Nearly one million people die by suicide each year worldwide. This means that every 40 seconds, the loss of a person who killed themselves shatters the lives of family and friends. For those that have been affected by a suicide (termed ‘suicide survivors’), the emotional impact can last for many years. A message left by the deceased might help the survivors understand why their loved one decided to take their own life, but even with an explanation, there are often still unanswered questions that those “left behind” may feel they need to untangle, including their own role in the sequence of events. In many cases NO explanation was provided, leaving friends and family with an overwhelming need to make sense of the death.

Losing someone to suicide evokes strong and confusing emotions, which differ from other types of loss, and complicate the healing process. The feelings of loss, grief, and loneliness felt after the death of a loved one are often exacerbated in suicide survivors by the effects of confusion, rejection, shame, anger, stigma, and trauma. In addition, survivors of suicidal loss are at increased risk of developing major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal behaviour, and ongoing grief known as complicated grief. Unfortunately, sometimes a cultural or religious stigma could keep survivors away from much-needed support and treatment resources. Many people have trouble discussing death by suicide and might not reach out to the bereaved, leaving them feeling isolated or abandoned.

A common response to a loved one’s suicide is an overestimation of one’s own responsibility, as well as guilt for not having been able to do more to prevent such an outcome. Survivors are often unaware of the many factors that contributed to the suicide, and in retrospect see things they may have not been aware of before the event. Family members will often replay events up to the last moments of their loved ones’ lives, looking for clues and warnings, blaming themselves for not noticing or taking the signs seriously enough. They might recall past disagreements or arguments, plans not fulfilled, calls not returned, words not said, and ruminate on how, if only they had done or said something differently, maybe the outcome would have been different. It’s human nature when we experience loss to blame someone instead of accepting the truth that some things are beyond our control. Parents who have lost a child to suicide can be especially afflicted with feelings of guilt and responsibility. People who commit suicide don’t necessarily look desperate or hopeless. We can’t fully know what’s on other people’s minds or know all the reasons for their decisions or actions.

The aftermath of a death by suicide can be physically and emotionally exhausting if you were close to the deceased. As you work through your grief, take care to protect your own well-being, and adopt healthy coping strategies:

  • Do what’s right for you, not necessarily for someone else. There is no single “right” way to grieve. If you find it too painful to visit your loved one’s gravesite or share the details of your loved one’s death, wait until you’re ready.
  • Anniversaries, holidays and other special occasions can be painful reminders of your loved one’s suicide. Don’t chide yourself for being sad or mournful.
  • If possible, avoid making major life decisions while you still feel overwhelmed by grief.
  • Don’t rush yourself. Don’t be hurried by anyone else’s expectations that it’s been “long enough.”
  • Expect setbacks. Some days will be better than others, even years after the suicide.
  • Consider a support group for families affected by suicide. Sharing your story with others who are experiencing the same type of grief might help you find a sense of purpose or strength.
  • Keep a journal. Even if you’re not yet ready to talk about the difficult thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing, writing them down can provide an important release for your emotions. Contact us to order a GriefWorX manual. It may also help to write a letter to your loved one, saying the things you never got to say to them.
  • The stress and trauma you’re experiencing right now can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health. Try to eat healthy food, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and spend time outdoors, ideally connecting with nature.
  • People who’ve lost someone to suicide often withdraw from others because they’re worried about being a burden on others or having their loved one judged. But leaning on others for support can help ease the burden of grief and, when you feel ready, talking about what you’re going through can be an important first step in the healing process. Reach out to your family, friends and spiritual leaders for comfort and healing.
  • You may want to be honest with your closest friends about what happened, but simply tell acquaintances that your loved one died and you don’t want to go into details at the moment. You certainly shouldn’t feel obligated to answer any intrusive questions.
  • Use social media carefully. Social media can be a useful tool for letting others know about your loved one’s death, allowing people to share their condolences and tributes, and for reaching out to others for support. However, it can also attract a toxic element, people who post insensitive, cruel, or even abusive messages. You may want to limit your social media exposure to groups on platforms such as Facebook or WhatsApp.
  • It’s never easy to explain suicide to a child or teenager but lying, or trying to shield them from the truth, can often cause more hurt, fear, and anxiety in the long run. Try to be as honest while tailoring your explanation to an age-appropriate level. Make it clear that the child has not caused or contributed to the person’s death. Point out that not everyone who feels sad or depressed dies. Consider finding a grief counsellor or child bereavement support group to help your child deal with their loss.

Depending on the circumstances, you might benefit from individual or family therapy – either to get you through the worst of the crisis or to help you adjust to life after suicide. If you experience intense or unrelenting anguish or physical problems, consider professional help, especially if you think you might be depressed or you have recurring thoughts of suicide yourself. Unresolved grief can turn into complicated grief, where painful emotions are so long-lasting and severe that you have trouble resuming your own life. Short-term medication can be helpful in some cases. Finding the right people in your support network to help you handle your loss is the key.

Death by suicide is a very complex decision, and there tend to be many different contributing factors. Although you might never know the reasons for the decision, understanding the complicated legacy of suicide could help you heal. Your loved one’s life was about more than their decision to end it. Their final act doesn’t need to define their life. Mark their achievements and share memories, photos, and stories with others who loved them. Try to remember and celebrate the important, joyous aspects of their life and of your relationship together.

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