Losing someone to suicide is a hugely painful experience, and understanding that loss can be extremely difficult. Suicide bereavement and grief come with a complexity of mixed emotions, unanswered questions and often the pain of being unable to understand the loss or gain closure.
Understanding that suicide bereavement is different
Although bereavement by suicide shares many similarities with other bereavements, it’s important to recognise that it is also very different. While we may all experience grief throughout life, to encounter a suicide bereavement can often feel more complicated than other losses. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but having an understanding of suicide bereavement can be helpful when on a journey of healing and also when supporting bereaved people.
When someone dies by suicide, it’s often unexpected and sudden. This can sometimes increase the intensity of shock and trauma experienced compared to other losses. Those bereaved by suicide often struggle to understand or make sense of what has happened. It can bring on a range of different emotions and reactions, which can feel intense, confusing, and uncontrollable simultaneously. Nothing will make sense for those who have lost someone to suicide and there won’t be words to describe how they feel.
Suicide has a rippling effect and can often extend beyond the person’s immediate family and friends, flooding into communities. The pain and loss will likely feel different depending on your relationship with the person who died.
The stages of grief
Like most grief, some stages will be individually unique to that person’s experience. The emotional reactions are traumatic and complex, and some may find they are experiencing feelings they have not had before, such as guilt, anger, sadness, confusion, and rejection. It’s natural and okay to experience any feeling that may seem unnatural; we will all present and deal with loss — and more specifically, suicide — differently.
Here are some of the feelings that can occur:
For most, the first stage of suicide grief is shock. The shock of learning about a loved one’s suicide can feel overwhelming and unbearable. Among the shock, feelings of denial and numbness may also be present.
You may feel angry at yourself for not realising or seeing that this person was struggling, or question whether you could have acted differently. You may feel angry towards others – often after a suicide, people look for someone to blame or project this anger towards. You might even feel anger towards the person who died. Whatever anger you may experience, it’s important to remember that it’s okay and a common stage of grief.
You may carry guilt about different things when grieving. Many people who have been bereaved by suicide spend a long time placing blame on themselves and considering what more they could have done. They will go over in their with thoughts such as “If only I had…” or “If I would have asked…”.
Those bereaved might also experience guilt for having to continue with their lives and feeling moments of happiness. We are often led to believe that grief consists of just sad emotions, but this can sometimes be untrue. You might feel waves of joy when remembering and reflecting on your loved one’s life – this can sometimes feel outweighed by guilt, guilt for feeling happiness during this time of sadness. It’s okay to have moments of happiness during this difficult time; it’s a good way of coping and coming to terms with the loss.
It’s possible you may feel shame about losing someone to suicide. This can be the result of different thoughts and feelings; some people experience shame due to feeling like a bad parent, daughter, son, or sibling to the perspective of others. Often due to the stigma that still surrounds suicide, people will fear other reactions or judgements.
Relief as an emotion towards suicide can feel extremely confusing if it does occur. This is not a relief that your loved one has died, but rather a relief that they are out of pain and are at peace from their thoughts and feelings. It can be difficult to experience this feeling, but it’s important that you know this is another natural response to encounter after losing someone to suicide.
Probably the most profound feeling that those bereaved by suicide will experience is sadness. This will look different to everyone; some may cry more than others, and some may not cry at all. Sometimes the sadness can be so overwhelming that you can feel depressed or isolate yourself from others – even those who are experiencing a similar pain and loss. The pain you feel might even cause you to experience thoughts of suicide yourself; however, it’s important to remember that there is support out there and to seek it.
After losing someone to suicide, your mind and body will often plague you with worries for others. It’s natural that you will now now programmed to worry about the welfare of other family members or friends as a result of your loss. You may have fears about the future or how you will return to “normal”. The truth is, you may now have to adapt to a new “normal” as you learn how to live without the person, which is understandably painful and scary.
The understanding, acceptance and closure stages will look different to everyone. Often with suicide grief, people are left with unanswered questions and coming to terms with the fact that they will never get the answers they want can be challenging to deal with. This can make it feel impossible to get closure and also to understand why or what has happened. This is a journey of healing, and over time the process may feel easier. There is no time limit on grief, and everyone’s journey is unique to them. Just because someone looks like they are no longer grieving doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t; grief doesn’t go away. Whether your loss was recent, five years ago or 30 years ago, you are still allowed to grieve and feel the loss of your loved one.
Grief is very much a cycle that you will continue to feel throughout life. Although your grief may lessen or settle as time passes, it’s likely it will never entirely leave. The stages will remain there, and anniversaries, birthdays or life events may often bring these feelings to the surface again. It doesn’t matter if you experience those stages once or multiple times or go back and forth between them; your journey is unique and important, and you should allow yourself to feel whatever you need to.
The journey is hard and painful, but with time, support, and patience with yourself, it’s possible to heal and find peace. Remember your loved one, cherish the memories and continue to talk about them – honouring them can play an essential part in healing. Coping with a suicide loss takes immense strength, bravery, and courage. Remember you are not alone; reach out to your support network and seek professional help if you need it. Be kind and patient with yourself.
For support after a suicide, you can reach out to the organisations below: