Grief after a suicide is something that everyone can understand.
Over the course of a lifetime, everyone will lose people they care about. Sometimes it happens suddenly – either because of an unexpected accident or because of a brief but ultimately fatal health struggle.
In other cases, death is expected, as can happen with a long illness or as the result of old age. In either case, the loved ones left behind experience grief and often struggle to accept their loss and move on.
But a loss that occurs because of suicide is often different. Why?
Suicide Grief is Different
Death by suicide is different from other deaths in a few important ways. For one thing, a loss due to suicide very often leaves loved ones with the kinds of questions that don’t accompany other deaths.
Survivors want to know why the death happened. A car accident, a sudden illness, or a prolonged battle with malignant cancer may all seem like unfair reasons for a loved one to die, but they are at least reasons.
Contrary to what is often depicted in television and movies, a minority of people who die by suicide actually leave notes – and in any case, a suicide note may not necessarily explain the reason for the suicide. And for the loved ones of a suicide victim, the victim’s stated reason is likely not to be a satisfactory explanation anyway.
Another difference between deaths by suicide as opposed to other deaths is the stigma that often surrounds deaths by suicide. In most cases, people understand that death is not the fault of the person who died or the fault of the people who loved that person.
But suicide is different. People who die by suicide are often blamed for their own deaths, and the people closest to the victim often experience some measure of blame as well, either internally or externally.
As a result, there’s often a lot of shame around the topic of suicide, which can stifle the ability of survivors to talk about their feelings.
In some religious communities, suicide is considered a sin, which can create more shame and lead to concerns about the suicide victim’s status in the afterlife.
Who is a Suicide Loss Survivor?
Suicide loss survivors are people who are directly affected by someone else’s suicide.
For example, family members, friends, fellow students or coworkers, neighbors, and other people who regularly interacted with the victim of suicide may be impacted. Mental health professionals who treated the victim are also considered suicide survivors.
The vast majority of people who die by suicide have some type of psychological disorder, and that means that many are under the care of a mental health professional. Losing a patient to suicide can feel like both a professional and personal failure and can be a traumatizing experience.
For every one person who dies by suicide, there are usually at least a few people (and often many more than that) who are personally affected by that death.
With tens of thousands of suicides occurring each year in the United States, there are millions of people left behind who experience the grief and loss caused by suicide.
Understanding Suicide and Suicide Grief
While suicide leaves many questions in the minds of survivors and others, there are some things about suicide that can be understood.
Most importantly, it’s necessary to understand that people who attempt suicide, whether or not they’re successful, are attempting to end their pain. People who are experiencing suicidal depression are experiencing a type of emotional agony.
This limits their ability to problem solve and creates and magnifies feelings of helplessness. The person is unable to feel hope or envision a point in the future in which they do not feel pain.
In some cases, the person may also be experiencing intractable physical pain as well.
While to an outsider it may appear that suicide was a choice, the pain that the victim feels and the effect that pain has on the victim’s ability to plan and problem solve severely limits their ability to make choices the way that they would if they were healthy.
That means that suicide is not really a choice. It’s one possible outcome to a painful health condition, and shouldn’t be stigmatized any more than death due to any other health condition.
The stigma also extends to suicide loss survivors. Suicide loss survivors are often haunted by feelings of guilt. They may wonder why they didn’t see the signs that their loved one was considering suicide. They may feel that they could have done more to stop it.
Suicide loss survivors may also feel anger at their loved one for, in their view, choosing to die.
Correcting these assumptions about suicide – helping suicide loss survivors understand that neither they nor the suicide victim is actually at fault for a suicide – can go a long way toward helping survivors come to terms with their feelings and move beyond their grief.
Working to remove the stigma and shame that surrounds the subject of suicide can also help.
Supporting Suicide Loss Survivors
Suicide loss survivors need support just as much as the survivors who have lost a loved one for any other reason. If you want to help support someone who’s lost a friend or loved one to suicide, a good place to start is by acknowledging the loss.
Make sure to use the victim’s name and acknowledge the death. Pretending that the loss never happened and that everything is the same as before isn’t helpful.
Make sure to ask the survivor if you can help, and if so, how. Encourage survivors to talk about their feelings and be accepting of whatever those feelings are. There’s no wrong way for a survivor to feel following a loss by suicide.
Be ready to be a compassionate listener. Don’t expect to be able to fix everything for the survivor. Just being there, being willing to listen, and offering comfort as requested is often enough.
Above all, be patient. Each person has their own timeline for processing grief, and it may take longer than you anticipate.
Don’t try to set a time limit on someone else’s grief. Just offer to be there for them however long it takes.