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Coping after suicide

The death of a loved one who has taken their own life can trigger intense and confusing emotions. Many people feel overwhelmed with a need to know why their loved one chose to end their life, and consumed by a sense of guilt that there was something they could, or should, have done.

The period following a loved one’s suicide can be physically and emotionally draining. A focus on self-care is important, and it is useful for those bereaved, that is, grieving after the death of someone close, to take time, allowing themselves to grieve in their own way, unhurried by the expectations of others. For many, the experience of suicide bereavement involves setbacks, and it is important to know that grief does not always follow a straightforward path.  

For some individuals, there is a sense that those around them feel uneasy discussing the loss, leaving them feeling isolated, and deprived of the usual supports they would depend upon to cope. For others, a feeling that those around them do not understand their grief can lead them to withdraw from family members and friends. In some cases, the impact may be so great that individuals bereaved by suicide may be at risk of developing suicidal thoughts and for this reason, support is vitally important.

Talking about the suicide

It may not be easy telling people that someone you love has taken their own life, especially since it will be difficult to predict what others will say or how they will react. It may be confronting at first to openly discuss the suicide, but it will often be an important step in the grieving process.

Give yourself time to do this. Talking things over with someone you trust and feel comfortable with can be a good way to begin the process.

Recognise that the conversation you have does not need to be a complete one. It is something that you can come back to at a later date. Talking openly in a way that feels comfortable can also help reduce the stigma associated with suicide and promote your own personal wellbeing.  

Do not be afraid to sit quietly with someone you trust and who you think will listen to you and talk to them about the strong emotions you are feeling. This can help you to feel more connected to other people and you can find support for your grief.

Looking after yourself

It is important to give yourself time to come to terms with what has happened and allow yourself to grieve. Some strategies that may help you look after yourself include:

  • if you are thinking about harming yourself, get help immediately. To talk to someone at Lifeline call 13 11 14, or if urgent call emergency services on 000
  • ask for help when you need it. If feelings of grief are significantly disrupting your life or remain intense for longer than you think they should, talk to a health professional as soon as possible
  • consider joining a suicide bereavement support group. Support from others who have experienced a similar bereavement can help you through your own grief. You may discover that you are able to support someone else who has experienced a loss through suicide
  • talk with your doctor about how you can approach your return to normal activities; if working, talk to your employer about how you will return to work
  • honour and celebrate the life of your loved one by openly talking about them and sharing photos and memories. There was so much more to their lives than how they died
  • try not to dwell on the ‘why’. There may never be any answers and it is important to come to an acceptance of this uncertainty and that it was not your fault
  • where you can, avoid making major decisions until you can think more clearly

Planning the funeral

How you plan the funeral or memorial after a friend or loved one has taken their own life is a decision for you and your family. Talking about the suicide in a thoughtful and open way can ease the planning process. It may be helpful to consider the following:

  • being open from the beginning about the cause of death and how it has affected family and friends
  • talking about the circumstances of the suicide without judgment and to the extent that you feel comfortable
  • putting your loved one’s personal pain or struggles with mental health problems in context
  • expressing views and feelings in the form of a eulogy or other means in a way that ‘feels right’ for you and your family
  • taking the opportunity to reflect on your loved one’s achievements, the memories you shared and to celebrate their life

Legal considerations

Because suicide is a sudden and unexpected death, the police must attend and the death must be reported to the coroner.

The coroner, not the person’s GP, will issue the death certificate and there is no fixed time in which this must take place. It may take days or even months to finalise formal statements which will assist the coroner in determining the exact nature and cause of death. In some cases, the coroner may also decide to hold an inquest to further assist in the investigation.

Sometimes family may request to access medical records if the actions of a health professional are questioned. For more information about counselling, support and information services, you can contact the Coroner’s Court in SA or your state or territory.

Writing the obituary

There are many ways to write an obituary for someone who has taken their own life. Words such as ‘sudden’ or ‘unfortunate’ may be used by some people, while others may prefer to take a more direct approach by including phrases such as ‘died by suicide’. Alternatively, information may be shared by suggesting a donation be made to a suicide prevention or mental health organisation. An obituary is a permanent record of your loved one’s life so do what feels right for you and for those most closely affected and seek assistance from the Funeral Director if needed.

Returning to normal activities

Grief following the death of someone who has taken their own life can lead to a significant decline in your ability to concentrate and return to normal activities. If you are working, you will usually recover to take your place in the workforce again given time and support. Many employers may offer additional leave, lighter duties or workplace counselling. Others again, for example in a small business, may not have the capacity to provide reduced duties. Sometimes unrealistic expectations from an employer create significant stress and may result in a valued employee leaving the workplace. Speaking with a line manager, checking employment contracts and Health, Safety and Welfare documents regarding employee assistance programs or counselling are strongly advised.

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