I remember how shocked and saddened I was to hear of my friend’s son’s passing. Her and her family’s grief was tragic, made more so as her son was young, and generally healthy...and his death was by suicide.
PLEASE NOTE - Some of this content may cause distress. Please know our intention is only to inform or provide some basic guidance. We encourage you to seek professional help if you are struggling to cope with things in general or have thoughts of self harm.
Statistically, numbers and rates of deaths by suicide change over time as social, economic and environmental factors influence suicide risk. While the reasons for an individual’s suicide death are personal and often complex, overall the highs and lows in rates and numbers of deaths by suicide historically coincide—more or less—with social and economic events, such as the World Wars, the Great Depression and high unemployment, and increased access to illicit drugs. There is also a consistently higher rate of death by suicide in males than females.
But no matter the manner in which a person dies, the grief that loved ones feel is no better or worse than another person’s grief. It can be helpful to recognise that grief is a process and that each person experiences grief in a unique way.
The experience of grief can sometimes be very intense. Some people feel they are ‘going mad’ as grief can leave us feeling out of control and overwhelmed. Give ourselves and others permission to grieve and be patient when the process seems to be taking what we might think to be a long time.
Because suicide is difficult to make sense of and understand, it is possible to begin to see yourself or others as responsible for what has happened. In any emotionally charged atmosphere, guilt and blame can result in conflict, arguments and a breakdown in communication and relationships. This increases the level of distress along with your grief, and can leave some feeling isolated and alone.
Some bereavement responses
Grief in response to a suicide can be particularly intense and difficult. It often raises many questions for family and friends of the person who died. Some experiences of grief and bereavement following suicide might include:
- a sense of unreality, numbness, nightmares and intrusive thoughts.
- feelings of guilt and failure that it was not prevented.
- feeling responsible.
- experiencing the suicide as a reflection of the quality of the relationship with the person.
- a sense of shame and stigma, that other people will think negatively about you and your family. Sometimes this can result in feeling alone and wanting to withdraw from others.
- blaming others.
- an unrelenting need to ask why; trying to make sense of and understand why it happened.
- feelings of rejection and abandonment.
- anger towards the person who has suicided.
If anyone is feeling particularly angry, which is not unusual with the grief process, it is beneficial for the long-term wellbeing of the family, and especially children, that care and support are offered to everyone, in these heightened emotional circumstances.
It is important not to expect too much of yourself in the early stages. For a while you may not have the energy or motivation to live your life in the same way as before. Remind yourself that you are reacting to a devastating situation. Some days will be better than others. Grief is an individual process so, whatever time it takes, is the time you need.
Responses after a suicide
Many people who are bereaved by suicide have feelings of guilt and regret. They may feel they should have seen ‘the signs’. “If only …” or “I wish …” are common thoughts. Parents may feel there was something wrong with their parenting. Siblings and partners may feel responsible particularly when there has been family stress or conflict. It is important for bereaved people to remember that they acted with the information they had at the time. With hindsight, it is often easy to see signs of the person’s distress and to be critical or regretful what was or was not done.
Some people may feel there were things they would have liked to have said to the person but were unable to, because of the suddenness of the death. They may yearn to tell them they were loved, or to settle misunderstandings. It is common to feel sadness about the unfinished, unlived life, but it may help to recognise the person’s positive contributions and influences during their life and to remember the time spent together.
Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Some people will not be able to handle your grief, so find those who can. Seek out an understanding friend, family member or support group. Some bereaved people suggest it is best to do this sooner rather than later, as it can make a real difference to you and your family and friends.
In a family, it is important to communicate with one another while at the same time having respect for each other’s way of handling the experience.
Some things that may help
Some activities that may help with your grief
- Spend time alone to think, remember, pray, meditate, soul search and mourn.
- Talk to a trusted 'other' who will listen with understanding to your thoughts and feelings.
- Develop a resource list, phone numbers of people and places to contact when the going gets tough.
- Find distractions, to provide time out from the pain.
- Collect information, read simple books about surviving suicide, or about life enhancement, when you are ready.
- Use physical nurture, massage, spa baths, early nights, and get some fresh air by going for short walks.
- Keep treasures, a memory box, journal, photo album.
- Create a memory book for family and friends to write stories, memories, messages.
- Create or build a special memento for your loved one: a garden, a CD or DVD, photo album.
- Eat a healthy diet, frequent small amounts of nutritious, easily digested food.
- Exercise to boost energy or to use excess adrenaline.
- Prioritise daily tasks, do only what is essential.
- Use an answering machine, choose who you will talk to. Record a message on your phone saying something like: “Thank you for your call. I appreciate it. I’ll get back to you when I can.”
- Write notes to relatives and friends when you need to tell aspects of your story, or to express feelings.
- Keep a journal to record your thoughts and feelings, especially if you are unable to sleep.
- Spend time with nature.
- Review pictures and mementoes.
- Visit the burial site or some other special place.
- Rearrange and store the person's belongings when you are ready to.
- Attend individual counselling or a support group.
- Find ways to honour the life of the person who has died.
Seeking out professional assistance can be helpful for some people. Some Australian organisations to help you deal with your feelings of grief;
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
- MensLine 1300 78 99 78
- Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
- Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467
Grief is expressed in many ways and there is no specific timeline for the experience. Life will never be the same as it was, but over time you learn to integrate the reality of the loss into your lives.
You will never be the same again, you will never get over it. But you will have a life again. You will wake up in the morning and feel good. You will start to make plans for the future. At some point, life will feel normal again; not the old normal, the new normal.