The Complicated Grief of Suicide Bereavement

Losing a loved one to suicide is often described as ‘grief with the volume turned up’. To start with, you have to cope with all the difficult emotions typically associated with losing somebody, which can be a traumatic experience in its own right.

But losing someone to suicide adds an additional layer of complex reactions, making coping even more of a challenge. From rejection to blame to guilt, these confusing and difficult feelings are all regularly reported by survivors of bereavement by suicide.

In this post we’ll take a look at some of the most prevalent myths surrounding suicide, alongside some helpful coping strategies and finish by exploring where you can go for further support.  

Common Myths

Myth #1: Suicide only affects men

Suicides does affect men disproportionately - it’s the biggest killer of men aged 20 – 49 and in 2012 76% of suicides registered in the UK were males. But that doesn’t mean that women aren’t affected by suicide at all; in 2012, 1,391 women died from suicide in this country. Globally, The World Health Organisation reports that almost one million people die from suicide each year, with many more attempting it. This means many millions of people are affected by, or experience, suicide bereavement every year.

Myth #2: Suicide is a character flaw

Mental illness, and the manifestation of suicide, is a psychiatric disorder and not a flaw in a person’s character. Indeed, it’s estimated that 90% of people who die by suicide have some degree of mental health difficulty. Likewise, there is never simply one reason why a person commits suicide. Even if there is a catalyst event – a divorce, job loss, death of a loved one etc. – it’s important to recognise that this is the tipping point rather than the whole story.  

Myth #3: Suicide only happens in winter

You can understand why this myth spread; winter can be cold, depressing and isolating and Christmas in particular can bring up a whole host of issues from loneliness to family difficulties. But research on the seasonal effects of suicide found that it is actually more prevalent in spring and summer.

Mental health problems occur year-round and having depression is one particular diagnosis which is correlated with much higher risk of suicide. Other diagnoses indicating higher risk include; bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder. Physical or sexual abuse in childhood, experience of natural disasters, those with alcohol or drug problems and the prison population are all causal indicators of increased suicide risk.

Myth #4: Suicide is selfish

People who die by suicide are not selfish; they are experiencing so much distress that they can’t envisage any other way to stop the pain. As outlined above, often individuals who take their own lives do so because they are suffering acute mental distress and are unable to access to their rational thinking at the point where they decide to take their own life.

How suicide differs from other deaths

1.       There is a complex set of emotions

People bereaved by suicide suffer from a double layer of grief. On the one hand, they experience all the ‘typical’ grief reactions (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) as those that have lost somebody to illness, an accident or old age. But they also face a complex set of emotions on top that aren’t always associated with the death of a loved one such as guilt, shame and blame.

In our experience, we’ve found some people respond with anger and see the suicidal person as selfish for hurting those they left behind (see myth #4 above). Some feel sad at the ‘waste’ of human life while others are more reflective and ask ‘why’? Some, take a more philosophical approach and argue that each person has the right to choose when they die. Others find it frightening because the person seemed to have so much live for and appeared happy. The upshot? Emotional responses to suicide are varied and confusing; there is no ‘normal’ response.

2.       Stigma around suicide persists

Suicide is still shrouded in stigma, thanks in part to some of the common myths mentioned above. And while we often hear of death reported in the media, there is a strange silence surrounding suicide which seems at odds with its prevalence. For example, the latest Samaritans report found 6,188 suicides were registered in the UK in 2015. By contrast, there were 1,732 road deaths reported in 2015.

3.       It can come as a shock

Some suicidal people are very adept at masking their symptoms and projecting an image that ‘everything is fine’. As such, news of a suicide can come as a huge shock to friends or family members who weren’t living with the person concerned. In this case, unlike old age or a terminal illness, there is no time for gradual acceptance for those left behind.

4.       It causes family to question everything

Only around 25 – 30% of suicides are accompanied by a note, leaving relatives without a sense of closure. Even those who do receive a note might not gain any comfort from it. It’s very common amongst suicide survivors to start questioning everything and replaying minor moments, adjusting them and wondering ‘what if’. These feelings are exacerbated if the suicide remains a ‘shameful’ secret within the family. 

