If you have lost someone to suicide, the first thing to know is that you are not alone. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, it is estimated that 85% of people in the United States will know someone personally who has died due to suicide and upwards of 20% of adults report their lives have been significantly impacted by the loss of loved one due to suicide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 49,449 people died from suicide in the United States in 2022 and suicide rates have increased by approximately 40% between 2000-2021. In Minnesota, approximately 835 people died from suicide in 2022. But the impact that this suicide loss has is much greater than just numbers.
If you are reading this, you may be a suicide loss survivor, or someone who has experienced the death of a loved one due to suicide. You may feel overwhelmed with a mix of thoughts and emotions, and question how to start your journey of healing and how it will look different than healing from other losses.
The feelings of loss, sadness, painful reminders and loneliness experienced after any death of a loved one are often magnified in suicide loss survivors by additional emotions such as:
- Shock, feeling numb or disorientated
- Symptoms that resemble depression, including concentration difficulties, disturbed sleep / nightmares, loss of appetite, intense sadness, and a lack of energy
- Anger towards the deceased, another family member, a healthcare provider, or yourself
- Relief, particularly if the suicide followed a long and difficult mental illness
- Feelings of guilt or regrets, including thinking, “If only I had …”
As you navigate this journey, you may find yourself facing different and sometimes intense emotions, punctuated with memories of your loved one and the impact they had on your life. These feelings may change in intensity over time as you begin to heal.
Why Did This Happen?
Most people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition or substance abuse disorder at the time of their death. This mental health condition may not have been diagnosed, or may have been diagnosed and treated, but treatment did not prevent the loved one’s death by suicide. Because of this, suicide should be viewed as primarily a health issue.
Even though the majority of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition at the time of their death, it is also very possible that you may have not seen any signs that your loved one was struggling with mental health issues. Many people who have thoughts of suicide do not share those thoughts with others and may hide their distress and/or the fact that they are experiencing difficult times. This can occur for multiple reasons such as the loved one not wanting to be a burden to their loved ones, fear about how others will react if they share these feelings, and having conflicting emotions and struggle to express how they are feeling to others.
Many survivors of suicide loss struggle to understand the reasons for their loved one’s suicide and have big questions regarding their loved one’s death: “Why did they take their life?” and “Could I have prevented it?”. This may lead to loved ones replaying their loved one’s final days, digging for clues and warnings that they blame themselves for not noticing or taking seriously.
Exploration of these questions are part of the natural grieving process and can help bereaved people create a narrative regarding a loved one’s death. Yet as this exploration occurs, it is important for suicide loss survivors to understand that suicide is not a desire to end life. It is a need to end pain. People who die by suicide have been suffering — through no fault of their own — from a condition that amplifies and sustains emotional pain to a degree that makes life unbearable. Suicide occurs when no other choices can be seen to end the pain or suffering being experienced.
What Makes Grief Due to Suicide Loss Different
The death of a loved one is never easy to experience, whether it comes unexpectedly or after a long struggle with illness. Suicide loss survivors often wonder how bereavement after suicide compares to bereavement after other kinds of death. There are several key factors that set death by suicide apart and make the grief process more challenging.
Suicide as a Traumatic Loss
When we talk about the loss of a loved one due to suicide, it is often viewed as both a loss as well as a traumatic event. A traumatic loss is often defined as:
“A death is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if there is damage to the loved one’s body; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the death as preventable; if the survivor believes that the loved one suffered; or if the survivor regards the death, or manner of death, as unfair and unjust” Wortman & Latack (2015).
This definition touches on many experiences common to a suicide death, including the death being sudden, untimely, violent, regarded as preventable, etc. Additionally, other traumatic loss risk factors are associated with suicide, such as feelings of blame, witnessing the death, and finding the body.
In addition to suicide being experienced as a traumatic loss, research has found three additional aspects that makes suicide grief unique:
- Suicide loss survivors struggle to make sense of their loved one’s death and to understand the time frame, motives and frame of mind that their loved one was in at the time of their death.
- Suicide loss survivors show higher levels of feelings of guilt, blame, and responsibility for the death of their loved ones when compared to other mourners and occasionally may feel like they directly caused the death of their loved one through mistreatment or abandonment of the deceased. More frequently, they blame themselves for not anticipating and preventing the actual act of suicide death.
- Suicide loss survivors experience increased feelings of rejection or abandonment by the loved one and may question why their relationship wasn’t enough to keep their loved one from dying. It is also a common response to feel anger toward the deceased.
How to Support Someone Following the Loss of a Loved One Due to Suicide
Despite the immense pain often experienced following the loss of a loved one due to suicide, suicide loss survivors often do not receive the same level of support as other loss survivors. The reason for this is twofold.
- People bereaved by suicide may struggle to reach out for support due to the stigma around suicide.
- Oftentimes others may not know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide and therefore are less likely to reach out due to their own discomfort leading to increased feelings of isolation for the suicide loss survivor.
When offering support following the death of a loved one, it’s important to remember that nothing you say or do will be able to “fix” the situation. People grieving the loss of a loved one don’t want you to try to fix their situation. What most people grieving want is for people to:
- Acknowledge their pain.
- Be present and not scared of their pain.
- Share memories of their loved one and give the griever permission to share memories as well.
- Show up not just in the short term, but also in the long term.
It is important to remember that although there are no right words to say to someone that is grieving, the words we use can either offer healing and connection or create barriers and hurt.
When offering support, try to avoid offering a silver lining and phrases that start with “At least…”. As phrases such as these tend to minimize a person’s pain and sometimes their loved one as well.
Examples of words that may deepen support and connection in these moments include:
- “I wish I had the right words, but I don’t. Please just know I am here for you no matter what – next week or next year.”
- “Would you like company right now? I can come to stay with you or you can come to stay here.”
- ““I remember…” and then go on to share a memory of the person they’ve lost.
- “Can I help you by doing (insert specific task)?”
It is important to remember that the best thing you can do to offer support has nothing to do with saying the “right” words. It is about maintaining a supportive presence.
It is important to note that whatever you are feeling during this time is a human reaction to an extremely stressful loss. You may have feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, and fear, among others. Your thoughts and feelings may also be informed by what you know about suicide and what you’ve heard or learned about suicide over the course of your life, as well as your previous experiences with sudden loss.
We also know that cultural and religious beliefs may play a role in how you experience suicide grief, and it is important to note that different traditions may have different rituals that are part of your grief. There is no one way to grieve a suicide loss, and you may find that those around you are grieving in different ways.
It is important to allow space for yourself and those around you to grieve in the way that they need to. Know that there is a community of suicide loss survivors who want to support you as you grieve, as well as mental health professionals to provide support along the tough moments in a healing process.
Blog written by Sentier therapist Becky Lawyer, MA, LPCC, LPC.