Left Behind after Suicide
Suicide is unlike any other kind of death. Loved ones who are left behind (often
called “suicide survivors”) sometimes experience shame, guilt and anger, in
addition to other feelings commonly associated with other types of death, such
as shock, depression and sadness. So when there’s death from suicide, survivors
have a sort of double burden—the normal feelings that come with any death, and
their own unique struggles about the suicide itself.
Guilt is a common feeling after someone you love has committed suicide. “I
should have been able to do something,” loved ones often think. But remember, 90
percent of the people who commit suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder
at the time of their death. Mental illness is the cause of that death. Just as
you can’t stop death from, say, a stroke or from cancer, you can’t be expected
to stop a death that’s caused by mental illness.
Still, the guilt may linger. You may replay certain moments over and over in
your head, especially the last days and words of your loved one. You may feel as
though you should have been tuned in better, and should have known suicide was a
possibility and then maybe you could have prevented it. In truth, you couldn’t
have prevented it, but that lingering doubt is normal.
Shame is another feeling that many suicide survivors experience. Some people
believe that suicide is a sin. You may believe that yourself. You may not feel
comfortable talking about the suicide with other people, and they may not feel
comfortable talking about it with you. And that creates an additional burden, at
a time when a burden is the last thing you need.
You may also feel angry at your loved one. “How could he do this to me? How
could she do this to the rest of the family? How dare he?” You may also feel
relieved, especially if your loved one’s mental illness was long and difficult.
How to cope with your feelings after a suicide
What should you tell other people? It can be hard to know what to say to people
who know you’ve had a death in your family but don’t know how the person died.
What you decide to tell them is completely up to you, but the American
Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that most survivors find it best to keep
it simple and say that the death was a suicide.
What should you tell children? Children may also feel guilt and shame, and they
may feel abandoned by their loved one who committed suicide. Listen to their
concerns, and make sure they know that the death was not their fault. Answer
their questions honestly, in an age-appropriate way.
Reach out to family and friends. It can feel like a big effort, but as a rule,
it’s helpful to spend time with the people who are close to you at times like
this. They may be feeling strange about the suicide too, and may take their
clues from you as far as how much to say about it.
When someone close to you has died, it takes time to get back to normal. This is
true whether the death was caused by suicide or any other illness. When you do
begin to feel better, it doesn’t mean that you’re forgetting about your loved
one or that you no longer care. You can’t be in a deep state of mourning
forever. Eventually, healing takes place, and that’s what you need.
On the other hand, if things continue to bother you and you can’t seem to shake
them, be sure to talk with your doctor, who may recommend a counselor. Grief
counseling could be just the thing to get you back into enjoying life again.
American Association of Suicidology; H. Kaplan, B. Sadock, J. Grebb,
Synopsis of Psychiatry, Williams and Wilkins, 1994; The National Institute for
Mental Health; The National Mental Health Association.