There is one death by suicide in the US every 11 minutes. (CDC) Researchers have estimated that approximately 135 people are affected to some degree by every person lost to suicide (Cerel et al., 2015, p.5). This means an estimated quarter million people each year become survivors of suicide loss (SAVE).
Many people have been affected by suicide after the loss of a family member, a friend, acquaintance, or even a celebrity. The first time I experienced suicide loss, I was in middle school when a classmate took his own life. A few short years later my best friend ended her life too. Last Christmas Eve, my cousin overdosed, leaving everyone wondering if it was intentional or not. You would think after losing three people in my life by suicide I would have a better understanding, or be more familiar with the grieving process, but I’m not. Every time I lose someone to suicide, it hurts in places I didn’t know could hurt. Grief is a journey that is personal and unique to every individual, and even different from one loss to another.
Why is grieving suicide loss so different from grieving other types of loss? Death by suicide is often sudden, unexpected, and sometimes violent. Survivors of suicide loss may become focused on replaying their last encounter with their loved one over and over in an attempt to understand what led to their death. They may feel reluctant to talk about the circumstances of the death because mental illness continues to be stigmatized and suicide is considered a sin in many religions. They may feel unsure of where to direct their anger as the cause of death was not cancer or a drunk driver, it was their loved one themselves. They may feel hurt, rejected, abandoned or left behind. The suicide loss survivor may be left with a million ‘what if?’ questions. The questions they ask themselves can be hurtful, self-punishing, and often unrealistically condemn themselves for not being able to predict their loved ones death or failing to successfully intervene. All of the feelings that occur after many deaths are especially intense and difficult to sort out after a suicide.
After my best friend died by suicide in the spring of 2013, the most distinct feeling I remember is the feeling of being stuck, of being completely frozen in time. I could not comprehend how cars were continuing to pass by, how people were shopping and carrying on with their errands, how the wind continued to blow. It felt like my entire body could physically feel the earth’s rotation, it was hard to breath and all I could think was ‘how can the world go on without you?’.
Due to the different and oftentimes complex grief suicide loss survivors experience, they may need additional support from family, friends, and even mental health professionals. Knowing what to say or how you can help after a death is always difficult, but don’t let the ‘elephant in the room’ keep you from reaching out to a suicide loss survivor.
Here’s how to support a survivor of suicide loss:
Stay connected. Suicide loss survivors often feel ostracized and cut off after a suicide. Stay in contact with survivors so they don’t feel isolated.
Don’t ask for an explanation. Survivors can sometimes feel overwhelmed by questions: Was there a note? Did you suspect anything? The survivor may be asking themselves the exact same questions, but it is important to just listen, let them lead the conversation, and support them in that.
Reminisce. The circumstances of the person’s death is not their most significant quality. Share memories and stories; use the person’s name.
Offer to help. Ask if you can pick up groceries, run errands, provide transportation, or babysit children. Offer to help with daily tasks such as watering plants, taking care of pets, or cooking dinner. Ask directly, “What can I do to help?”
Be there for the long haul. After a funeral and short stay at home, the bereaved person will have to go back to living life. Unfortunately, we often perceive that because suicide loss survivors are bak to work and able to smile and socialize that they are no longer grieving. Make a conscious effort to acknowledge emotional days such as a birthday or anniversary of the death. Be it a phone call or a card, the gesture demonstrates your ongoing support.
You can also show support by encouraging them to pursue professional help if needed. Suicide loss survivors are more likely than other bereaved people to seek the help of a mental health professional. Suicide loss survivors often find individual counseling and support groups with others who have experienced suicide loss to be particularly helpful. You can find a therapist that specializes in grief and takes your insurance on Psychology Today, or you can attend a support group for suicide loss survivors.
I still think about my best friend a lot, every time I see a pink sky, a guitar, or a black cat I am reminded of her and our friendship. It still hurts when her birthday comes around, and the day of her death continues to sting but my memories of her continue to bring a little less sorrow and a bit more happiness year after year.
Are you a suicide loss survivor? Are you contemplating suicide? There is someone you can talk to. Call or text 1.800.231.1127