When a Loved One Has Completed Suicide
Losing a loved one can be devastating. Whether it is due to a long-term illness or a traumatic event it can send us whirling and unable to make sense of the changed reality of our lives. Above and beyond the already crippling pain of loss, there are also some deaths that come with extra layers of emotions related to the manner the death occurred. This week’s blog continues our mini–series on suicide and focuses in on the loss of a loved one by suicide and is directed at those that struggling to understand and heal from this.
If you are reading this, perhaps one of your worst nightmares has come true: someone you know or love completed suicide. Words can’t capture the devastation, pain, and confusion that you are likely experiencing. There are such a multitude of emotions that you may be flooded with that it becomes impossible to name or attend to them all.
The land of maybes
Maybe you are completely baffled by the reality of their suicide and “never saw it coming,” because the person seemed to have it all together and everything going for them. They laughed, spent time with friends, had a good job, a significant other, or plans for the future that you were looking forward to becoming a part of.
Maybe you knew that they were fighting a long–term battle with depression or anxiety and you were aware of their darkest days, so you weren’t entirely shocked.
Maybe you are second guessing every conversation you ever had with the person, looking at every action, reaction or phrasing of words. Now, looking back, you see danger signs you wish you paid more attention to. “Clues” that appear to be overwhelming you in intensity and importance now but were not noticed before.
Maybe you are just overwhelmed with all the “maybes” going through your head.
Racing thoughts and mixed emotions are normal and part of the experiences of any loss. Though at this time you might feel “crazy” and anything but normal.
Honor Your Reaction
So many emotions may be just screaming inside of you if you’ve lost someone to suicide. Try not to judge what comes up for you or how those around you are responding. Each of you are now facing your own battle in trying to fully absorb, understand and heal from this loss. Although there are no hardline blueprints on how to process loss, much less how to understand death by suicide, there are some common stages of grieving that often get discussed.
Keubler Ross Stages of Grieving
These stages are just a general framework and it should be noted that you do not have to experience every single one of these during your grieving process. Nor should you expect to work through them in any particular order or time frame. Rather than being clean and sequential, the grieving process tends to look more like a jumbled ball of yarn that a cat has discarded on the floor. It is a mess, with many knots and frayed ends, and can never quite go back to the smooth ball it started off as.
When we are looking at death by suicide, we generally add at least two more “stages” or reactions to the death: Shock & Guilt. Oftentimes people find themselves in an intense state of shock and deny the reality of what has happened. As suicide is considered a “preventable” death, we can be left with layers of guilt and confusion. Constantly trying to determine what intervention point could have been used to alter the path that was ultimately taken.
Anger can surface when you think about the person choosing to leave you or leaving their children. That they made such a large choice that created a ripple effect of cataclysmic damage and are not the one left here to pick up the pieces and go on.
Bargaining may take place when we try to make deals with God or the universe to undo the loss. Deals such as, if I don’t drink anymore, if I’m just a good person, if I had just done…X…, maybe this will all be a dream. Maybe I can wake up tomorrow and things will go back the way they were.
Depression can hit when despair sets in and it can feel hard to breathe, to get out of bed, to do the basics of everyday life. You may begin to question what the point is of continuing your life without your loved one. The depression feels like it will last forever, but it won’t. Not at this same level of intensity and confusion. This is a fresh wound, one that is raw and jagged but as it starts to heal and scar, breathing will become easier.
Acceptance is a difficult stage for many people, because giving up that inner fight can feel like they are giving up some of that person. But Acceptance doesn’t mean that you accept what happened as “ok,” it just means that you have started to accept the reality that your loved one is gone.
As you move through the jumbled emotions and stages, you may find yourself starting to laugh again at small things and get some glimpses of joy throughout the day. All the above stages show that you are in the process of grieving and working toward healing yourself and continuing your life. However, keep in mind that you do not go through each stage just once. Your relationship with the person and the nature of their death can have a large impact on the healing process and your ability to “make sense” of the loss. As you hit different natural stages in your own life, as you go through major events (both happy and sad) you will likely reexperience some of these stages as you are trying to connect what is to what you thought would be.
