Experiencing the suicide death of a loved one, or someone to whom you are connected, is always a shattering and life-changing event. For every death by suicide, we know that many, many people are left behind to grieve.
In some families, often where significant mental illness has been experienced by the deceased, the suicide death is not wholly unanticipated. Yet, in other families, there may be no clue, no prior attempt, no prior warning that the person was planning to die. In other families, after the person has died, surviving members are able to piece back together the clues that were unseen, that help to provide insight into the choices the person made to end his or her life. This preparedness continuum is important for health and human service workers (social workers, grief counselors, etc.) to understand to better understand the experience of the family seeking services.
The ways in which people, especially first-degree relatives, maintain their connection with their deceased loved one even though they are no longer physically present is often vitally important. Yet, we also know that for many these rituals and ceremonies are often looked upon negatively by those around them.
For many Western societies, talking about death and grief is difficult and stigmatised. There is a general level of discomfort in asking people about their emotional state, and we tend to try and avoid such conversations. Many of the participants in our studies have talked about how difficult this is, how they are unable to talk about their husband/wife, mother/father, son/daughter, brother/sister, friend or other person lost to suicide. Yet, this person remains important in their life. Most people celebrate the life of their loved one in some way– through memorials, rituals on special days, special places where they feel most close to the person, listening to particular music, or watching movies. All these, and many other activities, have been reported time and time again to be vitally important in remaining connected to their loved one spiritually.
Each family member who grieves the loss of a family member through a suicide death has experienced their relationship with their deceased family member in an individual way which is dependent on the roles, responsibilities and services shared between the lost family member and the grieving relative.Many of these roles are not able to be fulfilled by any other family member or friend. It is in remembering and valuing all the lived experiences that are treasured in the memory of the bereaved family member that bonds with the deceased are maintained. When children lose a parent through suicide, as the child grows and matures, these bonds are maintained by thinking of their deceased parent at the special land mark events in their lives, such as graduation, marriage and especially in the birth of a new generation of children when they gaze into the face of their child in remembrance of the deceased grandparent. The family stories that are passed on to the new family members celebrate all that was special in the life of the one who is no longer present. In this way the suicide deceased is still honoured within the family memories and when the whole of their life is spoken of in an open way, the stigma and embarrassment of silence that may surround their death is broken.
Wives and husbands who grieve the death of their partner are able to recognise that part of their spouse that lives on the faces and mannerisms of their children and grandchildren. Similarly suicide bereaved siblings speak of their feelings of connection to the children of their deceased sibling. As through this connection the bereaved sibling is able to remember and relive their own shared developmental years with the sibling who is no longer present. The memories of parents who grieve the suicide of a child are carried in the centre of their being, and are recalled with both joy and the deepest of pain, especially on birthdays and special occasions such as mothers’ day and father’s day. Such special days and anniversaries may be spent in feelings of longing and loss, but there can also be the experience of the closest of connections as a loved child is forever carried in the heart of a mother and father.
Recent research we have been involved in has found that young people, particularly close friends, feel their loss in quite unique ways. They share the grief and guilt that is common amongst people bereaved by suicide but also feel that because their relationship was one of friendship, they somehow do not deserve to feel as upset or distressed as others, such as family. This sense of “deservedness” then limits their seeking of help or support for their grief. Young people are also then more likely to manage grief over their loss through the use of alcohol and other drugs. This of course involves greater risk for a range of health issues plus poor decision making, reduced coping skills and potentially more impulsive behaviour that can be associated with self-harm and suicide.
Social networking is also an important component of how young people experience suicide death. For many young people their first contact or awareness of a friend’s suicide death occurs through phone text or social networking sites and applications such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Subsequently these same applications become the ways that young people engage to support each other, keep in contact, but also to remember the person who has died by creating memorial sites and posting photos, images, writings and similar material. By its very nature, social networking connects people in a virtual world but can be physically isolating. The danger can be a perception that someone bereaved is doing okay because they are ‘linked in’ but the technology might actually be masking how they really feel. This makes it important to better recognize and understand patterns of bereavement to follow up with appropriate services.
While we have explored a lot of ground, there is a lot more work to do. The road in front of researchers now, to ensure that bereaved by suicide services are adequately funded, is to seek information that allows us to estimate the number of people affected by each suicide death, and what this affect is. Understanding this will ensure that we can all commence advocating for the funding required to better support those bereaved through suicide, to reduce the poor health outcomes associated with suicide bereavement, and ultimately to reduce the risk of suicide and suicidal behaviours among those bereaved by suicide.
