Most survivors of suicide are left with lots of unanswered questions. As a result, the grief is much more complex. It’s important to remember that while the healing process after such a devastating loss will not be easy, it can be done.
How to Cope
If you allow yourself to experience and express your feelings, reach out to those who care about you, and draw upon your inner resources, you will survive. There will be very difficult times, but over time, the pain will lessen. Gradually, you will heal and grow.
It’s often said that the only way out of your grief is to allow yourself to go through it. Time alone will not heal your grief. It’s best to let yourself surrender to your feelings and learn from them. Don’t fight what you’re experiencing, no matter how painful it may be. Grief is a natural process that cannot be rushed. Allow it and trust that this is nature’s way of healing.
Some people are tempted to hide the fact that their loved one died as a result of suicide. It’s best not to keep the suicide a secret or tell half-truths. Instead, talk openly about your family member and your thoughts and feelings about his/her death, even if it’s hard to put words to what you’re experiencing. If, over time, you find it difficult to face your feelings and thoughts about the person you've lost, it might be wise to seek professional help. According to grief expert Rabbi Earl Grollman, seek professional help if:
- You continually feel hostile toward people you once cared about.
- You are uninterested in anything and everyone.
- Your health is suffering.
- You are relying more and more on drugs or alcohol.
- You are avoiding all social activities and wish to be alone most of the time.
- You are preoccupied with thoughts of suicide.
Trained professionals who can help include hospice bereavement counselors, clergy, mental health counselors, clinical social workers, and family therapists. Don’t view asking for professional help as a sign of weakness. Rather, consider it a mark of courage, intelligence and willingness to move forward.
Another option that many, many survivors find helpful is support groups. There are groups specifically for survivors of suicide, so everyone in the group knows what the others are going through. Your local hospice or mental health center should be able to help you find a group in your community. The American Association of Suicidology may also be a useful resource. Contact them at 202-237-2280 or visit their website: www.suicidology.org.
Guidelines to Consider
As you move into and through your grief, these guidelines may help to ease your way:
Breathe! This may seem common sense, but in the stress of grieving, many people tighten their muscles and find it difficult to breathe deeply, smoothly and freely. It’s helpful to stop occasionally and take several slow, deep breaths. As you go through your day, stop and notice your breathing.
Take good care of yourself. You’ve been through an extremely difficult time, so you need to give yourself special care. Be gentle, understanding and kind to yourself--just as you would to a dear friend if he or she were suffering. Rest, eat healthfully, drink plenty of fluids, and get some fresh air and exercise.
Tune into your feelings. Whatever your feelings-—anger, guilt, betrayal, shame, fear, remorse, despair, heartache, relief, peace-—let yourself experience them. Gently pay attention to your feelings as they arise in the present. If you want to scream, pound a pillow or cry, go ahead. Sobbing promotes relaxation and the release of tension and sorrow, while tears cleanse and heal.
Share your grief. Allow yourself to pour your heart out to at least one person whom you like and trust. Let yourself do so as often as you need, until you feel a sense of calm or relief.
Be kind to yourself. You are likely struggling with a variety of unanswered questions, repetitive thoughts, and feelings of anger and betrayal. Processing all of these thoughts and feelings is an important part of grieving. While it’s important to let yourself experience them, it’s equally important not to beat yourself up. Once you’ve faced the difficult thoughts and feelings, and learned from them, it’s time to let them go. One strategy for letting go is to mentally say “stop!” any time unhealthy images, thoughts or feelings creep up. You may even visualize a stop sign. Immediately replace the negative thoughts and images with something positive or constructive. Doing something physical like taking a walk or talking to another person can help you break free from self-defeating thoughts.
Release your guilt. With hindsight, people often wish they had handled things differently with their loved one. Remind yourself that we are all human and make mistakes. No one handles things perfectly. Learn from the past so that you can begin to move on.
Forgive and let go. In the aftermath of suicide it is common to experience feelings of blame-—blaming your loved one, blaming yourself, or blaming others and society. While forgiveness does not condone hurtful behavior, it does free us from self-defeating blame and resentment. Begin to forgive yourself. Forgiveness brings peace of mind, releases the spirit, and creates an opportunity for fresh starts. When you are ready, forgive yourself for what you believe you should have or shouldn’t have done. Forgive yourself over and over again as you need to, and extend the same kindness to your deceased loved one and others.
Explore your spirituality. If you are spiritually inclined, explore your relationship to God or a guiding power. This connection can bring immense comfort in times of sorrow. Take time to nourish yourself spiritually in whatever way is best for you-—prayer, being in nature, meditation, or reading scripture. Pour out your soul, express your feelings, ask questions, then patiently open yourself to the inner guidance you receive.
Avoid judgmental thinking. If you are concerned about what others may be thinking about your loved one’s suicide, stop yourself. Remind yourself that it doesn’t matter. If people think or act in a judgmental or self-righteous way, remember that they are expressing their own insecurity or narrow-mindedness. Don’t buy into it and don’t let yourself feel inferior.
Nourish your self-worth and confidence. As a survivor of a loved one’s suicide, you’ve been through more than your share of torment and distress. As a result, your self-esteem has likely taken a jolt. Frequently remind yourself that you are a strong, capable, wonderful person who has learned and grown as a result of the tragedy you’ve faced. Give yourself credit for surviving such a terrible ordeal, knowing you are wiser, stronger and more loving as a result.
Look for patches of sunshine. To complete your healing, you’ll need to continue to stay open to the times of pain. Gradually begin to balance the pain with times of enjoyment of the little things that bring pleasure. Enjoy a colorful sunrise or sunset, the sound of children playing, a gentle breeze, blooming flowers, or a warm hug from a dear friend.
Make fresh starts. After you’ve given yourself time and space to grieve and heal, let yourself begin to dream of your future. What would you love to do? Listen to your heart, then allow yourself to follow your dreams. You may decide to travel, to take classes, make new friends or try a new hobby. Bring your dreams to life.
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Adapted with permission from GriefWorks, Sam Quick, Professor Emeritus, Human Development and Family Relations Specialist, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
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