The range of normal reactions and responses to the loss of a loved one to suicide is very broad and may include shock, denial, numbness, shame or physical symptoms such as sleeplessness or loss of appetite.
Losing someone close through suicide can be an overwhelming and devastating experience. While grief is a natural reaction to the loss of a loved one, it may be particularly complex in the case of suicide when the death is sudden and may have come without warning. Grief can be complicated by feelings of regret about things done or not done while the person was alive, or of anger and disbelief that there was no chance to say goodbye. The question ‘Why did they take their life?’ is often complex and may never be resolved. There is no easy answer – often, the most honest answer is that we don’t know.
Suicide affects different people in different ways, and the course of grief for each person is unique. However, there are some common reactions to the suicide of someone close that may be experienced during the grieving process.
Feelings of guilt and blame
Many people who are bereaved through suicide have feelings of guilt. They may feel they should have ‘seen the suicide coming’ or that they ‘missed the signs’. ‘If only I had done this’ or ‘If only I had not done that’ are common thoughts.
Parents may feel there was something wrong with their parenting.
Brothers, sisters and partners may feel responsible, particularly when there has been family stress or conflict.
It is important for bereaved people to remember that they acted with the information they had at the time. With hindsight it may be possible to see the signs of the person’s distress and so think about what was or was not done, but that does not mean that it was obvious at the time.
Some people may feel others blame them for the suicide, and some may be blamed in a suicide note. These notes are usually written when the person who took their own life is too distressed to think clearly and so they are unlikely to be a true expression of their feelings about their family and friends.
In addition to blaming ourselves, there may be a tendency to blame others, particularly those closest to us. Blaming can feel like a way to deal with intense grief, but may damage relationships with family and friends at a time when their support is needed most.
Anger is a frequent, and normal, reaction to suicide. It is quite common to feel anger at the person who took their life for the pain they caused others. It may be difficult to understand how the person who took their own life could be so intent on getting relief from their distress that they were unable to think of the hurt it would give those around them. When this is the case, it may help to acknowledge that it is possible to be angry with the person for the action they have taken while still loving them and being loyal to their memory.
It is common to experience feelings of inadequacy and loss of self-esteem in response to the suicide of a loved one. Sometimes people doubt their own values and judgement and find it difficult to make decisions and carry on with normal day to day tasks.
Some bereaved people may experience symptoms of traumatic stress, particularly if they discovered the body of their friend or loved one.
Symptoms of depression may also be experienced. At times there may seem little meaning or purpose in life. These thoughts pass but if they are strong, prolonged, or of significant concern, it is important to seek help from a professional.
Many people feel deserted, rejected, or even betrayed by the person who took their own life, and may be afraid to begin new relationships. For many reasons, friends may not be able to give the support that is needed. Grieving after suicide can be a very lonely experience, and people often value a support group in which they can share their experience with others who have lost someone through suicide.
In some families a suicide occurs without any warning, whereas in others it is obvious the person who later took their own life was suffering from significant mental distress. When this is the case, feelings of guilt and rejection may be less strong or even absent. Indeed, family and friends may experience some sense of relief after the suicide that the person is released from their mental suffering.
Bereaved people may feel intense sadness that there were things they would have liked to have said to the deceased person, but were unable to because of the suddenness of the death. They may yearn to tell them they were loved, or to settle misunderstandings. It is common to feel sadness about the waste of a life, but it may help to recognise the person’s contributions and influences during their life and to remember the time spent together.
As time goes by, some people may experience a sense of guilt if their sadness begins to recede, or if they stop thinking so frequently about the person who has died. Again, this is a normal response, and does not diminish the relationship they had with the person who has died, or mean that they are forgetting them.