Life after suicide?
By: James Foley
Life after suicide?
Death is always difficult.
Death by suicide has the added complexity of the question: Why? and the feeling of unbearable guilt.
You may have clicked on this blog for any number of reasons. If you are reading this because you have lost someone to suicide there is one thing I need to say first and foremost.
I am sorry for your very tragic loss.
I have never lost someone by suicide. I do not pretend that I can truly understand what it is like to experience such a loss. This lack of personal experience makes me question myself professionally. Can I really have empathy with somone who is dealing with such a dark reality? Can I honestly say, “I understand”, when it is an experience that has never come to my door?
Perhaps the danger is that, like so many other people, I can shy away from those who are left after suicide for fear of hurting them by discussing it. The truth is that if we hold that position we are showing more concern for ourselves than for the person who has lost a loved one.
Supporting those bereaved by suicide is not primarily about managing our discomfort but about helping the bereaved.
For those of you who are struggling to stay afloat after a loved one’s suicide I pray this blog helps you.
For those of you who are trying to help someone in this position I hope there is information and suggestions here that will help you.
This blog does not aim to have all the answers, but at least I can present the questions to expect.
To those who have experinced a loved one’s suicide
Our relationships are unique. The effect upon you of losing a person you care for to suicide is going to be unique to you. As you read through the content below some points will resonate with you, some won’t. There is no necessity to experience everything on this list.
There is no right or wrong as to how you deal with what has happened, no matter how long ago it is. The only part of the experience you can deal with right now is: the right now.
The better you process how the bereavement affects you now the less negatively it will affect you in the future.
Here are some observations that have been made about how people experience grief from suicide.
- Controlling impact The bereaved person tries to minimises the effect of the loss. They are very careful within the relevant social circle to prevent further suicide. They are extremely cautious with how their behaviour may affect others.
- Looking for explanations The bereaved will examine their memories of the deceased. They will try to answer their questions about the suicide. Questions about the deceased’s character and their relationship with them will be central. The suicide act will be replayed in the mind of the bereaved to help make sense of the suicide.
- Socially uneasy The bereaved will struggle with their friends and family whom they feel are unsupportive or just don’t know how to be supportive.
It is likely they will develop new strong relationships with those who have have experienced similar loss or are comfortable in being with the bereaved when they discuss their loss.
- New insights Not all experiences of suicide are negative. A renewed understanding and appreciation of life can develop for some.
- Missing the deceased A yearning for the person who is gone can feel unbearable. The bereaved may experience overwhelming periods of emotion. Physical symptoms of such loss are insomnia, poor diet, stomach pain, back pain etc.
- A suicide wish Some people dealing with a suicide may have fleeting thoughts of joining the deceased through taking their own life as well.
- Anger and guilt Anger with the person who has died. Guilt for whatever role you think you may have played in the death.
This anger and guilt can be based on thoughts of what should have been done or should not have been done. Anger and guilt are closely connected and are unavoidable.
- Avoidance The bereaved may go out of their way to avoid anything related to the suicide. Eventually this is not practical.
- Shock and PTSD Dealing with the initial shock of the death is the first trauma related to suicide. This is especially acute for the person who first discovered the suicide, even more so if that death was violent.
This shock can eventually lead onto post traumatic stress disorder. In such a situation the bereaved is stuck in re-experiencing their initial reactions to the death. This will require specialist care.
- Stigma The bereaved may experience a negative reaction from their social circle. Some people can be very condemning about suicide.
Such stigma can prevent the bereaved from processing their grief. They will not look for support. Their friends and family may feel prevented from giving them support.
In extreme circumstances stigma may cause the suicide to be covered up and lied about to all but very close family or friends.
- Relationship strain Families and close friend groups may breakdown. Pre-existing tensions can surface due to the stress of the suicide.
Relationships within the social unit may not have been strong to start with and the suicide may just cause it to fragment further.
- Loss of privacy The legal and possible media process after a suicide feels like a breach of privacy. Just as the bereaved person or group are experiencing the immediate shock of the death there are necessary legal processes to endure. These may attract media attention.
- Normal grief experiences A person grieving suicide still has all the normal grief issues to deal with. Planning the funeral, financial settlements, what to do with a loved one’s personal belongings etc are all still part of their grieving process.
