Deborah Serani Psy.D
Family and friends are prone to feeling significant bewilderment about the suicide. Why did this happen? How did I not see this coming? Overwhelming guilt about what they should have done more of or less of —become daily, haunting thoughts. Survivors of suicide loss often feel self-blame as if somehow they were responsible for their loved one’s suicide. Many also experience anger and rage against their loved one for abandoning or rejecting them—or disappointment that somehow they were not powerful enough, loved enough or special enough to prevent the suicide.
These mistaken assumptions plague survivors of suicide loss for a very long time. Many struggle for years trying to make sense of their loved one’s death—and even longer making peace—if at all—with the unanswerable questions that linger.
Society still attaches a stigma to suicide. And as such, survivors of suicide loss may encounter blame, judgment or social exclusion – while mourners of loved ones who have died from terminal illness, accident, old age or other kinds of deaths usually receive sympathy and compassion. It’s strange how we would never blame a family member for a loved one’s cancer or Alzheimer’s, but society continues to cast a shadow on a loved one’s suicide.
What also makes grieving different is that when we lose a loved one to illness, old age or an accident, we retain happy memories. We can think back on our loved one and replay fond memories, share stories with joyful nostalgia. This is not so for the suicide survivor. They questions the memories, “Where they really good?” “Maybe he wasn’t really happy in this picture?” “Why didn’t I see her emotional pain when we were on vacation?” Sometimes it becomes agonizing to connect to a memory or to share stories from the past—so survivors often divorce themselves from their loved one’s legacy.
Survivors of suicide loss not only experience these aspects of complicated grief, they are also prone to developing symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder—a direct result from their loved one’s suicide. The unspeakable sadness about the suicide becomes a circle of never ending bewilderment, pain, flashbacks and a need to numb the anguish.
Ways to Help a Survivor of Suicide Loss
Deborah Serani Psy.D
If you know someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, there are many things you can do. In addition, by reaching out, you also help take stigma out of the equation.
- Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the death. Extend your condolences, express your feelings of sorrow. Make sure you use the loved one’s name. “My heart is so sad that John died.” Many who have lost someone to suicide have a broken heart, clinically called Stress Cardiomyopathy, and really need your empathy, compassion and understanding to heal.
- Ask the survivor if and how you can help. Though they may not be ready to accept help, asking signifies that you are there—not avoiding or distancing during this tragic event. The notion of being there if needed is extremely comforting for survivors.
- Encourage openness. Be accepting of however survivors need to express their feelings. It may be with silence, with sadness or even anger.
- Be patient. Don’t set a time limit for a survivor’s grief. Complicated grief can take years to process. Moreover, don’t limit a survivor’s need to share and repeat stories, conversations or wishes. Repetition is a key factor in grief recovery.
- Be a compassionate listener. This means don’t look to fix things. The greatest gift you can give someone you care about who has survived a suicide loss is your time, reassurance and love.