Your safety and wellbeing are, above all, the most important things. If you are ever in crisis, dial 911. You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “TALK” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 for free and confidential support. MyWellbeing also has pages of free resources, low fee and insurance resources, crisis resources, and special offerings during COVID-19.
Losing a loved one to suicide comes with a range of emotions, a process of grief, and plenty of questions—but the most important thing to remember is you don’t have to cope alone.
There is support out there for you, whether it’s with compassionate and sensitive family and friends, a member of your community, a support group, a counselor, or a therapist. This is a difficult time, and we’re here to help. Here are some ways to cope with grief after losing a loved one to suicide.
Losing a loved one to suicide can bring up many unique emotions, including abandonment, rejection, guilt, shame, and stigma even more than with those who have lost loved ones to other causes of death. It’s important to allow yourself to feel your emotions and to get the support you need from friends, family, therapists, or support groups.
Joanne L. Harpel, an international authority on suicide bereavement based in New York City and a MyWellbeing community member, lost her own brother to suicide many years ago and has combined the lessons learned throughout her own journey of healing with two decades as a professional in suicide aftercare.
“Almost every survivor of suicide loss I’ve ever worked with has grappled on some level with the complicated question of ‘why?’ and the related question of whether they are somehow responsible,” Joanne said. “They relive their loved one’s final days (or weeks or months) over and over again, desperately searching for clues, certain they somehow missed or misinterpreted some sign. So in addition to grief and sadness, there is often an added layer of questions, confusion, bewilderment, and self-recrimination.”
Survivors may ruminate on the reasons for a loved one’s suicide, try to make sense of it, or analyze the events leading up to their death. Understand that there may always be questions that go unanswered and remember that there are many complex factors that contributed to your loved one’s suicide.
“Two other complicated emotions are anger and relief, which are often further complicated by feeling guilty about feeling angry or relieved,” Joanne said. Although these emotions are complicated and possibly confusing, like all emotions, they are valid, and are part of your individual healing process.
Due of the social stigma surrounding suicide and mental health in general, others may hesitate to discuss or even bring up your loved one’s death. People might remain silent out of fear of saying the wrong thing. They might regurgitate phrases that they think will help that end up hurting instead. This can increase your feelings of isolation and loneliness, but you are not alone—there are many places to turn to for support, including other friends and family, support groups, and therapists.
“The origins of the stigma lie in the fact that most major faith traditions historically prohibited suicide,” Joanne said. “That’s not a bad thing per se, in fact for some people at risk it can even be a protective factor. But the problem is that it overshoots the mark and can leave surviving family members feeling ashamed, judged, and even ostracized, which just compounds their pain.”
It can be incredibly difficult to talk about suicide, and it is up to you how much you share, when, and with whom. Your decisions are all part of your healing process, and it’s important to do what feels right for you.
Taking care of your physical health is an important part of protecting your mental health and helping you cope. Do your best to get enough sleep and eat regular, healthy meals, focus on hobbies that bring you joy, connect with loved ones, or practice other restful and recharging activities that will bring you a sense of peace.
“For many people, coping with their grief means talking about their feelings and expressing their emotions,” said Joanne. “And of course that coping strategy can be extremely helpful and healing. But for others, coping looks very different: it looks like writing music, or training for a marathon, or building something in the backyard, or reading about suicide.” Two books she recommended are Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison and No Time To Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One by Carla Fine.
If you are supporting children through their own grieving process, talking about the death and keeping up routines is helpful. If you are grieving, it is essential to make sure you have your own support as you support the children in your life. You can’t pour from an empty cup and grief takes energy, so take time for your own emotions and coping strategies and you’ll be in a better position to help them.
“I truly believe the main copping tool for dealing with a traumatic event, like the loss of a loved one to suicide, is community,” said Alison Pepper, a New York City therapist. “Surround yourself with love and support; talk to people, and if talking is too much, just be with people, eat meals, listen to music, rest and relax together, laugh together, cry together. Therapy could also be a helpful support. And of course, do the things in your life that have always brought you pleasure. This is different for all of us, so think about what you love to do to relax (sleep, TV, massage, good book, etc.) or what you love to do to let out energy (run, dance, team sport, gym, journal, etc.). If being alone feels right, do that, but stay connected to friends and family or someone special to you.”
Every person is unique and has their own way of coping with loss. It is up to you when and how you choose to discuss your loved one’s death, whether or not you participate in holidays or rituals that may bring up painful memories, or even when you decide to pursue joy. No one should make you feel as if you should “get over it” or decide whether you have grieved for the “appropriate” length of time.
“It’s so important (but not always easy) to bear in mind that grieving is a very individual, personal experience, and different people can approach it very differently,” said Joanne.
Your process may not be linear, and that’s okay. Emotions and memories will continue to surface over time, but with your support system and activities in place, you’ll be able to cope. You should feel empowered to do what is best for you and whatever makes you feel the most supported for however long you need.
It may feel like your life won’t ever return to normal, but it will, and you deserve care and support as you heal. Family members, friends, community members, and mental health professionals can provide the support you need, to talk, listen, or simply be with you when you need comfort.
“There are many excellent resources, including a directory of suicide bereavement support groups, on the website of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,” said Joanne. Through her practice, Coping After Suicide, she offers several national Zoom support groups for different demographics and works directly with individuals, couples, and families nationwide to help them heal from the suicide of someone they love.
Although this is an incredibly difficult and painful time, you do not have to cope with your loss alone. Everyone experiences suicide loss in their own way and there is no right way to grieve.
As you heal, you will discover how to integrate the loss. Remember that healing does not necessarily mean forgetting. You deserve support, progress, and hope during this process. There is no timeline for your grief or recovery and you should be able to heal at your own pace. We’re here for you.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.