As much as I have learned about grief in the sixty years since my mother’s suicide, what I have discovered in the last decade has been the most helpful to me. Before then I knew that grief is messy and sticky and that it surprised me in waves and bursts even many years after the event shattered my world. Now with the help of recent research I understand how the trauma of suicide affected my body and spirit. What has helped me are practices that have allowed me some mastery over trauma and given me hope.
Trauma occurs when we experience too much, too fast and become overwhelmed. Freud described trauma as, “A breach in the barrier against stimulation.” I have seen signs of a trauma response in almost everyone I know who is a survivor of the suicide of someone to whom they were deeply connected.
When we are traumatized our bodies have an innate neurological response to traumatic stress. This response is hierarchical. Our first defense is to engage or disengage. If we are not able to engage the threat, our bodies and our nervous system become hyper-aroused and release adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us for fight or flight. When we are not successful at those strategies, our nervous system can descend into a state of freeze where we appear immobilized but our bodies are still being flooded with stress chemicals. The following diagram shows the biological response to threat:
If someone enters into hyper-arousal, it can be released by:
- Successfully using it to attack the predator in a fight response.
- Successfully using it to escape from the predator in a flight response.
- Successfully discharging it after the freezing response.
If the hyperarousal is not successfully released, the nervous system continues to sense that the danger is present. This is what occurs in PTSD.
In our response to what we perceive as traumatic, to the point at which it overwhelms our ability to cope, our biological response creates symptoms that are distressing. Sometimes we feel out of control or even crazy. All of our essential internal processes become dysregulated, particularly our autonomic nervous system, the enteric nervous system and the polyvagal nervous system. We know that this has occurred when we cannot control our emotions, when we are hyperalert, when we cannot think well, lose things, cannot concentrate and our sleep, digestion and immune function is disturbed so that we more frequently are ill.
Since the response to trauma is biological, we need to heal the nervous system and the body. Fortunately there are many ways to do this. Animals in the wild are able to discharge the effects of trauma by shaking, sighing, yawning and stretching immediately after the threat has past. With humans our culture intervenes and we often do not have the opportunity to discharge.
Discharge is a subtle, natural and automatic process. Signs include: sweating, vibration, streaming, tingling, goose flesh, REM, warm sensations, flushing of skin tone, twitching, shaking, trembling, micro movements, laughing, sighing, yawning, peristaltic activity, crying. Discharge is a natural process whereby the nervous system resolves trauma.
The most effective methods for mastering trauma are somatic rather than verbal. Somatic Experiencing Practitoners work to heal trauma as do SensoriMotor Psychoterapy Practioners.One of the most tested methods used by psychotherapists is EMDR. Other therapists use a similar technique called Brain Spotting. Information on these techniques can be found on the web at traumahealing.com, EMDRIA.ORG., sensorimotorpsychoterapy.org. Another technique which you can learn at no charge and administer to yourself is on the internet and is called the Emotional Freedom Technique. The website is emofree.com. Body work, walking, regular exercise, tai chi, dancing and other forms of physical exercise can help our bodies discharge and help restore the nervous system.
When we are able to begin to heal our nervous system from the trauma of suicide we can begin to regain some of our sense of safety, our cognitive function and a restored sense of well being. The more we work to do this the more resilient we become so that we can adapt to life’s further challenges.
A search for meaning
What are the emotions of suicide grief?
By Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D.
To lose someone to suicide is complex and confusing. It’s unique from other ways people die because someone ended his or her own life. They made a choice and that leaves those of us left behind wondering if there is something we could have done to change that choice. Often, there were mental health issues involved that also could have included substance abuse. There is not one factor that goes into a suicide death. Each of the stories that follow this chapter describes the unique aspects of the losses although there also are parallels that run through all of them.
Our reactions to suicide loss begin with our view and attitude of suicide. If we were raised to believe it is a sin (culturally and/or through religion) or a crime, we often still feel that stigma. And we feel fear that we don’t know where our loved one went after he or she died or what will become of us because we fear telling anyone what happened. Or if our loved one coped with a mental illness, we might believe the suicide was inevitable. Many of the emotions we feel can be traced back to our past experiences of death and suicide (Do we have any? What have they been like?). Even death is a taboo in many families and to top it with suicide makes people more uncomfortable.
