Grief after suicide is similar to grief after other types of death, however suicide raises additional complex grief issues because of the sudden and traumatic nature of the death. These can include the following:
Suicide is often sudden and violent and may leave the bereaved traumatised. Intrusive images of the death can recur, even if the death was not witnessed. The initial grief reactions of shock and numbness may also be stronger and last longer.
For those bereaved by suicide there is often a desperate need to know why the suicide happened. The search for answers may be relentless. It is important that those bereaved reach the point where they feel they have struggled with the question enough. They may have enough answers to satisfy themselves or recognise that the reasons for the suicide will never be completely understood.
Guilt is a common reaction in bereavement and research suggests that guilt is felt more intensely amongst those bereaved by suicide. Family members and friends often feel guilty about not having foreseen the suicide or prevented it. Bereaved families and in particular, bereaved parents, often feel guilty in some way for the death; that there was something wrong in the family or with their parenting skills. Those bereaved will often replay the events repeatedly in their heads. There can be a long list of ‘if only’: If only I had been home, if only I had recognised how they were feeling, if only I hadn’t said that. There is a limit to your responsibility, no-one is responsible for another person’s decisions or actions.
For family and friends who have been through many years of chronic mental illness with their loved one there may be feelings of relief. They may feel at least now they are at rest and they may sense freedom from ongoing worry for their loved one. It is OK to feel this way. It does not mean that you wished your loved one was dead.
It is common for people to react to a sudden death by looking for someone to blame. Families bereaved by suicide may blame each other. Initially blame can be a way for some people trying to make sense of what happened, however no-one is responsible for another person’s decisions or actions.
Historically there has been stigma attached to a death by suicide. It has been a taboo subject, but this is starting to change. Many of those that bereaved note a lack of support following a suicide. This may be because family and friends are unsure how to react. A sense of shame and of being different can also stop people from accessing possible supports, however support is available and can be useful.
The pain of grief may be so intense and unrelenting that those bereaved by suicide may think I can’t go on like this anymore. Identification with the person who has died may also make them feel particularly vulnerable. The bereaved frequently have suicidal thoughts. Finding support and/or professional help at these times is very important.
The bereaved often feel rejected and abandoned by their loved one and may feel anger towards that person for leaving them. Anger is a natural response to being hurt. It is helpful to talk about being angry and find ways to deal with it.