Grieving Suicide Loss
When someone we love chooses to end their life, we experience all the normal feelings associated with grief, but there are some that are unique to suicide (and closely related is loss to an overdose).
Suicide is a deeply traumatic and painful event, everyone reacts differently depending on their relationship with the person. I'm going to share common responses and some important things to keep in mind in hopes it will help others.
Almost 800,000 people die by suicide every year around the world. It's the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Each death leaves behind loved ones so there are lots of us out there.
Self-blame and guilt: People will wonder if they could have done more. This is very common. We need to believe that it's not our fault. There is no one to blame, it was a choice that we had no control over. But even knowing that, we can still go through this.
Even though I knew I'd done everything I could to help Keven, I still felt guilty after he died and wondered what more I could have done. I had to make a conscious decision not to go there - not to allow guilt to cause even more grief. We're not responsible for what our loved one chooses. Try to let go of guilt and blame - it's not your fault and can eat away at you. Did you love them? Did they know it? That's what counts.
Anger, frustration, and resentment can also be felt by family members. Again, these emotions can be difficult to handle, but they are natural. Allow yourself to feel whatever you're feeling. I think suppressing these things can further complicate your grief. Consider journaling if you don't have a close friend or therapist to talk to.
With Keven, I had been warned for years that his life would end this way. I didn't feel anger or resentment. I just felt devastated.
Confusion: Family members often have unanswered questions after suicide. Sometimes, they don't understand why their loved one ended their life. Most people who make this choice are in a place of hopelessness. They might be struggling with mental health or not have the strength to keep going.
During a recent volunteer call, a piece of paper was found near the body. A family member read it out loud so everyone could hear. It wasn't a letter or note addressed to anyone. It was more like a journal entry explaining where he was in life. Half the family thought it was a suicide note, the other half didn't. No one will ever know for sure.
There are times when that question can't be answered. You may never know the reason or if it was a suicide, and accepting that is one of the hardest steps in dealing with the loss. It's better to accept it and let it go than to let it bother you forever.
Shame and stigma: Society judges suicide and misunderstands it, which makes it even harder on the family. Suicide stigma and shame can make people feel isolated and reluctant to seek help or share their experiences. Many of us are speaking out against shame and stigma.
Remember, the person judging you or your loved one has the problem. They're lacking compassion and empathy. You have nothing to be ashamed of!
Truama: Seeing or knowing about a family member's suicide is traumatic, especially for the person who finds them. My son used a firearm and I was at his side within seconds. I was haunted by that image for a year after his death. Now if I think about that moment, I force myself to switch to a happy memory.
Family members may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as flashbacks, nightmares, or intense anxiety. For help working through this, I highly recommend finding a therapist who specializes in grief. In the days after it happened, I talked about it a lot with my friends. My graphic description probably disturbed them and now I wish I had talked to a therapist instead.
Relief: In some cases, particularly when the person has been suffering from a long and painful mental health condition, family members may feel a sense of relief that their loved one is no longer suffering. This can be a conflicting emotion, because it seems wrong to feel this way. It's natural.
Sometimes I’m asked, "would you want him to come back if he could?" My first response is always HELL YES! But honestly, wanting him back in the state he was in is selfish. I would only want him back if he could find some peace and not suffer so much.
Interacting with the police and coroner: An added stress with a suicide loss is having to answer what seems like a million questions from first responders and the coroner (this happens with overdose deaths as well.) It can feel like an intrusion and you may think the officers and coroner are being insensitive to your loss. A lot of anger can surface toward them (I have seen this when out on calls). Please remember that they have a job to do. If they appear formal and unemotional it's because that's the only way they can perform their job. The endless questions have a purpose because every suicide is investigated as a possible homicide.
For me, it was upsetting to have to stay outside when my home was declared a "crime scene" and I was insulted that they used that turn. After an hour or so, I let it go and accepted that they were following protocol, it had nothing to do with me or Keven personally.
Grief: Grief is different for all of us. When losing someone to suicide it can leave you feeling shocked and traumatized in addiction to all the other symptoms of grief.
You wonder if you will be able to survive it, if your life can go on. This happens in any type of child loss - it feels like part of you has been ripped out and it physically hurts.
We've all heard of the stages of grief, but in reality it's more like an emotional rollercoaster. You can feel different every hour. Some days will be harder than others. You may feel guilty if you happen to laugh. for feeling it.
Even years after your loved one's suicide, a painful reminder like a birthday or holiday or a favorite song on the radio will trigger painful memories. For me, driving past places that remind me of Keven are one of the many triggers that bring on tears.
There is no one "right" way to feel or cope with such a devastating loss. Whatever you are feeling is the right way for you to feel. Don't listen to anyone who tries to tell you differently.
Don’t try to rush grief. You may be asked "When will you be over this?" It's an unfair question that can make us feel like we should be further along in our grief. There is no timeline. It may last a lifetime, but it does get easier to manage. The hurt never goes away but the immediate feelings of devastation will subside to a level where you can function.
Loneliness. Unfortunately one thing I hear a lot from others is that they feel abandoned. Some people aren't capable of being supportive. They tire of hearing you talk about your loved one. They want the old you back laughing and having fun with them. Your true friends will find ways to support you and make an effort. (read my book, Talk to Me I'm Grieving! This is why my number one suggestion is to find a support group specifically for suicide loss (this is especially helpful for parents).
Most of this is nothing new. It's a reminder of how complex suicide grief can be. I’m not saying it's more painful than any other type of loss, but there are unique aspects to it. Keven told me many times I would be able to handle his death, he really believed it. Have I? Yes and no. Yes, I am getting by and have moments of joy but no, I will never be completely okay again because he’s gone and I miss him, I miss being his mom. It hurts.
One final thing - be defensive. If someone dares to put down your loved one by calling suicide selfish, you have my permission to ask them if they’re ignorant. It happens often. It was said to me on the day of his death by an “authority” who should have known better. Sure, some suicides are for selfish reasons, but that’s much more uncommon.
Your loved one’s life was about more than their suicide. Their choice doesn't define their life. Celebrate them by keeping their memory alive. Talking about them, or if you’re the supporter - ask about them. “Tell me about Keven” is like healing balm to my soul. When someone genuinely cares enough to want to know about my son, I’m thrilled. He’s my favorite topic. Memories, photos and talking about him are all I have left.
Until next month,