Honor Your Loved One
You might feel completely numb, blank, dissociated, on autopilot, or feel as though you can’t make decisions right now. That’s ok. At some time in the future it may be helpful to start a practice or ritual to honor the person that you lost by suicide. If this doesn’t feel right to you, don’t do it, but for some it can be extremely helpful. This may be wearing some piece of jewelry in remembrance of them, visiting their gravesite regularly, volunteering or trying to make a larger impact in their name, or sending positive thoughts or prayers out for that person or others you see struggling.
These types of things can be done regardless of your spiritual or religious affiliation and can be a mixture of being done by yourself and in the company of others. Events like the Out of Darkness Walks, that happen in many communities across the county create a space for honoring your loved one without fear of stigma or judgement.
A Word on Selfishness
It can be easy to deem what your loved one did as selfish: how could they possibly do such a thing to you? They “took the easy way out” and left you to deal with the aftermath alone. You are absolutely justified in this response, but oftentimes this thought stems from hurt and anger. It can feel better in the moment to blame the other person for what they did than to face the reality that they’re gone and feel that pain. Whether the suicide was carefully planned out or impulsive, it is important to keep in mind that the pain that the person was in at the time was their focus. At that moment it felt so intense to them that they could not imagine continuing with their life.
Their action was NOT directly connected to you. And if the person who took their life happened to name you as a reason for their actions—that’s extremely hurtful and manipulative, but THEY made the choice to end their own life. Do not blame yourself for it. It may take time for you to relieve yourself of that responsibility and that’s ok. Talk about it with loved ones, a counselor, friend, or in a support group so that you can process through the intensity of what you are experiencing now.
Things to Remember
It’s normal to feel like “if only XYZ happened…” then I could have intervened and stopped this. However, these thoughts put a lot of undo responsibility on you and assumes that you could somehow know the outcome of a situation in the moment you were experiencing it.
You’re in immense pain, so your brain tries to be helpful and look for ways to make the painful thing not have happened. It may find a few things that you could have done differently if you ‘had only known’ but even if this was possible, it does not guarantee that it could have changed the outcome. Making a phone call at a certain time, using different phrasing, not putting up boundaries or taking care of yourself when needed, or even running out in the middle of the night to rescue someone has no guarantee on how they may have been saved or hurt the next day, or the day after that. As you work towards processing this loss and developing some level of understanding and acceptance, here are some things to remember.
A completed suicide does NOT mean
- The person doesn’t love you
- You didn’t help that person
- The person hated you
- You could have saved the person
- You were a bad mother, father, brother, sister, friend, etc.
- If you enjoy your life, you have forgotten the person
Taking care of yourself throughout the grieving process can feel like a full–time job. You are sluggish, don’t feel like doing anything, and may not feel like you care about anything right now. Try your best to get adequate sleep, not too much or too little. Stay hydrated. Eat healthy and regularly. Try to be honest about what you’re experiencing so that you don’t waste energy feeling like you have to hide it. Sometimes just saying “I’m having a really hard time” will suffice.
You don’t have to explain all your thoughts and feelings to others to share you need support. Isolating yourself will only prolong the grieving process, so try your best to let others in and support you. Also consider going to counseling or joining a formal support group. Counselors can help you process your emotions and pain and give some individualized practical tips for engaging with life and creating a “new normal” without your loved one here physically.
Never stop learning
- No Time to Say Goodbye; Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One – Carla Fine
- I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye; surviving, coping and healing after the sudden death of a loved one – Brook Noel & Pamela Blair
- Tips for Talking About Mental Health with Family and Friends
- How to Handle a Mental Health Flare Up
- The Therapeutic Benefit of Pets
- Lawrence County Crisis Line: 724-652-9000
- Mercer County Crisis Line: 724-662-2227
- The Crisis Text Line can be accessed by texting HOME to 741741
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255