In the wake of a loved one’s death by suicide, families often disintegrate, unable to deal with the intense grief and the difficult, painful, and often unanswerable question of “Why?” For every suicide, it is estimated that at least six persons are affected. These include family members, co-workers, neighbors, classmates and close friends. Beyond grief and the fruitless search for answers, survivors of suicide also grapple with crippling emotions.
Emotions can Derail Suicide Survivors’ Healing
The waves of emotions that flow through the minds of suicide survivors can be so devastating that they cause the person to no longer be able to function. Life just seems to stop for them, now that their loved one has died by suicide. These emotions may occur singly, or in clusters, come fleetingly or stay for lengthy periods of time. They all need to be dealt with in order for healing to begin.
• Shock – Most survivors of suicide feel shock as an immediate reaction, along with physical and emotional numbness. This reaction is the temporary way for the person to screen out the pain of what just happened, to allow time to comprehend the facts, and take things in smaller and more manageable steps.
• Anger – Loved ones and family members often express anger, or suppress it, at the waste of human life. Anger is another grief response, and may be directed toward the person who died by suicide, to themselves, another family member, or a therapist.
• Guilt – Following death by suicide, surviving family members rack their brains trying to think of what clues they missed, how they may have been able to prevent the suicide. This self-blame includes things they said (or didn’t say), their failure to express love or concern, things they planned to do (but never got around to) – anything and everything in a never-ending kaleidoscope.
• Fear – If one family member committed suicide, perhaps another will make an attempt. The surviving family member may even fear he or she is in jeopardy.
• Relief – When the deceased died by suicide after a protracted illness filled with intense physical pain, long decline into self-destructive behavior, or ongoing mental anguish, surviving family members may feel a sense of relief. Finally, the loved one’s suffering is over.
• Depression – Nothing seems worth an effort anymore to many suicide survivors. This manifests itself in sleeplessness or disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, fatigue, and loss of joy in life.
Grief experts say that most of these intense feelings will diminish over time, although there may be some residual feelings that may never truly go away. In addition, some questions may forever remain unanswered.
It sounds trite, but it’s true. You can survive suicide. It is, however, a long and often painful (and painfully difficult) journey. Here are some strategies to help individuals survive suicide:
• Stay connected with other family members – The last thing you need is to be isolated and alone. You need other people at this time more than any other. Contact with others is particularly important in the first six months following a loved one’s suicide. For others, maintaining contact with others will take longer, almost as a lifeline of support. In any case, other family members are in most need of contact, even if they express a wish to be left alone. Not everyone grieves in the same way. Some people are unable to open themselves up and say what they feel. They may need more time to be able to offer you any consolation, but this doesn’t mean they don’t desperately need it themselves. Talk openly with other family members about your feelings about the suicide and ask them for help. But only do so if you feel ready to speak about it.
• Give children special attention – Children, especially, may have a more difficult time with the intense emotions they are experiencing. It is important to remind them that these are normal grief reactions. They need, above all, to know that you still love them and will be there for them always. Share how you feel with them, and encourage them to speak from their heart when they are ready.
• Holidays are stressful times – Be aware that holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other special days are very stressful times for suicide survivors. Plan to meet the family’s emotional needs – as well as your own – during these times.
How do you Survive Suicide?
Beyond staying connected with other family members, it’s important that suicide survivors reach out and get help. There’s only so much an individual can work out in his or her head without professional help. Fortunately, help is available in a number of ways. These include psychological grief counseling, individual or group meetings, self-help groups, books and literature.
Websites for Suicide Survivors
Listed here are a few websites that may be helpful for suicide survivors:
• For Suicide Survivors – http://forsuicidesurvivors.com/index.html, devoted to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one by suicide.
• Suicide Survivors.org – http://www.suicidesurvivors.org/, survivors of suicide help and information, Judy Raphael Kletter.
• Survivors of Suicide – http://www.survivorsofsuicide.com/index.html
• Surviving Suicide – http://www.survivingsuicide.com/cope.htm, provided by the surviving suicide support group of the Central Christian Church.