One of the greatest difficulties when dealing with loss after suicide, is not blaming yourself.
According to the Samaritans, in the UK & Republic of Ireland, there were 6,859 suicides in 2018. In the UK, there were 6,507 suicides. In the Republic of Ireland, there were 352 suicides. Deaths by suicide rose by 11.8% in the UK in 2018.
Importantly, these figures also mean that if you are suffering in this situation that you are far from alone and that there are so many who have had a similar experience to what you are going through. Fr Ronald Rolheiser, a popular spiritual author, wrote the book ‘Bruised & Wounded: Struggling to Understand Suicide’ after performing a funeral for a young family who had lost their father to suicide. He says, ‘Not a week goes by where I don’t get a phone call, an email, a letter from a family who has lost someone to suicide. Not a single week.’
If you too are struggling with this or know someone who has lost someone they love to suicide, here are just a few experiences and stories to help.
Coping with grief after suicide loss
One of the greatest difficulties when dealing with loss after suicide, is not blaming yourself. Dianna Jones lost her son to suicide after his struggle with schizophrenia and she described her struggle with guilt.
‘Edward’s death was tragic from the word go. The illness was tragic, the manifestations of the illness were ghastly. I found his illness desperately difficult because I couldn’t help him. I really couldn’t help him, and he was so much in anguish that it was desperate really, I found it awful. And then when he died of course there’s all that guilt. ‘Perhaps I could have helped?’
The replaying of the ‘what if’ scenario is very common to those dealing with the suicide of someone they know. However, it is usually an emotional reaction instead of a fair or rational one. Jeffrey Jackson summarised this feeling well in his book, ‘A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide’.
‘Guilt is your worst enemy, because it is a false accusation. You are not responsible for your loved one’s suicide in any way, shape, or form. Write it down. Say it to yourself over and over again, (even when it feels false). Tattoo it onto your brain. Because it’s the truth. Why do suicide survivors tend to blame themselves? Psychiatrists theorize that human nature subconsciously resists so strongly the idea that we cannot control all the events of our lives that we would rather fault ourselves for a tragic occurrence than accept our inability to prevent it. Simply put, we don’t like admitting to ourselves that we’re only human, so we blame ourselves instead.’
Every process is unique
This experience of guilt is not the only unique aspect of grieving suicide, as it is unlike any other grieving process. Dawson McAllister in his blog the Hope Line, writes that ‘The traumatic experience of losing a loved one to suicide, is very different than losing a loved one in any other way. There are feelings and emotions that will be unique to this journey that you are on. And, undoubtedly, this will be something that will stay with you forever.’
Because of this, it is important to appreciate this process as different and to adjust to that, acknowledging that everyone heals at their own pace and in their own way. As McAllister continues, ‘I am here to tell you that you are not supposed to grieve according to any timeframe or in any prescribed way. You are not supposed to just “get over it.” In fact, it is important that at some point you accept and understand that your life has been forever changed because of this loss and that you may now always view things through a different lens.’
Dealing with Stigma
Many people have trouble discussing suicide and it is still a heavily stigmatised conversation in society. This however leaves people isolated with their pain and is something that we should challenge to reach and help those struggling. Fr Ronald Rolheiser reflects that, ‘when you see someone who has lost someone to suicide there is a certain shame and a certain worrying and anxiety that comes with it [for them].’
This is even more unfortunate because a common source of help with grief is the experience of sharing when ready. In ‘Help is at Hand: Support after someone may have died by suicide’ collated by the UK’s National Health Service, Dean, whose son died by suicide, found sharing his pain to be a great moment of change.
‘I spent a large amount of time trying to ‘solve‘ why my son had decided to take his life. I internalised all these feelings which made things worse and worse for me. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and let life pass me by. I ended up reaching crisis point and was desperately trying to escape from the permanent anguish I felt. It was at this point that I decided I needed to share how I felt. That has been the game changer. Since I started talking about what I feel I have found the strength to move forward.’
Coping with suicide loss, the common process
The Mayo Clinic have compiled a very helpful list of the common experiences of those attempting to heal from a loved one’s suicide. They list the six emotions as shock, anger, guilt, despair, confusion and feelings of rejection.
The despair and confusion again likely stems from how different this mourning process is to every other kind of mourning. Fr Charles Rubey, the founder of LOSS, puts it this way. “If you lose a loved one to cancer or an auto accident, you know precisely why [he or she] died. With suicide, you don’t know, and you most likely never will.”
Because of this, Fr Rubey does something very grounded to help that difficult mourning process, a liturgy of sorts.
“I believe that where a person died is a holy place,” he says. “I’ve gone into garages and basements and closets and shower stalls where a person has died and blessed it…because that is where the person is engulfed by God.”
Although journeying in the aftermath of a suicide can seem hopeless, there are real ways to rediscover hope. The Mayo Clinic again lists a few ways to adopt healthy coping strategies. These range from keeping in touch with loved ones, to not rushing the process, seeking support groups for families affected by suicide, and being prepared for setbacks.
It is important to accept that this will be a long, difficult journey, in which there will be many painful reminders – whether anniversaries, birthdays or holidays. Because of this, looking to others for support is essential, professional and social, knowing that whilst others may not be able to fully understand your pain, they can listen and accompany you.
There is of course no right way to grieve, but there are these known ways of coping. With them, regaining hope is possible.
‘Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.’ – Lucius Annaeus Seneca