Survivors of suicide loss
Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, "There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved."
A survivor of suicide is a family member or friend of a person who died by suicide. It is estimated that for every suicide there are at least 6 survivors, which many believe is a conservative estimate. Based on this estimate, approximately five million Americans have become survivors of suicide in the last 25 years.
With suicide, survivors face not only the loss of someone close to them, but also the difficult feelings connected to the way the person died. Many survivors struggle to understand the reasons for the suicide, asking themselves "Why?" over and over again.
What Helps Survivors Heal After a Death from Suicide?
- Many survivors find it helpful to consider that events and circumstances leading up to a suicide are complicated, often involving a combination of painful suffering, hopelessness and mental illness.
- It can help survivors to know that they are not alone in their loss.
- It can be helpful to find someone to talk with as you struggle with the loss. You might choose to talk to a friend, relative, religious or spiritual advisor, or mental health professional.
- Survivor support groups can also be helpful; these groups allow the survivor an opportunity to share feelings and experiences with others who are survivors of suicide.
It is important to take care of yourself following the death of a friend of family member by suicide.
It’s important to recognize that grief does not follow a linear path, nor does it always move in a forward direction. There is also no time frame for grief. Healing after a death from suicide will be a very personal and individual process for every survivor.
Some common emotions experienced with grief are:
Shock Stress Rejection Confusion
Guilt Helplessness Denial Anger
Despair Disbelief Sadness Loneliness
Self-blame Depression Pain Shame
Hopelessness Numbness Abandonment Anxiety
Friends and family close to survivors can offer support in different ways, whether or not they themselves have survived a suicide loss. Survivors may be hesitant to reach out to friends or acquaintances because of the stigma that still surrounds suicide.
Before you assume responsibilities, it’s important to ask survivors whether they need or want your help. Some survivors gain strength from performing tasks, while others prefer to rely on friends or family.
Ways to help:
- Surround survivors with as much love and support as possible.
- Be as understanding as possible.
- Give them some private time. Be available, but allow survivors time on their own.
- Let them talk, and show you understand. Withhold advice unless they ask for it.
- Encourage the family to make decisions together.
- Expect that they will become tired easily; plan activities accordingly and allow for rescheduling if needed.
- Give special attention to family members, at the funeral and in months to come.
- Allow them to express as much grief as they are willing to share.
- Allow them to talk about the special qualities of the loved one they have lost.
- Write down a story about their loved one (especially one they may not know) and give it to them to read when they feel ready.
- Don’t be afraid to say the name of their loved one. Don’t worry about making them sad; it hurts more when no one talks about the person they lost.
- Let them know it’s all right to ask for help and encourage them to seek specialized support if they need it.
- Let the survivor decide what they are ready for. It may be helpful for you to suggest things, but allow the decision to be the survivors. Some things they may find helpful include:
- Keep a list of visitors, phone calls and people who bring food and gifts.
- Offer to make calls to people they want to notify.
- Keep the mail organized, keep track of bills, cards, newspapers, etc.
- Offer to help with the deceased’s belongings.
Children as Survivors
It is a myth that children don’t grieve. Children may experience the same range of feelings as adults. Though deeply affected by a death by suicide, children and adolescents may not have developed the same coping skills as adults and it may be many years before they are able to fully process the loss. Young people need help and guidance from trusted adults to mourn the loss of a loved one and cope with the range of feelings that come when dealing with a suicide. Children are especially vulnerable to feelings of guilt and abandonment. It is important that they know the death was not their fault and that a trusted adult is there to take care of them.
Ways to support children after a suicide:
- Offer simple statements, such as, “he/she died by suicide.” Use words like "died" rather than "gone away" so there will be no misunderstanding.
- If mental illness was a factor, explain that the person died of an illness. For example, “Many people who die by suicide suffer from an illness called depression.” You may also want to reassure him or her that most people with depression do not die by suicide.
- Reassure him or her that that the death was not his or her fault.
- Return to normal routines when possible. Encourage him or her to continue seeing friends and engaging in social and recreational activities.
- Make sure that a trusted adult is always available.
- Get professional help if he or she behaves in a way that concerns you, especially if the behavior lasts for an extended period of time.
- Let his or her school know about the suicide so that teachers and counselors can be supportive.
- Don’t hide your grief. Children and youth learn to grieve by watching adults. You can show them a healthy way to express grief and the grieving process.
- Consider the resources below or the advice of a professional for specific ways to talk to a young person and support the healing process following a suicide loss.
- The suicide of someone in the community or media reports about suicide may influence vulnerable young people to think about suicide. Adults should be sensitive to young people and familiar with the warning signs associated with suicide.
Recognizing Warning Signs and Risk Factors
Experiencing a suicide loss can make maintaining health, including mental health, difficult. For some survivors, losing a friend or loved one to suicide may elevate the risk for thinking about, attempting or even dying by suicide. It’s important for people to be familiar with warning signs, risk factors and protective factors.
Warning Signs of Suicide:
- Changes in a person’s mood, diet or sleeping pattern.
- Increased alcohol or drug use.
- Withdrawal from friends, family and society.
- Rage or uncontrolled anger. Anger usually stems from depression.
- Reckless behavior.
Risk Factors of Suicide:
- Previous suicide attempt(s).
- History of depression or other mental illness.
- Alcohol or drug abuse.
- Family history of suicide or violence.
- Physical illness.
- Feeling alone.
- Occupations – health-related fields such as dentists, doctors, nurses and social workers are at a higher risk of attempting suicide.
- Strong family relationships.
- Connections to community support.
- Effective clinical care if a person has mental, physical or substance use disorders.
- Support for help-seeking behavior.
- Reduced access to lethal means of suicide.
- Problem-solving and conflict resolution skills.
The key to almost all of the protective factors is the relationship between the survivor and the source of support. Relationships help people cope with loss and build resilience.
Information adapted from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology.
Atonement Lutheran Church
Fargo, ND 58103
Contact: Mary J. Weiler
Meetings per Month: One - Contact us for more details.
Serves Statewide and Clay County, Minnesota