According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, more than 48,000 died from suicide in the United States. This rate is equal to 1 death every 11 minutes. Surveys have shown that 40% of adults know at least one person who has died by suicide, and upwards of 20% of adults report their lives have been significantly impacted by suicide.
I won’t waste time on introductions because there’s a lot to cover. I do realize, though, that some of you won’t read this post all the way through. For those of you who know yourselves well enough to know you won’t finish, I want to tell you that I will link to additional resources at the end of this post.
Also, I want to invite anyone who has been touched by suicide to share your experiences in the comments below. Although we can offer general thoughts on this subject, it is your insight that adds truth and nuance to this discussion and helps those facing similar circumstances feel less alone.
First things first, our usual disclaimer…
Although commonalities exist amongst people who have experienced a specific type of loss, individual grief is unique to the person experiencing it and their relationship with the person who died. We can talk in averages and generalities, but no article, grief theory, or set of symptoms will ever perfectly sum up your grief experience.
Further, although you might relate to aspects of another person’s grief (and vice versa), no one can completely understand how anyone else feels. With this in mind, we recommend you learn what you can from your commonalities with other grievers, but take differences with a grain of salt.
How we talk about suicide…
Although we may have a long way to go in understanding suicide and effective suicide prevention, we have thankfully progressed far beyond the dark days when people considered suicide a crime or religious offense. Progress, though, is multifaceted, and while our understanding of suicide has grown more compassionate, our language has not.
For this reason, organizations like the World Health Organization, National Institute for Mental Health, American Association for Suicidology, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and countless others have been working to shift suicide-related terminology. Although there are many fine points to this conversation, I want to impress the following upon you:
When discussing an individual’s death from suicide…
Don’t say…“She committed suicide.”
I know most of you are used to saying “committed suicide” and you certainly aren’t alone. Many in our society have yet to get this memo, but now you have. Please, the time has come for us to choose language around suicide that does not condemn or stigmatize the person who has died or those who love them.
Suicide as a traumatic loss…
When a loved one kills themselves, the death is often experienced as traumatic. We typically use Wortman & Latack (2015) definition of traumatic loss…
“A death is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if there is damage to the loved one’s body; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the death as preventable; if the survivor believes that the loved one suffered; or if the survivor regards the death, or manner of death, as unfair and unjust.”
This definition touches on many experiences common to a suicide death, including the death being sudden, untimely, violent, regarded as preventable, etc. Additionally, other traumatic loss risk factors are associated with suicide, such as feelings of blame, witnessing death, and finding the body.
It’s important to note; it is not the nature of a death that makes it traumatic, but how the event is interpreted and processed by the individual. So, regardless of the circumstances around the death, it is not a given that it will be experienced as traumatic.
Potentially traumatic deaths can result in the compounding and intertwining of trauma and grief responses. These may manifest as the following (these are just a few, so if you’d like more information on grieving a traumatic loss, head here):
- Recurrent intrusive thoughts about the death
- Shattered assumptions about the world, oneself, and others
- Feelings of guilt and blame
- Fear and avoidance of grief and trauma-emotions, thoughts, memories, etc.
When grieving a suicide death one may experience the following…
The search for answers:
In the wake of death, people often seek to construct a meaningful narrative that helps them find peace and understand what happened. So it’s common to ask questions like “what if?”, “why?”, and “what’s the point?” Until the question of “why” can be answered, grieving family and friends may continue to search and ruminate.
After a suicide death, as with any other type of death, the bereaved may seek to make sense of what happened. However, in this instance, they may find that many of their questions are either unanswerable or lead to distressing conclusions (whether or not these conclusions are true).
It is not uncommon for themes of personal blame to arise as the person questions their role in their loved one’s suicide and what they could have done to prevent their death. Unfortunately, the bereaved may vastly overestimate their role and others’ role (i.e., what family and friends did or didn’t do).
Whether rational or not, grieving family and friends may struggle with distressing thoughts like:
- I never really knew him.
- She didn’t feel comfortable confiding in me.
- She was in intense pain.
- I’m to blame. I should have done more to prevent his death.
