In the wake of a loved one’s death by suicide, families often disintegrate, unable to deal with the intense grief and the difficult, painful, and often unanswerable question of “Why?” For every suicide, it is estimated that at least six persons are affected. These include family members, co-workers, neighbors, classmates and close friends. Beyond grief and the fruitless search for answers, survivors of suicide also grapple with crippling emotions.
Emotions can Derail Suicide Survivors’ Healing
The waves of emotions that flow through the minds of suicide survivors can be so devastating that they cause the person to no longer be able to function. Life just seems to stop for them, now that their loved one has died by suicide. These emotions may occur singly, or in clusters, come fleetingly or stay for lengthy periods of time. They all need to be dealt with in order for healing to begin.
• Shock – Most survivors of suicide feel shock as an immediate reaction, along with physical and emotional numbness. This reaction is the temporary way for the person to screen out the pain of what just happened, to allow time to comprehend the facts, and take things in smaller and more manageable steps.
• Anger – Loved ones and family members often express anger, or suppress it, at the waste of human life. Anger is another grief response, and may be directed toward the person who died by suicide, to themselves, another family member, or a therapist.
• Guilt – Following death by suicide, surviving family members rack their brains trying to think of what clues they missed, how they may have been able to prevent the suicide. This self-blame includes things they said (or didn’t say), their failure to express love or concern, things they planned to do (but never got around to) – anything and everything in a never-ending kaleidoscope.
• Fear – If one family member committed suicide, perhaps another will make an attempt. The surviving family member may even fear he or she is in jeopardy.
• Relief – When the deceased died by suicide after a protracted illness filled with intense physical pain, long decline into self-destructive behavior, or ongoing mental anguish, surviving family members may feel a sense of relief. Finally, the loved one’s suffering is over.
• Depression – Nothing seems worth an effort anymore to many suicide survivors. This manifests itself in sleeplessness or disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, fatigue, and loss of joy in life.
Grief experts say that most of these intense feelings will diminish over time, although there may be some residual feelings that may never truly go away. In addition, some questions may forever remain unanswered.
It sounds trite, but it’s true. You can survive suicide. It is, however, a long and often painful (and painfully difficult) journey. Here are some strategies to help individuals survive suicide:
• Stay connected with other family members – The last thing you need is to be isolated and alone. You need other people at this time more than any other. Contact with others is particularly important in the first six months following a loved one’s suicide. For others, maintaining contact with others will take longer, almost as a lifeline of support. In any case, other family members are in most need of contact, even if they express a wish to be left alone. Not everyone grieves in the same way. Some people are unable to open themselves up and say what they feel. They may need more time to be able to offer you any consolation, but this doesn’t mean they don’t desperately need it themselves. Talk openly with other family members about your feelings about the suicide and ask them for help. But only do so if you feel ready to speak about it.
• Give children special attention – Children, especially, may have a more difficult time with the intense emotions they are experiencing. It is important to remind them that these are normal grief reactions. They need, above all, to know that you still love them and will be there for them always. Share how you feel with them, and encourage them to speak from their heart when they are ready.
• Holidays are stressful times – Be aware that holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other special days are very stressful times for suicide survivors. Plan to meet the family’s emotional needs – as well as your own – during these times.
How do you Survive Suicide?
Beyond staying connected with other family members, it’s important that suicide survivors reach out and get help. There’s only so much an individual can work out in his or her head without professional help. Fortunately, help is available in a number of ways. These include psychological grief counseling, individual or group meetings, self-help groups, books and literature.
Websites for Suicide Survivors
Listed here are a few websites that may be helpful for suicide survivors:
• For Suicide Survivors – //forsuicidesurvivors.com/index.html, devoted to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one by suicide.
• Suicide Survivors.org – //www.suicidesurvivors.org/, survivors of suicide help and information, Judy Raphael Kletter.
• Survivors of Suicide – //www.survivorsofsuicide.com/index.html
• Surviving Suicide – //www.survivingsuicide.com/cope.htm, provided by the surviving suicide support group of the Central Christian Church.
Suicide Support Groups
The following link to suicide support groups comes from Suicide.org, //www.suicide.org/suicide-support-groups.html. Click on the state to be directed to a list of suicide survivor support groups in that state. There is also a link to suicide support groups in Canada.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) also has a directory of suicide support groups for the United States and International locations.
Those who have been through the process are often the best sources for survival suggestions. The following tips are a common theme among various self-help groups, grief counseling and treatment sites.
• It takes time to survive. You may not think you will survive, but you will.
• Lean on your faith to help get you through this crisis. If you aren’t affiliated with any specific religious group, do meditation and bring forth your own higher power to help you heal.
• Laughter is very healing. Be willing to laugh with others and at yourself. It will help you progress.
• Getting past your feelings of anger, shock, fear, guilt, relief, and depression is necessary – but it doesn’t mean you forget. You do need to “wear out” all those feelings, however, before you can begin to heal. Allow yourself to do so.
• “Why” is always important. Give yourself permission to find the answers until you are satisfied. If you can only obtain partial answers, and that is all that will be forthcoming, be satisfied with that so you can move on.
• Acknowledge that all your intense emotions are perfectly normal reactions to grief.
• Take it one day at a time, one moment or one emotion at a time. This way, you will be less likely to be overwhelmed.
• When you need to talk, call someone. And, be a good listener to others who need to talk as well.
• You need time to heal. Don’t expect this to happen in a prescribed period of time. It’s different for everyone.
• Don’t be around people who try to tell you how to feel. Only you know how you feel, and you’ll progress at your own pace through your healing process.
• Expect that there will be setbacks. Not every day will be a step forward. Understanding that will help you get through these times.
• Put off any major decisions, if you can. In the immediate aftermath of suicide is not the time to make important life decisions.
• It is okay – and recommended – to get professional help to deal with your grief.
• Recognize and understand the pain that your family members and others are going through at this time. It’s not all about you and your feelings. Others are suffering as well.
• Learn how to say no. Set limits for yourself.
• Be patient with yourself – and with others. Not everyone understands what you’re going through. Similarly, other family members and loved ones need to process grief at their own pace. Your patience with them will be appreciated and is a loving gesture.
• Accept that you will never be the same again. But this does not mean that you will never enjoy life again. You can, and you will.
Recommended Books for Suicide Survivors
Although the pain you and your family feel over the loss of your loved one to suicide is personal and unique, it helps to know that others have come through a similar experience. That’s why counseling and group support is so important. As an adjunct to personal interaction with other suicide survivors and counselors, then, reading books on the subject is also therapeutic. It is especially helpful for when you are alone, late at night, or when your grief seems insurmountable.
Children have very different needs than adults. For this reason, parents may wish to read how other parents helped their grieving children. Here are some recommended books, but they are by no means all-inclusive. They are featured on the website For Suicide Survivors:
• What Children Need When They Grieve: The Four Essentials: Routine, Love, Honesty and Security, by Julia Wilcox Rathkey.
• Helping Children Grieve: When Someone They Love Dies (Revised Edition), by Theresa Huntley.
• Helping Children Cope With the Loss of a Loved One: A Guide For Grownups, by William C. Kroen and Pamela Espeland.
• Guiding Your Child Through Grief, by James P. Emswiler and Mary Ann Emswiler.
• Grieving Child, by Helen Fitsgerald.
• Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Help Children with Complicated Grief-Suicide, Homicide, AIDS, Violence and Abuse, by Linda Goldman.
Books for children about suicide include:
• After A Parent’s Suicide: Helping Children Heal, by Margo Requarth.
• After A Suicide: A Workbook For Grieving Kids, developed by the Dougy Center for Grieving Children.
• But I Didn’t Say Goodbye: For Parents and Professionals Helping Child Suicide Survivors, by Barbara Rubel.
• Someone I Love Died by Suicide: A Story for Child Survivors and Those Who Care for Them, by Doreen Cammarata.
General guidelines on suicide are covered in the following books:
• After Suicide: A Ray of Hope for Those Left Behind, by E. Betsy Ross and Joseph Richman.
• After Suicide: Help for the Bereaved, by Dr. Sheila Clark.
• Healing After the Suicide of a Loved One, by Ann Smolin and John Guinan.
• Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide, by Christopher Lucas and Henry M. Seiden.
• Touched by Suicide: Hope and Healing After Loss, by Michael F. Myers and Carla Fine.
• Aftershock: Help, Hope and Healing in the Wake of Suicide, by Candy Neely Arrington and David Cox.
• After Suicide, by John H. Hewett.
Specific survivor guides include:
• My Son…My Son: A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss or Suicide, by Iris Bolton.
• Suicide of a Child, by Adina Wrobleski.
• Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Sibling, by Michelle Linn-Gust.
• An Empty Chair: Living in the Wake of a Sibling’s Suicide, by Sara Swan Miller.
• No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One, by Carla Fine.
• Before Their Time: Adult Children’s Experiences of Parental Suicide, by Mary Stimming and Maureen Stimming.
Hope for the Future
Whether through the passage of time, prayer, helping others, or finding a new purpose in life – perhaps through and with your children or others in need – you will eventually begin to feel something again. Now, all you feel is pain and numbness, but that will pass. No, it will never be the same as it was. That’s why you need to use any and all available resources to help you navigate these troubled times.
Remember that love is the most powerful healer there is. Express your love for your loved one that you lost to suicide, as well as to those remaining family members who now need you more than ever. Love yourself as well. Give so that you may receive. And, take it one day at a time. Each day, each month will bring you a little closer to inner peace and new hope for the future.