Common experiences associated with suicide bereavement
Someone you have known closely, whether it be a partner, parent, child, sibling, friend or neighbour, has taken his or her life. You may be experiencing a range of emotions such as shock, disbelief, anger or even relief alongside many unanswered questions including ‘why did they do it?’ or ‘what should I have done?’ It is important to realise that these types of emotions and thoughts are normal grief reactions and that they are very common amongst people bereaved by suicide.
This information guide is intended to highlight some of the common experiences and challenges faced by people bereaved by suicide.
Grieving in response to a suicide requires a big adjustment to life and is different for everyone. It’s a process of adapting to the changes you must face in your life, your thoughts, your hopes, your beliefs and your future.
Grief is not a sign of weakness or poor coping skills, but a healthy part of the healing process. As the grieving process is worked through, the intensity of grief will subside and there will be small gaps of relief between intense emotional times.
The grieving process: Understanding your emotions
Hearing about the death of a loved one by suicide can often leave one in a state of shock. This shock may be compounded in some cases by the trauma of finding the body or witnessing the suicide.
Shock is experienced differently for everyone. Some people may respond by withdrawing from others whilst in freeze mode. Other people may react to the suicide with a ‘fight or flight’ response.
People who tend to adopt the ‘fight’ mode of response find themselves taking on board all the responsibility following the suicide such as making all the phone calls or arranging the funeral.
People in ‘flight’ mode tend to keep themselves distracted from reality by cleaning the house or focusing on other unrelated tasks.
Shock can also affect people physically through symptoms such as nausea, shaking, stomach pain, sleeping difficulties, breathlessness and chest pain. If you find yourself suffering from some of these physical symptoms it would be advisable to see your local GP and get yourself checked out.
Accepting the death of a loved one is not an easy task. It is not uncommon for those bereaved by suicide to expect their loved ones to walk through the door, to expect the phone to ring or to believe that they are in a dream state. Researchers talk about this disbelief as being a natural protective mechanism which over time will dissipate as the person comes to terms with the death.
One of the hardest aspects of bereavement by suicide is not being able to understand why the person has taken their life. Even if you were aware of the difficulties and desperation the person was facing, it’s difficult to understand why they felt that taking their life was the only answer for them. The question of ‘why’ is one that can repetitively haunt those bereaved by suicide because, in most cases, it can never truly be resolved. It may help to talk about these recurring thoughts with a counsellor or psychologist, either in person or on the telephone with the Suicide Call Back Service, Suicide Line, Lifeline, Hopeline or Griefline.
People often worry about not having picked up on cues or the suicidal behaviour prior to the death. It’s important to remember that it is easier to recognise a person’s distress in hindsight, and that the level of support you offered them was based on the understanding you had of their situation at the time.
Sometimes people leave a suicide note that blames someone for their suicide. Suicide notes are usually written at a time when the person is feeling very desperate and disturbed. When someone is at the point of suicide, they are usually unable to think clearly and rationally and are unlikely to be able to express their true thoughts and feelings.
No one should feel responsible for someone else making the choice to take their own life. Even if you really feel that you could have been of more help, you will never know whether anything you might have done or not done would really have saved the person’s life. Counselling can help you to let go of feeling responsible.
Blame from others
Being subjected to blame for the suicide by family members or friends can be a disheartening experience. In a time when you may need the most support, you may actually be finding yourself isolated or alienated by those who appear to question you or be pointing the finger at you.
Blaming others is often the only way that some people seem to deal with their grief. It might be helpful to understand that these people are suffering from pain and anguish too and they may be trying to protect their own selves from further hurt.
Some of the ways you can build up your support structure so you are not feeling so alone is by seeing a counsellor or psychologist face to face. You can also talk to your local priest or minister, attend a suicide bereavement support group or contact telephone counselling services such as Suicide Line or Lifeline. See also Looking after yourself.
Anger with the deceased person is a normal but often confusing reaction. You may feel angry at them for leaving and causing so much pain. You might find yourself blaming someone else or those you perceive as having contributed to the suicide such as a psychologist or a relative for not having done more; or you might blame a higher power such as God. You may also feel angry at yourself for not preventing the suicide.
Denying your anger is far more damaging than letting yourself express it, but you need to find a way of doing so that it not self-destructive. Talking about it often helps, or you may find a physical activity, such as walking or playing sport, that enables you to release it.
In some cases the suicide may not be unexpected. The person may have made repeated attempts or threats and their suffering may have been obvious. In such a case the suicide might bring you a sense of relief. You may have felt drained and burdened by their pain, and now you’re relieved that you don’t have to worry any more. Often this relief is accompanied by a great sense of guilt.
Remember that it’s normal to feel relieved when a difficult situation ends, and also that it’s likely that the suicidal person saw death as a relief as well.
Stress, anxiety and depression
Sometimes people who are bereaved by suicide suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms or anxiety. This is a reaction to the traumatic nature of suicide and is particularly likely to occur if you witnessed the suicide or found the deceased person’s body.
You may feel panicky, have difficulty sleeping and concentrating, experience nightmares and vivid memories of the suicide, dread the thought of being alone or feel withdrawn and detached from others.
Occasionally this stress and anxiety can develop into a more severe condition called post-traumatic stress disorder. Please see your doctor or a mental health specialist if you are concerned about the level of your anxiety and the ways in which you’re dealing with it (e.g. using drugs or alcohol).
You may also experience depression as a result of the suicide. In fact, people bereaved by suicide can be at high risk of suicide themselves. You may feel that there is no longer any point to life without the deceased. You may feel that you’re to blame for the suicide and you don’t deserve to be happy. You may feel deserted and rejected by the deceased or other people you’re close to – friends may not offer the support you need and loneliness may add to your grief. It is vital that you talk to someone if you’re concerned about these types of thoughts and feelings.
Often, when a death is caused by suicide, the pain of grieving is added to by the stigma attached to suicide. You may be unsure of what to tell people for fear that they’ll judge you or the deceased.
Your own acceptance of the person’s choice to suicide can help to relieve your shame, and it’s important to speak to others who share this acceptance.
Remember, often people’s discomfort with talking about a suicidal death is about death itself rather than how it occurred and they would react in a similar way if the death was due to illness.
The information above is kindly provided by the Suicide Call Back Service (©2009) and was sourced from www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au.