- I’m to blame. I pushed him into the decision to kill himself.
- She didn’t love me enough to live.
- My family members are to blame.
When the death is expected…
Although suicide is often sudden, it is not always unexpected, and so not all who experience the death of a loved one struggle to answer the question of “why?”. In many instances, there has been discussion of suicidal thoughts or past suicide attempts. Maple et al (2007) found in interviews with suicidally bereaved parents that “preparedness” was linked with an ability to anticipate and explain their child’s death. They note,
“Once they had acknowledged the inevitability of suicide they were able to weave this possibility, unwelcome as it was, into their life story to develop a coherent explanation.”
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death, things like complicated family dynamics, shifting roles, and different coping styles can test and challenge a family. After a suicide death, conflict may emerge because:
- The deceased’s mental illness and suicidal behavior created disruption and placed a strain on the family.
- Family members disagree about how they want to acknowledge the death publicly.
- Family members disagree about how they want to discuss the death privately within the family.
- Different family members come up with varying explanations for why their loved one died by suicide
Feelings of rejection and abandonment:
Evidence has shown that suicidally bereaved individuals experience higher levels of rejection compared with other bereaved groups. In grief, feelings of guilt, blame, regret, and rejection can be logical, but they can also defy all logic and reason. So even when it’s evident that the suicide was not an act of intentional abandonment, it still may feel that way to the people who grieve the death.
Worries about developing mental illness:
Approximately 90% of those who die by suicide have one or more mental disorders. When the deceased is connected to the bereaved through genetics, especially in the instance of a child grieving a parent’s suicide death, the living family member(s) may worry that they too will develop mental illness and someday decide to kill themselves. Indeed, some research has indicated that a family history of suicide increases suicide risk.
If you know a child, or adult for that matter, struggling with these concerns, don’t immediately disregard their worries. If you are someone grappling with this concern, know that it is normal, and if you’re concerned, then it never hurts to seek out a little support and psycho-education from a therapist or counselor.
Fear of grief reactions:
After a death, mourners often feels like they’re losing it, and, as noted, those who have experienced a traumatic loss often experience intensified and prolonged grief/trauma reactions. If a person interprets their symptoms as dangerous, threatening, or indicative of a larger mental or physical problem, they are more likely to fear their reactions.
Concerns about one’s own reactions following a death add to existing emotion by causing additional anxiety, depression, anger, or shame. Those who are fearful of their responses may engage in maladaptive and persistent avoidance of triggers or reminders, which, in some cases, can contribute to the development of psychological disorder and prevent the mourner from finding meaningful ways to continue their bond with their loved one.
It is common for a person to feel relieved after a loved one dies, when the loved one had been living in pain and suffering. For those who die from illness, the relief comes from knowing they are no longer in physical pain. And when a person dies from something like suicide or overdose, the relief may come from a place of knowing that their loved one is no longer struggling with emotional (and sometimes physical) pain.
This doesn’t mean that the person grieving the loss wouldn’t trade their relief to have their loved one back for just one moment, or that they don’t also feel intense pain and sadness. It just means that relief is one feeling in their big, messy, hurricane of grief.
Feelings of isolation, stigma and/or shame:
Sadly, there is a stigma attached to mental illness and suicide. Some people can’t imagine the mental and emotional pain that would cause a person to kill themselves, so they might make assumptions or judge the deceased’s actions, calling them weak or selfish.
Stigmatized losses may also be referred to as disenfranchised losses, which you can read more about here. The following are just a few potential causes for isolation, stigma, and shame following a suicide death:
- Isolation and shame may result from the family’s decision to keep the suicide a secret. Feeling unable to acknowledge the truth, those grieving the loss may feel like they have to lie or live in silence.
- Shame may result from thoughts of personal blame and responsibility.
- Shame may result from the belief that one can’t control or manage their grief reactions.
- Isolation and shame may result from a lack of social support or because others don’t acknowledge the death.
- Shame, isolation, and stigma may be felt in response to messages from media and broader society about suicide.
- Isolation may result from perceived rejection and thoughts of worthlessness.
If you are grieving a loved one’s death from suicide you may find these resources helpful: