“Death by suicide is not a selfish act or even a choice. It’s a sign of a mind that needs help. It’s a horrific outcome to a tragic situation.” David Kessler
Although all grief is difficult, the grief that follows a suicide death is among the most complex. Suicide is beyond comprehension for most of us. We struggle to understand how this act could possibly have seemed to be the answer for our loved one. Suicide leaves behind a wake of questions, guilt, and pain that can seem unbearable. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that suicides are often stigmatized in our society, which impacts the level and kind of support available to survivors. Survivors often need to build protective boundaries to allow themselves the space and time needed to grieve and begin to heal from these tragic losses. Healing begins with understanding the unique issues facing those left behind after a suicide and giving yourself grace and permission to take care of yourself.
Survivors are left with a host of questions that will never be answered. “Why? Did I do enough? Could I have prevented this death? Did I miss signs I should have seen?” These questions and the thoughts of “if only . . .” plague survivors as they seek to come to terms with the fact that the unthinkable has just happened. David Kessler describes these questions as “the mind’s way of trying to assert control in an uncontrollable situation that has already happened.”
Survivors never find answers that fully explain or provide comfort. Even if a suicide note was left, the note often raises more questions. We simply find it difficult to grasp that someone would feel such a deep sense of despair and pain that suicide seemed like the only possible solution.
In addition to the internal questions, the bereaved are often faced with intrusive, insensitive questions from others. “Did you have any idea?” “Did you see any warning signs?” These questions imply that you could have done something but simply chose not to, which is ludicrous. The very nature of any kind of response indicates the lack of thought from those who voice such questions. Others may ask how about how the suicide occurred or if a note was left. While these questions reveal the questioner’s own need to come to terms with what has happened, the questions are inappropriate and intrusive.
Your Response to Questions
You are never obligated to give a response to any of the questions above. You get to decide what you will say if anything, and to whom. In the case of suicide, determining your response may require more thought and preparation. If you decide to provide a response, being truthful that the death was a suicide is important, but you’re not required to provide any details. You may choose to walk away, or you can let them know that their questions are too painful for you to talk about right now. Another helpful response is to refocus the conversation on favorite memories of your loved one, explaining that you are choosing to focus on how he/she lived rather than the death itself. And if people don’t allow for this shift in conversation, you might consider creating relationship boundaries or limit time with them.
The Journey of Pain
Some survivors of suicide may have been aware that their loved one had struggled with mental illness and was walking a journey of pain, yet they were unsure to intervene or find an answer. There could have been an inkling about suicide but obviously, if there had been a clear warning, they would have intervened. Sadly, our society lacks the knowledge and confidence to adequately address mental health needs and intense emotions that often lead to suicide. Loved ones often spend countless hours going back over text messages, conversations, notes . . . anything that might provide a reason. Sometimes you can identify an event that may have been the “last straw,” but you also recognize that suicide was an extreme response. We also have to remember that the person who died by suicide was under great pain, emotional distress, and overcome with incorrect thinking patterns.
Our society has placed a stigma on certain kinds of death, resulting in judgment, gossip, shame, and blame. Stigma results from mistaken beliefs about control, prevention, and the incorrect assumption that there is always a reason. The stigma has a negative effect on the support survivors receive. Survivors may immediately become aware of rumors, misplaced blame, or simply hurtful comments about the person who died. Because of the stigma and discomfort around suicide, others who might otherwise offer support may feel even more awkward about what to say or how to provide comfort, and so they stay away. The result is that survivors of suicide often become isolated in their grief. They may choose to avoid others as a protective response or because of their own sense of shock or self-blame. They simply don’t feel ready to deal with others.
Effective Coping Strategies
(1) Give yourself grace and time to cope with the trauma and shock.
(2) Understand that you will most likely never have a clear answer as to “why.”
(3) Understand that anger, guilt, and blame are normal responses in grief from all deaths and may be heightened in suicide deaths.
(4) Focus on activities that are helpful in all grief: exercise, mindfulness, taking breaks from your grief to enjoy nature, journaling, etc.
(5) Avoid spending too much time going back over conversations with the deceased. This can keep you stuck and elongate the duration of grief.
(6) Do not let the manner of death become the legacy of your loved one. You can choose to honor the good things about their life, the love they brought to you and others, and your love for them.
(7) Establish rituals for honoring the memory of your loved one on special occasions like holidays, birthdays, and the date of their death.
(8) Ask others for what you need and allow others to provide meaningful assistance. Seek professional help if you begin to notice your own mental state deteriorating, development of harmful habits, and/or experiencing traumatic imagery replaying in your mind.
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