Grief after Suicide
In the aftermath of a death by suicide, those left behind are often faced with a traumatic loss that challenges the world as they know it and grief as they have previously experienced it. Although reactions may vary, the sudden, shocking death leaves within its wake a multitude of unanswered questions and intense, often unfamiliar, emotions with uncertainty as to how to process all of this so that life feels manageable once again. Survivors can become consumed with the trinity of questions that mark the impact of suicide in our lives: how, if only, and why.
For those impacted, the need to find a balance between grieving and re-engaging with life involves managing our sometimes contradictory needs. Can we still love the person, but yet express anger, confusion and guilt at the actions that led to their death? Can we express regret about not knowing and understanding more at the time, without taking on responsibility for what happened? Can we grieve the person and not just how they died? Can we ask the questions, despite not knowing if we will ever get the answers?
To quote Earl Grollman, a founder of the grief counselling movement, “Anything that is mentionable is manageable”. Finding a trusted support resource, whether a friend, support group or therapist is important in helping the necessary process of sorting through the multitude of memories in the hopes of finding an explanation. All too often, in considering whether the death was preventable, those left behind put themselves on trial by acting as their own judge and jury. By sharing with others, survivors are provided with a crucial defense as well as a way to emotionally navigate through the tunnel vision that sometimes accompanies unexpected loss.
While the cause of death will always be part of your memory of the person who has died, it is also important to remember and share stories of the who the whole person was who died and the role that they played in your life. In remembering the full history and relationship with them, your grief will become more familiar, and their legacy will move beyond the suicide to the person themselves. Through storytelling in an emotionally safe and non-judgmental space, you can separate the lack of control experienced around the death from the power you still have to confront and manage your pain in the present. When ready, you have the opportunity to integrate the life lessons learned and new awareness into your world going forward.
In grieving a loved one who has died by suicide, when overwhelmed by complex emotions, it is helpful to remember that there is nothing wrong with you. These are normal reactions to an out of the ordinary loss.
About the Author: Karen Letofsky has worked as a bereavement counsellor for a number of decades. She pioneered a support group for individuals and families impacted by a loss due to suicide. She continues to be active in the fields of suicide prevention and postvention.