Coping After a Loss

If you have experienced a suicide death you need to know that you are not alone. Over 3800 people die by suicide in Canada each year. The family and friends of those who die by suicide are referred to as “survivors” of suicide, and they, like you are trying to cope with this heartbreaking loss.

Whether the suicide was sudden without warning or something your loved one struggled with for a period of time you may wonder what you could have done to prevent the death. Suicide is a complex phenomenon that is often poorly understood and usually the result of overwhelming emotional pain, hopelessness and mental illness.

Despite the best efforts of everyone to prevent death, suicide is ultimately a decision that was made by your loved one. Acknowledging the decision to suicide was the responsibility of your loved one frees you to process your own emotions and make your own choices for healing.

Common Reactions

The death of a loved one to suicide can leave us on an emotional rollercoaster that may include:

  • sadness
  • shock
  • numbness
  • helplessness
  • shame
  • guilt
  • confusion
  • anger
  • relief

Your feelings are not right or wrong they just are. Give yourself permission to experience them.

You may also experience symptoms of depression such as sleep disturbances, a change in eating patterns, and withdrawing from others with or without increased use of alcohol or medications/drugs. These are normal grief reactions that should improve with time however if these reactions persist and continue to worsen, please tell someone you trust and seek the help of a professional.
Reestablishing a routine as early as possible can help you to cope and to maintain your physical health as you begin your journey of recovery.

Grieving

Grief is a process not an event. It takes time and is unique to each individual.

Grieving a suicide death can be complicated by the stigma commonly associated with suicide. Your beliefs and understanding of suicide and the beliefs of others may make it hard for you to speak openly and honestly about your feelings. Although it might be difficult and you may be scared to be open about the suicide, most survivors are glad when they choose to be honest about the suicide death. Being honest means you do not have expend valuable emotional energy pretending; energy which is often needed just to get through the next hour, day or week.

Things that may help

Build a network of support around you: consider including family members, friends, your doctor, a professional therapist, individuals from your spiritual/religious organization, 12 step programs and other survivors of suicide. Your needs will vary so having a broad support system you can reach out to can help fulfill your needs.

Seek the answers you need: you may never fully understand your loved one’s decision to die by suicide but you may have questions surrounding the circumstances. Think about how this information will be helpful and ask the authorities, family members and friends the questions you need answered. Throughout your journey of grief and recovery your search for answers may continue and there may be some questions for which answers will not be available. This is a normal part of the process.

Ask for the help you need: after a death many of us just don’t know what to do or say and fear doing or saying the wrong thing. There are people who want to help but just don’t know how. Make a list of your needs both emotional and practical i.e.: do you need someone to sit with you in silence or be able to listen without judgment, drive you to an appointment or look after children while you do other things etc. Keep track of those who offer help and call them when needed. Don’t be discouraged if they are unable to help when you call, they may be experiencing difficulties themselves; thank them anyway and call someone else. Although you may feel uncomfortable asking directly for help, you will find there are people who love and support you and want to help you through your grief; they just need to know how.

Do what works for you: your experience of grief is as unique as you are. It is true there are some common emotions and responses however how you experience them and how you cope with them are uniquely you. If you need to cry, then cry, if you need to be with others call upon your network of support, if you need to be alone, say so, if you need information, ask, if you need to talk, connect with someone you trust or a professional therapist. If you prefer to express yourself creatively, play music, sing, write a journal, write a letter to your loved one, create a scrapbook or build something. Do what works for you to help you cope with your loss.

Be compassionate: towards yourself and others. Don’t blame yourself, don’t assume you or someone else could have or should have prevented the death. Expect that your partner, child, sibling, parent, friend etc. will have different needs and ways of coping than you. Be respectful of yourself and others.

The Journey

During the grieving process you may feel like you are not progressing or that you may even be going backwards in your recovery. This is normal. Grief is not a direct road to recovery; there will be potholes along the way. You may be challenged when something reminds you of the person who died or the absence of your loved one is acutely felt such as their absence from daily routines and family events. You may also discover that memories of past trauma or negative events resurface after the suicide death. These past experiences may complicate and require some extra work on your journey to recovery.

You will also experience some new firsts including the first birthday, anniversary, holiday, grandchild, wedding or graduation without your loved one. All of these life events and others can be particularly challenging even many years later. Initially we grieve the death however as time passes we may find ourselves grieving the opportunities lost. Do your best to plan for these events.

Ask yourself:

What are my concerns or fears about the upcoming occasion? How do I want to mark the occasion? What are you willing to do or not do? Do you want to be alone or with others? Who do you want to have around you? Do you want to be with other survivors of suicide?

Many survivors choose to honour their loved one in various ways such as:

Planting a tree, cooking their favourite meal, releasing balloons, visiting a place of memories, making a donation or raising funds for suicide prevention or mental health, creating new traditions

Once again, do what works for you, be creative, ask for what you need and set reasonable expectations.

“When an emotional injury takes place,
the body begins a process
as natural as the healing
of a physical wound.

Let the process happen.
Trust the process.
Surrender to it.

Trust that nature will do the healing.
Know that the pain will pass,
and, when it passes,
you will be stronger,
happier, more sensitive and aware.”

  • Poem from How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Melba Colgrove, PhD, Harold H. Bloomfield, MD & Peter McWilliams, Prelude Press, 1992.
DO
  • Be patient, understanding, remember the process of grieving is unique to each individual.
  • Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings, understand their feelings are not right or wrong they just are.
  • Be willing to listen to stories about their loved one, use their loved one’s name in conversation.
  • Share information about support groups and ways to connect with other survivors of suicide.
  • Continue to check in with a phone call, note or visit as the days, weeks and months pass.
  • Be available to help the survivor by listening or helping with daily activities.
  • Acknowledge anniversaries, birthdays etc. with a note, card, phone call, visit or act of kindness.
  • Be willing to reminisce and share stories about their loved one.
  • If you don’t know what to say then just tell them you are at a loss for words.
  • Learn about the experience of suicide loss.
DON’T
  • Assume you know how they feel.
  • Compare their loss to your own losses.
  • Offer platitudes such as: “It was God’s will”, ”they’re out of pain now” or “everything will be okay”.
  • Expect the survivor to “get over it” or “snap out of it”.
  • Encourage or repeat inappropriate or cruel comments made by others.
  • Talk about others you know that survived an attempt.
  • Imply there must have warning signs they missed.
  • Make remarks such as: “you are young enough to marry again”, “you have other children”, “they lived a long full life”.

Tips for Family and Friends