Grief After a Suicide Death
What is grief?
Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change
Losing a loved one is a uniquely difficult experience. It may feel as if your entire life is changing beyond your control and you may miss the person deeply. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in grieving and everybody experiences it in their own way at their own pace. There are certain features that you may identify with.
After a person has died, you may feel in shock or numb, as if your life is somehow unreal or happening to someone else. You may not believe that the person is really gone, feel confused, or temporarily forget that the person has died. This initial numbness or disbelief may prevent you from feeling or expressing pain, for example you may not cry at the funeral. As the numbness and disbelief gradually wears off, you may begin to feel the pain of your loss.
The most obvious feeling associated with grieving is sadness. However, you may also feel angry, lonely, hopeless, frightened or detached. While these feelings can be painful to experience, they are all part of the grieving process. Try to be patient with yourself as you experience these difficult feelings. There is no ‘wrong’ way to feel; feeling angry, relieved or afraid is part of the pattern of grief reactions after losing someone to suicide.
Grief can affect your thoughts too. You may question over and over again why the death happened, whether it could have been prevented or, why things didn’t happen differently. You may worry about whether your grief is ‘normal’, or wonder whether you are losing your mind. You may become forgetful or confused. These thoughts are part of an active process of making sense of your loss. If you are thinking about harming yourself, it is important to speak to someone you trust, preferably a health professional.
As well as a range of emotions, you may experience physical effects in the aftermath of a death. Grief may affect your sleep, concentration, energy, appetite, digestion, or libido. Sometimes, emotional pain may be felt as physical pain, or a pre-existing condition might worsen. You may get dizzy or have headaches or you might have difficulty breathing or feel your heart rate increasing or missing a beat.
It can be strange to watch life go on as normal around you while experiencing grief. You may feel alone in your loss, as if nobody around you understands how you feel. It is important to stay connected, because ‘no man is an island’. Try to accept help and support when it is offered by those around you, and don’t be afraid to ask for it. Usually, others are pleased to be able to help but might not know how to offer or what to say. You may wish to talk in depth about the person who has died or you may prefer to spend time alone. It is important to find safe places to communicate your feelings: if you are uncomfortable discussing your feelings with family and friends, it might be helpful to speak to an independent person such as a qualified counsellor or your GP.
What makes suicide bereavement different?
Losing a loved one to suicide can make grief even more challenging. As well as feeling the loss of the individual who has died, there are some elements that are increased because the deceased took his or her own life.
You may feel anger at the person who died by suicide, because you feel abandoned or rejected, or because of the impact their death has had on you, your family and your community. Alternatively, you may feel angry at others (such as family members or services) for not doing more to help the person. Sometimes family members direct anger at themselves. Even though it is common to try and figure out who is ‘to blame’, it is often the case that the person who took their own life had a context of longstanding vulnerabilities that were beyond the control of any one person.
You may feel that you have done something wrong, or that you are somehow responsible for the death. This is a common reaction following death by suicide, but please remember you are not to blame and cannot be responsible for another person’s action.
Because suicides are a type of sudden death, the numbness and disbelief associated with shock may be more intense or last longer. You may feel as if you are living in a dream or often forget the person has died, searching or calling out for them.
Losing a person suddenly in a violent way is traumatic, and directly witnessing the death may make this even more difficult. If you witnessed the death or found your relative or friend after they died, you may find disturbing images intruding on your thoughts or dreams. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder including panic attacks, nightmares and sleep disturbance may be recurring. When these symptoms persist, it is advised to contact a qualified counsellor or your GP.
Trying to understand why the person took their own life is an important part of grieving, and questions may run through your mind.
Even though every situation is unique, people who die by suicide often share similar characteristics, which you can read about here. Attending the inquest or reading a suicide note may help you to understand more about the events leading up to the death. However, it is important to bear in mind that a note or message left by the person is likely to have been written while they were in crisis and so these may not provide a complete picture of the reasons why the person involved took his or her life. Even though questioning is a natural and important part of grieving, there are some questions that may never be answered, and part of grieving may involve coming to accept some level of ‘not knowing’.
Because a suicide is a sudden death, there will be different procedures compared with natural deaths. For example, Gardaí will be involved and there will likely be a post-mortem and inquest by the Coroner to examine the cause of death. These procedures are carried out routinely, and have nothing to do with crime. For some cases, there may be media attention, which can present an additional challenge. Given the overwhelming effects of grief, it may be best to avoid media contact and ask another person (such as your family solicitor or a community advocate) to act as a spokesperson if necessary. You can find more detail on these practical aspects here.
Why do people take their own lives?
There is rarely one reason why a person takes their own life. The causes of suicide are complex. Close to the time when a person becomes suicidal, they may feel trapped and hopeless and be unable to see an alternative way out of their painful situation. For many people who die by suicide, their difficulties may be associated with mental health problems (such as depression or alcohol abuse), which can be undiagnosed or untreated.
There are certain characteristics associated with vulnerability and risk of suicide:
- Young and middle aged men; people who are economically disadvantaged, and people who are homeless
- Having suicidal thoughts or a history of non-fatal self-harm
- Having a substance abuse problem, such as alcohol or drug abuse
- Having an underlying psychiatric disorder, such as major depression, bipolar mood disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, eating disorder or borderline personality disorder
- Having a family history of mental disorders, substance abuse, suicide, or violence (including physical or sexual abuse)
- Being socially isolated or a victim of bullying
- Having a traumatic experience during childhood, a history of sexual or physical abuse, or a history of parental neglect
- Having certain medical conditions, such as chronic disease, chronic pain or terminal illness
As well as these longer-standing difficulties, sometimes there may be a stressful event close to the time of death that may trigger unresolved traumatic experiences. Not everyone who dies by suicide will have some or any of these characteristics, and not all of those with these characteristics will take their own lives.
A person who is planning to take his or her own life may express direct or vague comments about suicide, dying or ‘not being around’. While in retrospect, the signs may be obvious, it is important to bear in mind that suicide is difficult to predict, and loved ones do the best they could with the information they had at the time.