Coping with Grief After a Loved One's Suicide
The suicide of a loved one often leaves lots of unanswered questions, making the grieving process more complicated
Feelings like anger and guilt are common
If you are struggling to cope with grief after suicide, find a therapist here
Suicide; such an imposing word which conjures up so many judgements. The act of intentionally causing one’s own death, how does a person get to this point? I have heard many different perspectives on this, from coward, selfish and weak, through to desperate, sad and hopeless. However the biggest voice in all of this is the one that questions, why? In this piece I will be looking at the emotions, difficulties and questions people are left with when someone they love has taken their own life.
Why would someone take their life?
Arguably one of the most challenging things about suicide is the why. When we watch a film in which this happens, more often than not a convenient note is left explaining every last detail, leaving lots of messages and everyone has all the unanswered questions answered for them. Unfortunately with suicide this is not always the case. In fact in all the clients I have seen who have been affected by this, none were left an explanatory note. There was nothing, just questions upon questions and more often than not this left to further uncertainty in their part in the whole incident.
This is not the only problem, there is an investigation, autopsy and an inquest to then get through. At a time of great emotional upheaval to throw in more difficulties adds to the issue of pausing one's grief in order to get through this particular process. This can sometimes mean that people seek help a few years after the incident has actually occurred because they are finally able to look at their grief. Again the issue with this is that by this point they feel they should ‘be over it’, which is one of the biggest misconceptions I deal with in grief work.
Suicide, or indeed sudden deaths, are also difficult to deal with as there is no warning; the person may have been young and fit with no outside ailments. You may have just spoken to them and not known that anything was wrong, and all of these factors add into the residual feelings that the person was taken before their time. Death in these cases can seem unnatural, the balance of things has been upset and this can make us feel very ungrounded. As with any death ones own mortality comes into play, which can produce death anxiety, in which we fear our own deaths or others around us, we start to watch people more intensely and fear it happening to others close to us. It also begs the question, what could I have done differently to change the outcome?
Guilt and anger after a loved one's suicide
Kübler-Ross is a great grief writer who came up with the seven stages of grief. However with suicide the two that I most commonly see people stuck in are anger and guilt. Ofter anger is something people shy away from – how can I be angry with my loved one for being desperate enough to kill themselves, they ask. However, aren't you a bit angry that they didn't ask for help or let someone know? How about being angry that they left you? Maybe there are other strings to their lives you now have to deal with such as children, pets or finances.
Anger is one of the most normal emotions in our repertoire, however it’s the one people often feel most uncomfortable with, hence becoming stuck with it. Anger doesn’t have to be a stamping your feet, shouting and throwing things; it can just be very calmly announcing that yes you are angry that they left you and din’t express how bad things were, and that’s OK! Often acknowledging this anger can be one of the biggest steps towards moving forward with your grief.
Guilt is another stumbling block in this area due to its very unhelpful friends, hindsight and fantasy. When someone takes their own life and the inevitable question of why occurs. The immediate response is to micro-analyse every incident, conversation and social media communication with that person. Was there something i should have picked up on? What if there was a subliminal message I didn’t get? Why didn’t I just ask outright what was wrong? This is not exhaustive as there are many questions about these communications that will come afterwards.
The guilt is there because we feel that we should somehow have stopped it from happening. This is where the fantasy aspect comes into play and I worked with a client on this. We looked at their favourite fantasy which went along the lines of working out there was a problem, taking the loved one to A&E, getting them assessed and then the help that they needed. The issue with this is that it's fantasy, and the reality may well be very different or even cause more harm. If we look at the example above, knowing there was something wrong and getting someone to A&E is so full of factors going wrong; I know most of my loved ones would have to be drugged to get to this stage. Then you wait there for an assessment, but what if the wait is so long that you give up, the loved one tells your they're OK and want to go home, no harm done at this stage. What if help has been received but they go out and do this anyway? Suddenly the fantasy of saving them is not so clear-cut after all. Guilt is a difficult emotion to work through due to the repetitive nature of the hindsight and fantasies that one plays out. It can be hard to hear and may seem difficult but the loved one who ended their life at that point took responsibility for their actions, and this can be hard to see and acknowledge.
Practical tips for grief after suicide
It’s really important to remember that when someone kills themselves they had a life before their final act. They were a person with likes, dislikes and all sorts of emotions in between. It can be easy to become fixated on their final moments and questioning the why and what could I have done, and this does our loved ones a disservice. They should not be solely remembered for how they died, but also for how they lived. It’s easy to forget all this in the shock but, for example, if a person dies at 20 years old, that’s still 20 years they lived and had an impact on people around them. Surely it’s important to remember all of these years as well and not just their final day. The act of suicide should not define a person, their life beforehand does.
Often the biggest problem in grief is not being able to say goodbye and this comes into play with a suicide or sudden death. It can be helpful to think about what you would have said to someone if you had the chance to do so, and letter writing can be a very helpful aid to this. Clients often shy away from the concept of a goodbye letter as they don’t want to actually say goodbye. But this isn’t a letter in which you never think of that person again, it’s one to say all the things you couldn’t, including that you will not forget them, you often think of them and that they will remain in your memories. Because that is what grief is, a way to deal with all of the love and emotions you put into person who is no longer there to receive it, and that’s the part that needs help in redirecting.
What to do if you think someone is suicidal
It is really important if you feel that someone is suicidal to not panic and talk to them about any plans they may have in place. There are help lines such as the Samaritans, Suicide Prevention and Papyrus. There are also GPs and other mental health professionals that can help. Unfortunately people are not always open about their emotions and so this can be difficult to assess. For those who have been affected by suicide the charity SOBS offers support as do many bereavement charities.
Suicide is a difficult bereavement to face as it leaves many unanswerable questions. It’s easy to make judgements if one has not experienced it, but for those who have it is an uneasy place in which you question your entire relationship with that person. Remember that the individual was a loved one and although their reasons for ending their life may still be unknown, your feelings towards them are still the same, and it is these two that need to be separated and looked at in order to move forward to a place of acknowledgement and perhaps acceptance.