Coping With Suicide Grief

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After a suicide, it's normal to feel confused, helpless, angry, guilty, and many other emotions. These complex responses to a death often make grieving complicated. Grief is never easy, but the unanswered questions, societal stigma, and associated feelings surrounding suicide can make the grieving process longer and more difficult than with other deaths.

This article will provide information on how suicide grief feels, offer tips to cope during bereavement, and provide suggestions on when to seek professional help.

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Common Responses to Suicide Grief

Feelings

Everyone grieves in their own way and experiences different feelings at different times. There are no right or wrong feelings. Emotions just happen. Common emotional grief responses after a death occurs include:

  • Confusion
  • Despair
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Longing

In addition to these common grief responses, after a suicide, people might experience shock and trauma from the nature of the death. Other responses may include feeling abandoned, rejection or betrayal, and shame. For some, it may be difficult to identify feelings, and they could experience emotional numbness.

When Is Grief Complicated?

Although never easy, for most people, grief is a healthy and normal response to loss. It allows us to process and work through the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions that come up after a death. About 7%–10% of people, however, experience complicated grief and have difficulty accepting the death and working through bereavement. This is common after deaths from suicide and homicide.

Thoughts

There may be more thought processing after a suicide than with other forms of death and bereavement. Trying to find meaning in what happened, searching for answers of why it happened, and wondering whether anything could have been done to prevent the suicide are common.

For some, there may also be intrusive thoughts and images, questioning of spiritual beliefs, and difficulty finding meaning in life. It's also common to overestimate the ability to have prevented the death and to think of signs that were missed prior to the death.

Behaviors

While grieving, it's common to exhibit behaviors that are both protective and maladaptive (harmful) as an attempt to cope with the intense pain of suicide bereavement. Some of these behaviors include avoidance of people and places that bring reminders of the deceased, concealing the cause of death as a way to cope, working to "solve" the reason why the person may have ended their life, or even attempting suicide.

Dealing With the Stigma of Suicide

However common, suicide is still stigmatized. This complicates grieving and might make it hard for you to talk about the person, their suffering, and how and why they died. For some, it may not be clear whether it truly was a suicide or an accident, as in the case of overdose and car crashes. These circumstances contribute to complicated grief, making it hard to grieve the loss and move forward in a healthy, socially acceptable way.

You Are Not Alone

Though grieving after a suicide may feel very lonely, there are many people going through the same thing. Suicide is one of the top 10 leading causes of death across all age groups, and 1 in 20 people experience a suicide loss each year. That number increases to 1 in 5 within a person's lifetime.

Coping With Suicide Grief

Post-suicide support, or "postvention," provides a path to working through grief. Social supports, bereavement groups, and individual therapy can teach valuable skills and offer tools to manage the psychological, behavioral, and physical aspects of suicide grief. Some research even shows that postvention support can prevent additional suicides and unhealthy physical lifestyles like smoking and poor diet that sometimes follow after a suicide death.

How Long Does Complicated Grief Last?

Research shows that the risk of developing complicated grief decreases a year after the loss. For many people, complicated grief symptoms will no longer be present after three to five years.

Grieve in Your Own Way

Grieving is as complex as it is individual. Everyone will experience grief and loss at some point and, according to some estimates, up to one-third of the population may deal with suicide bereavement, but the path to healing is different for everyone.

Finding meaning after suicide loss is personal. For some, it might include donating clothes, time, or money to an organization that was meaningful to the person who died. For others, it may be throwing a celebration to honor the person's life. And for others, it could include quiet and internal reflection. There is no right or wrong way to heal from suicide loss.

Throughout the grieving process, remember:

  • Setbacks may and, in fact, are likely to occur: It might feel like things are going well and then something triggers those grief-related feelings and reactions. This is a normal part of bereavement and should be anticipated.
  • Stay focused: Focus on what you were able to do and how you helped, not on what you did wrong or might have missed. Even the most supported and loved people die by suicide, and it's no one's fault when this happens.
  • Take your time: Grief is a lifelong process, and while it won't always be raw and painful, it will always be present in some way. Give yourself the space and time to process your feelings as they come up.

Connect With Others

Grieving after a suicide can be a very lonely experience. It can feel as though no one else understands, and it may seem easier to isolate than ask for support from others. Finding a suicide support group can provide connection, comfort, and helpful ideas on how to grieve in a meaningful way.

Loved ones may become frustrated over time if they attempt to offer help and are consistently turned down due to a perception that they wouldn't understand. Try reaching out to friends and family members with specific asks for things they can help with. Even small tasks like walking the dog, taking a child to school, or bringing a meal can be a big help and provide a much-needed source of support that lasts through bereavement.

Seek Professional Help

Sometimes, grief responses don't improve over time, or they continue to worsen. Those who are grieving after suicide are at higher risk for certain mental health illnesses like:

Those who have experienced a suicide loss are at higher risk of developing these mental health illnesses than the general public.

In these situations, mental health professionals can help with processing the loss and finding meaning during complicated bereavement. Though many people cite a lack of energy and resources as reasons for the difficulty with working through grief after suicide, mental health support is often identified as a positive, helpful tool.

Suicide Prevention Hotline

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Summary

Coping with a suicide is one of the most difficult types of grieve. Immediately following the death, it's common to experience complex thoughts and feelings that include questioning, shock, anger, rumination, longing, and numbness, among others. There may also be a desire to isolate from others and a feeling that no one understands.

Combined with the trauma and stigma that come with suicide, the grieving period can be prolonged and complicated. Though bereavement may be complex, it's also common. Support groups, help from loved ones, and mental health counseling are supportive tools that are proven effective in working through the complicated bereavement that follows a death by suicide.

A Word From Verywell

The pain that comes with losing a loved one to suicide can be intensely overwhelming and seemingly unending. If you are coping with suicide loss, it probably feels very lonely, but you are not alone. With the help of mental health professionals, others who have been through suicide loss, and family and friends, you can start to make meaning from the loss and find enjoyment in life again.

Grief is normal, but it doesn't need to be painful forever. It helps to reach out to ask for support when you need it and accept it when it's offered.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do people feel when a loved one dies by suicide?

    Losing a loved one to suicide is a painful and very difficult experience. It's common to feel shock, numbness, confusion, anger, sadness, despair, and longing. You might also feel shame, betrayal, and abandonment. Over time, these feelings should ease. If they persist or worsen, it may be helpful to seek support from a mental health professional.

  • How is suicide bereavement different from other types of bereavement?

    Suicide bereavement is a more complex form of bereavement, because it often comes with feelings of shock, guilt, and betrayal. The bereavement process is often filled with wondering what was missed and how the suicide could have been prevented. Rumination about why the person chose to die, combined with the traumatic circumstances of the death and stigma surrounding suicide often make it more difficult to grieve in a healthy, effective way.


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