Losing a loved one is distressing for anybody, but it seems especially traumatic when the person dies by suicide. There are many layers to such an event that can make the healing process more challenging. If you’ve recently learned that someone you care about has suicided, you are likely shocked and may feel completely overwhelmed, and may feel you will never be able to get out of this big hole. These are natural feelings which will likely change as you move through the grieving process. It is important to remember that there are many people and resources that can assist you with this journey- you are not alone.
Is there a “right” way to grieve?
No two people experience loss in the same way, and there is no “right” way to grieve. However, it is common to experience feelings of shock, denial, guilt, shame, fear and anger, but not necessarily in that order, and it may come and go in waves. It is common to experience intense feelings of grief when you least expect it. Knowing that each wave will subside can make it easier to cope, but it is important to not try to always try to ride the waves on your own. Painful as it is, it is important to accept that you will probably experience difficult emotions (as described above) far beyond what you have known previously.
The adage “time heals” is not necessarily true for survivors of suicide. Whilst time is necessary for healing, it is in itself not enough. It is important to share feelings in order to heal and grow from the experience. There are various ways to share feelings – some people need to talk it out, over and over with others, whereas others have a lessor need. One thing we do know that avoidance of pain tends to increases suffering.
It’s important for you to know that there are people who understand what you are going through right now and that you do not need to go through this on your own. This article has practical help for dealing with the difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations that may occur in both the immediate short term as further ahead.
Various ways to help cope with suicide.
Below are some suggestions for helping you cope with the suicide of your loved one:
- If someone you love intends to complete suicide, you can’t stop them. If they are determined suicide is their best option, they will eventually find a way. All guilt does is unnecessarily increase your suffering.
- No matter what anyone tells you, you are not to blame for your loved one’s suicide. We all have the power of choice. You may not agree with your loved one’s choice to die, but it was not your decision to make.
- It’s only natural to try to work out what your loved one was thinking or feeling in their last minutes but be aware that it is impossible to know the answer. Dwelling on this only serves to increase your suffering unnecessarily. Problem solving this one is beyond the scope of human understanding, and it is more likely to be helpful to work on acceptance.
- Some people may make unhelpful, and hurtful (but possibly well-meaning) comments eg “She’s better of dead” or “What he did was selfish”. It is important to prepare that this may occur and protect yourself in ways you find helpful (eg imagining the comments are water off a duck’s back, or talking it out with someone helpful). We know that the support of friends and family is really important in assisting coping. Many people have a natural tendency to want to withdraw from others, but what bereaved people report they most need is compassion, recognition and validation of their experience.
- Although your loved one may be remembered more at the present for the way their life ended, purposely turn your mind towards remembering the many moments of pleasure they had in their lives, and as a loving person – this is a way of honouring your loved one.
Self care is vital in helping you cope. The harsh mind or punishing one’s self does not help, it simply keeps up stuck.
- Find ways to look after yourself. Self soothe using physical means such as massage, baths, early nights, short walks and getting fresh air, even if it’s gardening or watching the ocean – spending time in nature can be very soothing.
- In addition to finding someone you can trust (eg friend, family, counsellor) to talk to who will listen and show understanding of your thoughts and feelings, it is important to spend some time alone to mourn, reflect, pray or meditate. Even amongst all this pain there may be opportunities for spiritual or personal growth, if we allow it.
- Develop an easily accessible resource list (eg phone numbers, websites of people and places) to contact when times are particularly difficult.
- Find distractions, to provide time out from the pain, with focus on getting on with doing important or meaningful things rather than any of thing to keep busy.
- Consider creating something special to remember your loved one: eg a collection of the treasures, a memory box, journal, photo album, memory book/DVD for family and friends to write stories, memories, messages, plant a tree or have a special place in the garden.
- Even if you don’t feel like eating, it is important to eat frequent small amounts of nutritious, easily digested food. Having an empty stomach only increases nausea and anxiety.
- Exercise is vital. Your body is likely to release excessive cortisol and adrenaline and exercise is a great way to release it. Exercise is also a natural anti-depressant, as the brain releases serotonin, the chemical that helps us to feel a bit better.
- Be kind to yourself and prioritise things you need to do – the rest can wait, your self-care is more important.
- It is OK to choose who you will talk to, and perhaps only communicate by text rather than by phone or in person. You need to look after you rather than everyone else.
- Keep a journal to record your thoughts and feelings, especially if you are unable to sleep.
- Spend time with nature.
- Visit the burial site or some other special place.
- Rearrange and store the person’s belongings.
- Individual counselling or a support group may be particularly helpful over and above the support of family and friends. Whilst well-meaning, sometimes family and friends are not the most helpful in terms of support, especially if they cross boundaries and lack objectivity.
The following may be helpful resources for coping with suicide of a loved one:
The NSW Coroner’s Court has released a booklet to assist people to cope with the loss of a loved one by suicide. In particular it has a helpful section on how to talk to children about what has happened and how to assist children to cope.
The following websites might have helpful resources:
If you would like to speak to someone on the phone, support is available at:
Lifeline – phone 13 11 14 (24 hours)
Beyondblue.com.au – Phone 1300 224 636 (24 hours)