5.       Other people’s reactions can be insensitive

Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, many people are uninformed and still believe many of the myths listed above. As a result, many survivors of suicide loss choose not to share the cause of death with others as the insensitive reactions of others can add yet another layer of suffering. 

 Coping Strategies

1.       Don’t isolate yourself

It’s important to stay in contact with your friends and family. Once you feel ready, it can really help to talk with others. In fact, we’ve found that many families find talking about it ‘out loud’ is a huge help and can help accelerate the grieving process from ‘unbearable’ to ‘bearable’.

2.       Make time for grief

The outdated British cultural hang-over of ‘stiff upper lip’ in times of difficulty remains widespread. However, giving yourself permission to take to grieve and account for the complexities of your bereavement by suicide is crucial. Surprisingly, there is no statutory right for paid leave following bereavement, but all employees are entitled to a reasonable period of unpaid time off for dependants. Your company will likely have a policy on this in your contract or handbook.

3.       Avoid making major life changes

Dealing with the death of a loved one by suicide is an extremely traumatic and unsettling process. The powerful emotions you experience may affect your ability to think rationally, so put off making any major life changes for at least a year if you can. If making a change is unavoidable, it can help to get some outside perspective from a trusted friend, family member or counsellor.

4.       Be patient

Be patient with yourself, your grief and others affected. Respect your own unique process and try to remember that there is no ‘right’ way to grieve.

5.       Express your feelings

As we mentioned above, talking can help you to heal and help you make sense of how you are feeling. But if talking isn’t possible for you right now, writing in a journal can be a very therapeutic way to express and work through some of your feelings.

6.       Take care of yourself

When experiencing a major trauma, it’s common to neglect your own basic needs. While it’s perfectly normal to have days like this, you will feel better if you maintain some basic self-care routines such as making sure you’re eating healthy food, getting some fresh air and going to bed at the same time each night to encourage your body back into a routine.

7.       Accept that healing isn’t linear

No two days of grieving will be the same and that is completely normal. You might find yourself experiencing a difficult day for no particular reason, but remember that healing isn’t linear. Likewise, reach out for support where you can in advance of especially painful annual events such as birthdays or anniversaries which can often be most challenging.

8.       Talk about your loved one

When you feel ready, talking about the person you lost by accounting for their whole life and not just in relation to their death can be very cathartic. We’ve found that by doing this many families and friends begin to feel empowered. They often are then able to reach a point where grieving and guilt give way to gratitude for being able to share the life of the person while they were alive. This is a powerful shift – anger, disappointment and guilt may start to fade and be replaced by a sense of peace.

Where to go from here

Join a group for survivors of bereavement by suicide

Survivors Of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) is the main support charity for suicide survivors and offers local support groups across Kent; find your nearest local support group here.

If you aren’t ready for an in-person support group, you’ll find a supportive online community of fellow survivors on Alliance of Hope.

If you need to support a child bereaved by suicide, check out childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, which offers in-person, online and phone support.

Seek professional help

Suicide survivors are more likely than other bereaved people to seek the help of a mental health professional and it’s not surprising, considering the complicated nature of grief after suicide. A skilled therapist will be able to help you make sense of how you are feeling and support you in your unique grieving process.  You can find qualified counsellors local to you via the Counselling Directory website

Worried a loved one is feeling suicidal? If you’re worried a loved one is feeling suicidal, encourage them to make an appointment to see their doctor as soon as possible. Subsequent ongoing support for them and, importantly, yourself is available from local psychotherapists, counsellors or psychologists and all of the organisations listed above.

You could also contact organisations dedicated to the prevention of young suicide, such as PAPYRUS. The Samaritans have also created and launched a new suicide prevention app which helps families to assess risk, access local help and explore which steps to take next.

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Contact:

Claire Daplyn, Inner Space Counselling

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