’re feeling, when you’re feeling it, and be able to respond in the way that is most beneficial to you. Maybe writing or coloring would help you move through your thoughts for now. Practice mindfulness or relaxation techniques to help you stay present with your emotions without feeling overtaken by them.
Give Yourself Permission to Have Fun:
Many individuals and cultures handle the time surrounding loss differently. You may not have to feel guilty about smiling, laughing or having fun, following the loss of a loved one to suicide. Social events, activities, or trying parts of your regular routine can provide relaxation and distraction. Laughter and joy can be incredibly powerful components in healing and sometimes through the fun, you find tears present themselves unexpectedly. It’s okay to cry and be present for yourself in those moments, while returning to fun after the tears subside.
Some days, a common task like getting dressed may seem unnecessarily challenging, but it’s important to reestablish routine as soon as you can. Building in some structure can help you manage your grief and provide a sense of normalcy and hope.
Take Care of Yourself:
Remember to eat (as healthy as you can, too!) to help keep your energy up. Exercise or keep active, as this can help your mind and body be more grounded together. Avoid using alcohol or other drugs as distractions that will make it harder for you to work through your feelings.
How to Tell Others about Your Loss
When a friend or loved one dies by suicide, knowing what to say to others can be hard. Sometimes, you may not even be sure of what you want to say. Sometimes, the stigma that can be connected with suicide can cause survivors to feel like they need to hide the truth. Sometimes, survivors believe that others who were not directly touched by the death do not understand what they are experiencing. When this happens, suicide survivors may feel the need to suppress their grief, and dealing with the suicide can become a painful secret. Remember, when and how you talk to others about the suicide is completely your decision.
It is important to give yourself time and consider what you may or may not be comfortable talk about, to whom you may be comfortable sharing the information, and how you might respond if you’re asked questions. You may find that acknowledging how you feel might be helpful, for instance:
- “I would rather not talk about this right now because it’s too painful.”
- “I’m feeling sad and appreciate you asking, but right now I’m not up for talking.”
Even when you find yourself ready to talk to other people about your loss, you may decide that not sharing all the details is what feels most comfortable to you, for instance:
- “I lost this person unexpectedly and they died by suicide.”
- “It’s too difficult for me to talk about what happened right now.”
Stigma is an undeserved and harmful label that others put on someone or something. There is often a lot of stigma associated with someone dying by suicide. It can make you feel like you must hide the truth about a suicide in order to avoid being judged by others. The stigma associated with suicide can be scary, but you are not alone, and finding those with whom you can talk is important. (internal link to additional resources)
Keep in Mind
- Grief after losing someone to suicide be full of intense high and low points, it’s natural to move between them
- There are healthy ways to cope with your loss
- Resources are available on campus and to help you with your academic and emotional needs
- Reach out to friends, family, and supportive others when you want to talk or need distraction
- If the intensity of your grief does not ease over time, seek support from a mental health professional
- You may never get over your loss but over time, you can become more resilient and able to get through it