Have you been bereaved by suicide?

Bereavement after a suicide can often be very complicated. In addition to grief, people bereaved by suicide can experience shock, guilt, anger and social isolation. Because the death may have been sudden or unanticipated, it can be particularly traumatic and painful for those who were close to the person. 

As well as the combination of emotions, you may find yourself preoccupied with finding an explanation why the person chose to end their life. Unfortunately, it is often true that you may never really know what was going through the person’s head at that time, and may be left without an explanation. This can make grief more complex and draining. The search for an explanation of the suicide can often bring up thoughts and questions about your relationship with the person, and can even amplify your loss.

Everyone will experience bereavement after a suicide differently, but often it will mean that you make some changes in your life, relationships, and your view of yourself. As the grieving process unfolds, people will often begin to concentrate more on their life’s meaning or purpose, and their own hopes, beliefs and plans for the future. 

Grief is not a sign that you aren’t coping. Instead, it is a normal part of the process of healing. It is often the case that the grief will wax and wane in intensity, with emotional times alternating with short times of relief. 

 The grieving process after a suicide: understanding your emotions

Shock

Learning that someone has completed suicide can be incredibly shocking or hard to believe. The initial feeling of shock can be very intense, particularly if you were the one to find the body. 

You may find that you are haunted by images of the death – either real or reconstructed in your mind. It is natural for the mind to revisit these upsetting and harrowing scenes and the feelings they bring up.

The reaction of shock and disbelief that comes with the news of a suicide can be extremely strong. It can manifest itself physically, with symptoms like tremors, upset stomach or stomach pains, trouble sleeping, breathlessness or pain in the chest. These are natural physical reactions to intense emotional or psychological pressure. If you are finding the symptoms problematic, it is advisable that you seek medical help. 

Disbelief

It can be a huge struggle to come to terms with the death of someone close to you. People bereaved by suicide sometimes find themselves expecting the person to show up or phone them. They may feel as though they are in a dream state. 

Research has suggested that the disbelief experienced in the early stages of grief is a natural protective response, which lessens as the person begins to adjust to and come to terms with their loss. 

Why did this happen?

Even if you knew that the person was struggling emotionally before their death, it is very difficult to come to terms with their decision to take their own life. Not fully understanding why they did it can be one of the hardest parts of a bereavement following suicide. 

Because you may never truly find a satisfactory answer to why the person completed suicide, it can become a repetitive or circular thought pattern that can be very troubling. If you find yourself struggling with these thoughts, you may wish to see a counsellor or psychologist, where you can talk them through and discuss coping strategies. 

Guilt

People bereaved following suicide often experience feelings of guilt and a sense of failure that the suicide was not prevented. You may feel you should have seen it coming, or that you could have done more to prevent it.

People often worry about not having picked up on cues or the suicidal behaviour prior to the death. It's important to remember that it is easier to recognise a person's distress in hindsight, and that the level of support you offered them was based on your understanding of their situation at the time.

Anger and blaming

Anger with the deceased person is normal but often confusing. You may feel angry at them for giving up, leaving and causing so much pain. You might find yourself blaming someone you perceive as having contributed to the suicide, such as a psychologist or a relative for not having done more. You may also feel angry at yourself for not preventing the suicide. 

Talking about the anger you are feeling often helps. Alternatively you may find a physical activity, such as walking or playing sport enables you to release pent up anger.

Shame

The stigma attached to suicide, may compound grief. You may be unsure what to tell people for fear they'll judge you or the deceased.

Your own acceptance of the person's choice to complete suicide can help to relieve your shame, and it's important to speak to others who share this acceptance. Close friends may be willing to have a conversation with you about the death, your needs and how they can be of assistance, but initially not know how to begin. You can help yourself (and them) by maintaining contact with them as you experience your grief, and talking with them about what is important for you when the moment is right.

Looking after yourself after a suicide

It’s critical that you take care of yourself during this very overwhelming and emotionally exhausting time. 

  • Try to eat well, sleep regularly, and keep active to maintain your overall wellbeing.
  • Surround yourself with nurturing people, and take time for yourself when you need it.
  • Friends and family may want to talk to you about the death or help you with your grief, but not know how to begin. Help them help you by talking to them about how you’re feeling at each stage of the grieving process and letting them know what’s important to you and what things may help. 
  • Be prepared for anniversaries or other significant events. Plan to spend time with a friend or family member during these difficult times.
  • Using rituals can help with grieving by marking significant occasions and commemorating the life of the person who has died. These can be simple things like lighting a candle, listening to special music or songs, reading poems, looking at photos, or creating a memory book/box. 

Be kind to yourself

Sometimes the pain and trauma of losing someone to suicide can be so intense that people may feel suicidal themselves. If you are thinking of suicide yourself, it is critical that you get some professional assistance. Read our tip sheet Suicide: Where to get help for emotional and practical advice on dealing with suicidal feelings. 

The reasons behind each suicide are unique, and so too are the reactions, grief and coping processes of those left behind. Look after yourself while you are grieving, and remember that you are allowed to feel positive, happy, and hopeful for the future. How long you grieve is not a measure of how much you loved the person who died. You’ll never forget, but you’re allowed to move on.

 

Research Project: Grief in adolescents 

The School of Psychiatry of the University of New South Wales, with the support of the Anika Foundation for Research in Adolescent Depression and Suicide, is starting a new study on adolescents who have experienced the death of a relative or a friend and are looking for people to take part. 


The death of a friend or a family member might have a profound, debilitating and potentially long lasting impact on adolescents. However, there is a lack of research specifically focussed on bereaved adolescents. The study will help us to better understand grief in adolescents, and will inform us on how to better help bereaved adolescents. We expect that the study will produce a set of recommendations on how to meet the needs of bereaved adolescents. Please find further information and whether this research project would be a good fit for you, here.

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