You have just lost someone to suicide. Chances are that you have already experienced grief and loss; however, this time feels different. You are not alone. Grief after suicide is unique. In addition to processing the loss itself, there are so many questions as we are left trying to wrap our heads around what the heck happened. Everyone responds differently in their grief, so the range and intensity of reactions can vary. The below information briefly highlights some of the common reactions to help you make sense of how you, or someone you know, is experiencing grief after suicide.
Shock and disbelief
Shock is a common initial reaction to losing someone to suicide. You may feel numb or confused about how to feel. This may last for a few days or go on for weeks. Feelings of shock and disbelief can be a protective response to shield you from the initial emotional pain of the loss. After the initial shock, you may begin experiencing other feelings such as anger, guilt and sadness. This can occur gradually, come in waves that may feel overwhelming and/or alternate with periods of shock and disbelief.
You may experience anger toward the person who took their own life. Why didn’t they reach out? How could they do such a selfish thing and create emotional turmoil for everyone they left behind? You may feel angry at those you think could have prevented it — a spouse or significant other, family member, medical or mental health professional, or even God himself. Why didn’t they do more? How could they allow this to happen? Your anger may even be self-directed. What could I have done? Why wasn’t I there? The important thing to remember is that anger is a healthy emotion and a natural consequence to feeling hurt. Find healthy and constructive ways to process, release and communicate your anger. If you try to deny feeling angry, it is highly likely that your anger will find its way into other facets of your life in more destructive ways.
If the person was someone you were close with, your feelings of guilt will likely be intense. Why couldn’t they reach out to me? If only I had just called them! I should have taken the time to listen! I should have done more! You may think back to other interactions you had with the person in an attempt to identify the problem earlier so perhaps you could have prevented it. Guilt is often linked closely with self-directed anger. Try not to criticize or judge yourself for your behavior toward the person while they were alive. Suicide is an individual decision made by the person — not your choice. While this may make sense intellectually, it will take some time to accept this emotionally.
In situations where you knew firsthand about the extent of the person’s physical and/or emotional pain and suffering, you may view their death as a relief. They are finally free from the pain that tormented them for so long. If you were closely involved in caring for the person, you may even feel a sense of relief that you no longer have to carry the burden of watching them suffer each day. Take care to not let your relief transform into feelings of inappropriate guilt.
The stigma of suicide
Although suicide is gaining more public acknowledgement in general and within the law enforcement community, it is still an uncomfortable topic that carries stigma (shame). If you feel uncomfortable talking about it, that is OK and does not mean that you do not care or that the person’s life did not matter. If others seem uncomfortable acknowledging the suicide or talking about it, chances are that this is because of their own discomfort, rather than a direct reflection of how much (or how little) they cared about the person.
Healing from suicide
The best way to heal from grief after suicide is to allow yourself to feel it. Although uncomfortable, the thoughts and feelings that follow a death by suicide are entirely normal and need to be experienced to heal. The good news is that you are not alone in your grief. While it can be good to spend some time to yourself, it is also important that you spend time around others. Talk to someone. Additional supportive resources such as chaplains, peer supporters, support groups and mental health professionals can provide you with a nonjudgmental space to make sense of what you are feeling and provide additional coping skills to facilitate healing.
Educate yourself about suicide to provide you with an additional frame of reference to interpret your experiences and make sense of the loss itself. The American Association of Suicidology (suicidology.org) is a great resource that also includes a comprehensive guide on healing after a loved one has died by suicide. You can also get involved with a crisis hotline, suicide awareness event, suicide support groups or suicide prevention/awareness organizations. Some of my personal favorites are CopLine(copline.org), Blue H.E.L.P. (bluehelp.org) and Survivors of Blue Suicide (survivorsofbluesuicide.org).