Who we are and what’s going on in our lives when the person dies also affects how we grieve. We could be going through some difficult circumstances in our lives, but we also might be experiencing happy events (like a new marriage, new job, or the birth of a child) and the loss tempers them. What was our relationship with the person who died? Were we close to them? Had we shared a history with them? There are many factors to sort through during the processing of a loss and what it means in our lives.
The emotions of suicide grief are endless. By trying to include them all, we inevitably would forget some of them. Instead, here are some of the major ones that people often experience:
It’s very common for survivors to feel guilty after a suicide death, where people wonder what else they could have done, or what could have made the outcome different. The reality is that, although we believe we might think it would have been different if we had done things another way, there’s no way of knowing that. Guilt is an emotion that sometimes overwhelms people, but it’s one that needs processing to let go and realize we did all we could to help them.
Coping with Guilt
“I keep feeling guilty that I didn’t help enough….what can I do now? The guilt is eating me alive.”
Know guilt is a common feeling after a suicide death. What helped me with my guilt was talking to other family members and friends who lost a loved one from a suicide death. Talking about my feelings of guilt helped me to understand where the feeling is in the grieving process.
By Janet Schnell MSW, survivor, former Suicide Prevention Action Network USA board member
One significant place on the suicide journey is the asking of the Why? question. This can go on for some time as we try to place all the puzzle pieces together after a loved one has died. The reality is that the person who died often took some (or most) of the pieces with them, and we never will truly know why they ended their lives. But it’s important that we ask ourselves this question as it is part of traveling on the road of suicide grief.
While not usually discussed, sometimes there is relief when a loved one has ended his or her life. If the person were severely mentally ill or struggled with everyday life, some families feel relieved that they don’t have to worry about a loved one anymore. But with the relief comes guilt for feeling relieved that they have ended their lives. Know that relief is common and it doesn’t make you miss your loved one any less if you feel that way.
What is there not to be angry about? A loved one has left us. We feel hurt and that manifests itself into anger. As human beings, we have a tendency to look for someone and/or something to blame. We usually do this in our anger because we’re trying to make sense of what has happened. We are trying to understand why our loved one has left us. Often though, our anger and blame are misdirected and hurt the people we care about the most. It’s okay to feel angry about the choice your loved one made to end his or her life.
Coping with Anger
“What a mess was left behind for me to clean up…..that makes me so angry.”
Anger is such an integral part of the grief process. It comes at all stages in different doses. Anger is fear: we are fearful when we are left alone to clean up the “mess” that we so often have to do. Anger at the person who died, anger at ourselves for not detecting it, anger at others for various reasons. It is an emotion to be dealt with as are the others: shock, denial, bargaining, and acceptance. It is okay to be angry at someone who has forevermore disrupted our lives…and we had no vote in the final decision.
By Stephanie Weber, Executive Director, Suicide Prevention Services of America, survivor of her mother’s suicide
Sadness is a fundamental part of grief. We feel sad that our loved one has chosen to end his or her life and is no longer with us. Sadness is a very common emotion of any grief journey because we must acknowledge that we don’t have our loved one with us anymore.
In suicide grief, abandonment also can be a very common emotion. We feel like our loved one left us and didn’t consult us. We might feel that to be left in this world without them (because they were so important to us) is painful and difficult.
Suicide grief is lonely. We all have to travel our own roads, even when we are part of a family or have many connections in our lives. We also feel lonely because someone significant to us is gone. And we feel lonely because often we don’t have any to share the road with us. Our family members might not be in the same emotional place we are, our friends might not understand, and/or we just aren’t sure how we can connect with others who have been through something like we have.
The Holistic Self
As human beings, we have a tendency to see ourselves in pieces. We forget that our body, mind, and all the other aspects of us work together. When we grieve the loss of a loved one, particularly after a suicide, we feel it emotionally. We can’t stop crying. We don’t understand. We feel confused. But we also feel tired and exhausted.
Grief is hard work and we must process it in the many pieces that make us holistic beings. Often we talk about how we emotionally cope with grief, but it’s much more than that. We also must be aware of ourselves physically to keep from getting sick as we travel our grief journey. It’s important to eat balanced meals, and try to get sufficient sleep and exercise. It can feel overwhelming to think about these things when we feel like our world is crashing down, but it also can give us a much-needed focus.