Suggestions on positive ways to deal with the grief of suicide
In the immediate aftermath of the death let people support you in whatever practical way they can. This is especially with the funeral and the legal inquest process. Make sure all the practical loose ends of managing affairs related to the deceased are dealt with in due course. Get help with this.
Take your time to experience the grief. Learn to accept you will always have this grief. How you manage it and how it affects you will change over time.
Don’t be afraid to feel your feelings. When you are angry be angry, be sad when you are sad, laugh at funny memories. If your feelings are causing you to find life difficult get help, professional help if needed.
It is generally believed that counselling is helpful once the bereaved is at a stage to come to terms with some of their related feelings, thoughts and behaviours. This stage could take some months to reach.
Use spiritual help. This will be a good time to use whatever belief system you have that helps you find comfort in this time of confusion. Approach someone who shares your beliefs and ask them for guidance or prayer.
Keep social contact with those whom you know can and will support you. If you need space and time away from the world tell them, but don’t take too long.
Look after your physical health. Take care to eat and sleep well. Go for walks. If your physical health deteriorates you will be less able to manage emotional stress.
Look up for local support groups. Meeting with others regularly who share your experience helps you realise you are not alone. Others experience similar feelings as you do.
Some people grieving suicide are helped by reaching out to the public to create awareness around suicide. This suicide prevention work reassures them that others hopefully will not have to deal with suicide in their own lives.
Grieving from a suicide is complicated and ongoing. You will always miss them and you will always have some degree of mixed emotions around it. You may have a long period where you feel ok and then it hits you again.
The key is to be aware of how the grief is affecting you at any given time of stress, accept it as normal and talk to someone about it.
Pointers for helping those bereaved by suicide
As I said earlier it is very easy to want to avoid talking to people who have experienced a suicide. It is understandably uncomfortable especially if you had contact with the deceased as well.
In approaching someone whom you know is seriously affected by suicide you need to be self aware as to how it affects you also.
What feelings do you have to the deceased?
How do you feel about how their death has affected the one you wish to support?
What are you own preconceptions about suicide in general?
How you answer these questions will affect how you give support to the bereaved. Once you handle yourself to be respectful of them and the person who has died, you will be able to honestly express your own feelings about the suicide. It is very likely that your feelings will in some way be similar to the person you are supporting. It maybe that you both need to cry on each other’s shoulder for a while.
These are some suggestions on how to help the person bereaved by suicide.
- First acknowledge their loss and express condolence.
- Don’t be afraid to offer help by word and action.
- Focus on simple kindness
- In the initial stages offer appropriate practical help, don’t necessarily wait to be asked.
- Don’t be an investigator. You are there to be helpful not to solve your curiosity as to why the suicide happened.
- Over time give the bereaved space when they need space and draw close when they seek help.
- Respond to the grieving person’s pace. If they want to just sit and be quiet then make that comfortable for them even just sit with them if they wish.
- Be prepared to listen before you talk.
- When appropriate talk about the deceased and their life. This is likely to be what the bereaved wants to talk about anyway.
- Discourage negative coping. If the bereaved is showing signs of abusing substances etc or even self harming express your concern to them. Suggest suitable support, utilising professional services if need be.
- Be prepared for the long haul. Grief from suicide will never go away. Your ongoing relationship with the bereaved person will be a continuous source of support.
As the years go by the need for your support may not be as intense but it will always be vital.
The changing experience of suicide grief
Dealing with the grief of suicide does not end, but it does change. You can learn to manage your feelings around the suicide.
You can change the negative thinking patterns that keep you stuck in the painful experience of suicide.
You can develop positive behaviours that help you live safely in your community.
If you are the person helping the grieved, be patient with them. Allow yourself to respond to their needs for help, not your needs to help.
In your relationship with them be sensitive not pushing them to move in their bereavement to places they can not go.
In all your interactions with them remain hopeful for them that they can learn to live well in the coming seasons of life.
It is impossible to cover everything. I hope in what I have written you have received some help.
If any of this content has caused you to be concerned for yourself or others please do get help from a trusted friend or professional. This website may give you direct support if you are in current difficulties. https://www2.hse.ie/mental-health/