AFTERMATH: Coping with the Impact of Suicide

Clarification:

Suicide Survivor: a term used by some to refer to someone who is bereaved by the suicide death of a loved one.

Survivor: individual who acted with intent to die and lethal means to complete suicide but survived. For each death by suicide, there are an estimated minimum of six people profoundly affected.

Why is the Bereavement from a Suicide Loss so Complicated?

Coping with Suicide Loss - Complex Healing Process

Photo ExampleBeyond Surviving

No two people will grieve in the same way. Some will find support groups helpful; others may rely on friend’s support. Some may turn to books; others may go to therapy. Some may take weeks to get back to “normal life”; others may find that life as they remember it no longer exists and they need to redefine themselves. Our response to the aftermath of suicide is shaped by a number of things - past experiences with death and loss, other current life stressors, our mental health, our family cultural traditions, our relationship with the deceased (e.g., strength of bond, presence of conflict, etc.), the circumstances surrounding the death, our support system, and our personality.

People feel a range of emotions in the aftermath of suicide - not everyone will go through all of these experiences and the length of each may differ, but these are common emotional reactions that often come like a tidal wave unexpectedly and repeatedly.

  • Guilt and self-blame for not being able to prevent the suicide
  • Anger at the person who died, at the world, at God, at yourself
  • Experiencing suicidal thoughts yourself
  • Depression and incredible sadness triggered by anything from major life milestones to a song on the radio
  • Trauma: flashbacks, disorientation, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, startle response, hyper-vigilance, avoidance of things that remind you of the person or their death
  • Feeling numb

Recommendations for Healing From Suicide Loss

Do's Dont's
Take each day as it comes Avoid alcohol or other drug abuse to cope
Surround yourself with caring people Isolate
Self-care – eat, sleep, hydrate Pretend nothing happened
Set limits around what you are able to do Make major decisions during the immediate aftermath
Get informed (books, websites, programs) and get support (therapy or support groups)  

Coping with Holidays, Anniversaries and Birthdays: New Traditions and Healing Rituals

Important dates can trigger feelings of loss and trauma, and sometimes new traditions and rituals can communicate healing values and beliefs while providing containment for strong emotions. The power of rituals comes from the fact that they often provoke deep emotional experiences that hold a level of meaning that words cannot capture. Some of these practices may be done alone or with others:

  • Have co-workers write letters to or share pictures with the deceased’s family to share positive memories; assemble these into a memory scrapbook
  • Create a memory quilt – each quilt square represents a relationship or a time period in the life of the deceased
  • Dove release or balloon release
  • Candle lighting ceremony
  • Write a poem or letter and release it to the universe by burning it

NOTE: Because of the copycat risk for suicide, memorialization practices should not be permanent and public.

Post-traumatic Growth

While many people find that a loss from suicide has forever altered their life for the worse, some people are able to cope with the trauma in such a way that they find they are stronger than before. This shift is reflected in language in other forms of trauma and loss - shifting from the term “victim” to “survivor.” Through a heightened awareness of vulnerability and a sense of the preciousness of life, some survivors of suicide loss:

  • Have greater appreciation for their relationships and their world.
  • Are more mindful of the “little things.”
  • Develop deeper spiritual connections and get more involved in faith communities.
  • Become more resilient - if they can survive this type of pain, they can survive anything.
  • Find meaning in getting involved in supporting others through loss or in suicide prevention cause.

      The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis'. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger-but recognize the opportunity.

    --John F. Kennedy

A Word on Language:

Like most sensitive issues, language matters when discussing issues of suicide. The term “successful (or unsuccessful) suicide” is considered a poor choice because they connote something positive with a tragic outcome. Similarly, the phrase “committed suicide” is frowned upon because it referred back to an era when suicide was considered a sin or a crime. Lastly, the idea of choice or free will is often discouraged when talking about suicide because thinking is often very impaired that they would not be considered competent to make a rational choice. The following phases are recommended alternatives:

  • Died by suicide
  • Took his/her own life
  • Completed suicide
  • Died by his/her own hand
  • Suicided (using suicide as a verb)

“A person dying of suicide, dies as does the victim of physical illness or accident, against his or her will. People die from physical heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and accidents. Death by suicide is the same, except that we are dealing with an emotional heart attack, an emotional stroke, emotional AIDS, emotional cancer and an emotional fatality,” Rev. Ron Rolheiser (1998).