And we should nurture our spiritual selves. Again, this can be like a burdensome task especially because we might be angry with God or our Higher Power. We might doubt that anyone exists beyond the here and now where we live. But asking these questions is part of the grief journey, especially after suicide when a loved one has ended his or her life. The questions feel larger, more difficult to answer. By reaching out spiritually we are allowing ourselves to find help and hope in ways we might not have thought of before.
We often discount the importance of routine in our lives. When we have a suicide loss, it throws life as we know it out the window. We don’t realize how much we miss our routine until it has been stripped away. We are creatures of habit and often we complain about our routines, about the seemingly flatness of daily life, because we are looking forward to the “big” parts of life– the holidays, the vacations. We forget that life is really about savoring the simple aspects and when our loved one dies, we often feel like we missed out on something.
In this confusing and often lonely journey we call suicide grief, there is one aspect that sustains us and guides us, although much of the time it feels hidden from us. Hope. It is hope that keeps us forging forward. Hope helps us to know deep down somewhere inside of us we will one day feel good again. What we each define as hope will vary among us, but the most important part is that we all know it is there. Hope is what life ultimately is about.
For some of us, there is hope that we will see our loved one again in another life, for others it’s feeling the presence of our loved one in some way in our life. And yet for others it’s the sense that we will find purpose in our lives again.
To have hope in our lives, we also have smaller symbols of hope that sustain us in times of sadness and difficulty. This symbol can be as basic as the sun rising in the morning. There is hope in seeing the sun come up, in seeing a new day with a clean slate. While some people might find dread in a new day, the ultimate comfort is knowing that we have a chance to have another opportunity at a new day. Other symbols of hope in our lives can be children, pets, material objects– whatever is important to us in our lives that we grasp when we are in pain and need something to give us relief. For some people, reaching out to others through suicide prevention advocacy, helping people grieve a suicide loss, or in another helpful manner is a way to find hope again.
The grief journey we must travel after suicide often is treacherous because we aren’t sure what to expect. Life never prepares us for the kind of grief (and the reactions that tumble after it) that suicide loss brings. We also don’t realize that we don’t have to travel it alone. There are many other people out there who are going through a similar journey (or are much further along on the road) and would welcome some company or a chance to help us. Ultimately, we must find our own way and our own hope and peace, but it’s there waiting for us to discover it.
If a mother can be only as happy as her unhappiest child, the unhappiest of mothers are those whose children have died- particularly when the death was intentional. For them, time seems doubly out of joint. It never feels right to survive a child and particularly one who has deliberately chosen to die.
How to live with the gaping hole? How to stop the self blaming? How to understand this most mysterious of actions? How to get thru the day?
This is the landlord in Brazil. Your son is dead.” That was the moment my unwanted journey to survival began, a search for ‘normal’, after losing our youngest adult son to suicide – death by bipolar mental illness.
Survival is a destination with no map. Cyber Siri, my iPhone “knowledge navigator,” couldn’t provide destination coordinates. I was left to my own devices with my home team: me, myself and I. The priority was fulfilling our son’s wish to be buried in the U.S.; easier said than done considering he left no will- but did leave a grieving Brazilian wife and a maze of Brazil laws and customs.
When you lose a loved one to suicide, the family tree instantly splits – hit by a bolt of lightening: one half dies, one half survives. You can cling to the dead branches as they become brittle and break, taking you down with them; or you can tenderly nurture the surviving branches with life-affirming love and care so the remaining family tree can thrive again, in spite of the precious missing limb.
I chose the second path. Top priority was finding ways to respectfully honor our son’s mind, body and spirit while holding on to mine. Meditation helped me embrace the present moment; learning to let go of the past, stop worrying about the future, and to think before I act. This clarity enabled me to put together a Survival Kit. I have added helpful tools along the way: books, compassionate friends, a support group, and more. But there is so much suffering, verging on torture, that our mind can do to us: haunting, nightmarish thoughts of our beloved child’s last moments of life and not being there to save them like a good mother should. Running to the mailbox for a month, awaiting a letter of full disclosure that never comes. There is relief shrouded in guilt and sadness. The ambivalence comes with thanks that our loved one is free from the demons and despair that haunted them coupled with the infinite emptiness and pain left behind. I call this The Empty Heart Compartment: It is an irreparably broken part of my heart. Some days it feels like a crater. It is not as blistered as it once was, but it gets rubbed raw every time a new member joins my support group – surviving suicide and searching for their “new normal”. It happens again on birthdays, holidays and other family milestones: The absence of our son in family photos is like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece permanently missing. Each family’s journey is different but the underlying heartache is similar. We are card-carrying members of a club in which we never sought membership.
