Survivors of Suicide – SOS
Suicide is a highly traumatic event. Losing a loved one to suicide is very painful and leaves lasting consequences for the people who are left behind; the survivors of suicide. There are several different possible consequences and effects that the survivors of suicide might experience.
Depression, sadness and grief are reactions that might occur after any loss, however, they might be felt more strongly after a loss by suicide. The person might feel crushed by feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness, as they might feel a degree of responsibility for the suicide.
Depression and grief can be felt very strongly. A person might develop suicidal ideas and ideas that they might rejoin their loved ones by committing suicide. The pain is very strong, so it could be a good idea to reach out to mental health professionals and work with the grief in a more secure setting. Professional help might be especially needed if there are suicidal ideas.
Anger is another emotion that appears after a loss, but might be felt more strongly in a loss by suicide. The suicide survivor might feel anger at the person who committed suicide, but also at themselves, at other people (parents, friends, mental health professional, school authorities, etc.) who did not prevent the suicide. This is an emotion that is related to the grieving process.
Trauma and shock
The person might experience the after-effects of shock and trauma. It’s possible to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for which counseling and therapy might be needed. The effects might be linked to flashbacks, nightmares, excessive evitation of anything related to the person who committed suicide or that might be related to suicide and severe limitations of the person’s life, hope for the future and relationships.
A possible first reaction to the situation is denial. The person might seemingly have a very subdued emotional reaction, not recognize what has happened or refuse to accept that it was a suicide. This reaction is usually a defense mechanism to protect a person’s mind from the shock and trauma, however, if the denial lasts for a long time, it can prevent the grieving process and lead to serious consequences. Denial might be expressed in different ways, for example, not crying or not getting angry, not touching the things or the room of the person who committed suicide, not visiting the grave, refusing help and refusing to talk about the situation for a long time. Denial might be a part of the grieving process, however, if denial does not give way to other reactions, it might seriously affect the person.
Guilt (the G word)
Guilt is commonly misidentified as a reaction among suicide survivors. Individuals might feel that they could have done more to prevent the suicide or that it was their fault that the person made that choice. But in truth, looking to ourselves for fault is an attempt to make sense or find a cause for the the senseless. Often times, the reason(s) is never fully revealed to anyone left behind. It is important to work with this emotion, because it can lead the person to act in self-destructive ways or to develop a strong depression.
Crisis of faith
This is a reaction that religious suicide survivors might experience. They might have a strong crisis and seek answers about why did someone close to them committed suicide or why their faith did not prevent what happened. The person might also feel anxious and worried about ideas related to suicide and hell or punishment. Some individuals might feel more drawn to religion for support in their grief, however, religious practices often do not substitute grief counseling.
Stigmatization by the community and blaming others
The aftermath of a suicide can be a difficult time, however, it can be made worse by the reactions other people have. Others might blame the person for allowing the suicide to happen or dismiss the reactions the person have. They might also discuss sensitive topics in an insensitive manner, for instance, saying that the person who committed suicide is surely in hell or that they were weak, in more extreme cases. Others might blame the family and friends and consider them to be dysfunctional or mentally ill as well. These reactions can worsen the state of the suicide survivor, especially if the person already feels guilty or responsible for what happened. In the aftermath of a suicide, some people might engage in finding someone or something to blame so as not to feel guilty, for example, family members might blame the friends or visa versa. This is usually not a constructive approach, as it often has to do with denial and with ignoring the pain different people are feeling at this time.
Seeking support and offering support
Individuals who are reeling from the loss of a loved one by suicide might look for support groups and communities where they can share their story with others who have had similar experiences. It’s a healthy way of coping with the situation, to be supported by others who can be truly empathetic, and to learn ways to move through the grief. Other individuals might choose to continue to participate in these groups to help others with their grieving process and make new support networks. Working a seasoned grief counselor who specializes in working with survivors of suicide can also be extremely helpful.
One last thought
There are many difficult stages to the grieving process after the loss of a loved one and many different ways to grieve. A suicide can be shocking, unexpected and more difficult to deal with than other types of losses. The person might feel guilty, angry and sad, experiencing many negative emotions and living through very difficult times. However, it’s possible to have a grieving process that will allow the person to move forward with their life, especially if the process is done with professional help and support.
Ben Carrettin is a nationally board certified and licensed professional counselor who specializes in traumatic loss; including working with the loved ones of someone who has commit suicide. He is a lay chaplain with advanced training in pastoral care as well as in many therapeutic processes that help to guide you through your own unique and personal, grief journey.
If you or someone you know has lost a loved one and is hurting right now. Please know, support is here.
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Ben Carrettin is a Nationally Board Certified Counselor (NCC), Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor (LPC-S) and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor (LCDC). He is the owner of Practice Improvement Resources, LLC; a private business which offers an array of specialized counseling, evidenced-based clinical consultation, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and targeted ESI-based services to individuals and businesses.