Each of us is left to build our own Survival Kit. For me, it continues to be a work-in-progress: Some tools work better than others, some get discarded, others still remain a vital part of my kit. Equally important, I carved out sacred time to talk with my husband and respect that his own journey is far different from mine. Priorities changed: I let go of tasks, some friendships a little past expired, and accepted, with sadness, that some friends turned out not to be.
My journey to survival is two-years young and counting, the toddler stage: The Terrible Two’s complete with the “Whys?”, the “No’s!” and the occasional hissy-fit. Sometimes I have a complete melt-down as I did when hearing the news about Robin Williams’ suicide; causing pain so deep it completely ripped the scab off my slowing healing wound.
I have experienced how mental illness can be present in an individual’s DNAand play forward in the family’s DNA. My journey also revealed how dysfunctional DNA plays forward in our society and it led me to question what is truly ‘normal’ and who gets to decide: The American PsychiatricAssociation? Big Pharma? the media? the FDA? Big Insurance? Lobbyists? your doctor? mother? ex-husband? or other perfectly imperfect humans? As I journeyed forward there were no “sacred cows”: I started at the beginning, tracing our own family’s journey through mental illness and the roadblocks encountered. By following the money trail, I discovered a broken system and uncovered a painful truth; how the stigma of mental illness keeps it cloaked in denial and how that can play out when the patient, the family and society collude to maintain the status quo.
And I found a purpose: In partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Collier County, FL, I launched The Surviving Suicide Project, a new book and companion website dedicated to bringing mental illness out of the darkness and giving it a life-affirming voice.
NAMI provides free mental health services to families so they are less isolated and more integrated into the community. Each affiliate customizes programs to best serve local needs: NAMI-CC provides Health Under Guided Systems (HUGS), the Sarah Ann Adult Drop-In Center, Support Groups, Crisis Referral, Advocacy, Mental Health First Aid and Crisis Intervention Training.
My book records my journey through heartache and discovery. It includes creative elements of irreverent, healing humor and colorful artwork by NAMI artists living with mental illness and impairment. The artwork was infused with life: It was so validating for the artists it inspired a website focused on living with mental illness (WriteOnMyMind.com) – a virtual global community where folks impacted by mental illness (patient, caregiver, family member, friend, employer or colleague) can find helpful resources and be inspired by the different ways the mind can speak – in words and in art. The global community is invited to submit artwork.
All profit from book sales benefits NAMI and other mental health organizations. My hope is that this project benefits you or someone in your world, who may be dealing with loss of a loved one or friend to suicide, and prompts change.
As my search for “normal” continues, here’s my “Short List” for surviving suicide:
1) Stay tethered and anchored to reality: Meditation, prayer, a nature walk, yoga.
2) Beware of guilt: It is hopelessness looking for a home. Make it a brief visit.
3) Have a plan: Let your heart be your guide. Do what feel right for you and those you care about.
4) Support: Take time for solitude and grieving but don’t isolate. Build a support system. Seek professional help if needed.
5) Pick and choose your battles: You don’t have to engage in every battle you are invited to.
6) Give yourself and your loved ones permission to smile again: “There is not much laughter in medicine but there is much medicine in laughter.
Thanks, Deena for sharing the heartache of your loss and the indomitable spirit that helps you face and deal with it. Grieving for a lost love one is exquisitely painful under any circumstances, but seems impossibly cruel when you lose a young child and when that child was unhappy enough in life to prefer death. Many surviving parents feel that life has lost all meaning and become suicidal themselves.
To them I say that, however difficult, life somehow must go on. You must be here for your friends and family who need you and would be doubly bereft and horror stricken were you to act on your wishes. You will eventually, after much struggle and suffering, come to terms with the the pain of the past and find new meaning in your future life and relationships. And you must live for your lost loved child who would not want to condemn you to death on his account and would not want to be forgotten. And for many, life must go on for religious reasons and/or for practical reasons (who else would take care of the remaining family).
I have known dozens of mothers who have lost children to suicide. None ever really got over it. All remained intermittently haunted and forever felt an empty space and a hollowness in life.