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After a suicide: Sharing brings long term benefits

after a suicideby Sheri McGregor, M.A.

After a loved one’s suicide, the last thing on most people’s minds is personal growth. But living through the shock, anger, sadness, guilt, or other feelings can actually make you a better, stronger person.  That’s especially true if you share your feelings. Social scientists describe the growth that comes from adversity as stress-related growth and/or post-traumatic growth. And according to a recent study on the subject of such personal growth, survivors who talk about the suicide of a loved one and its impact on them fare better.

Stress-related growth

Stress-related personal growth refers to positive changes in a survivor’s personal strength and relationships, a shift in priorities and the identification of new possibilities, an individual’s appreciation of life, and spiritual growth. And it’s true that people who go through adversity and successfully emerge on the other side of the pain often possess a profound sense of gratitude and increased tolerance. They derive greater meaning and appreciation in their lives. Survivors of suicide aren’t usually reflecting on their own growth while in the throes of grief, but it is wise to deal with the trauma in ways that will benefit you in the long term. Before we get to that, let’s briefly explore the areas social scientists often refer to when it comes to stress-related personal growth.

Personal strength: Seeing yourself as stronger and more capable because you’ve overcome past stressful events. Knowing you have survived one thing, you believe you can survive another. Even a seemingly small triumph—like healing from an injury or learning how to return restaurant food that was cooked improperly—can build confidence. In times of despair, it helps to keep in mind that you have gone through prior troubles. Ask yourself: What have I previously gone through or succeeded against, from which I can draw personal strength? Reflect on what helped you, as well as what didn’t. Use what you learned to help you now, after a loved one’s suicide.

Shift in priorities: Finding joy and value in everyday life. In my recent book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, I write, “The best things in life may be free, but not unless we take notice and appreciate them.” That’s because in a recent study, people who took notice and appreciated positive experiences were happier and felt more satisfied. Even the tiniest joys—like the buttery taste of cinnamon toast or the warmth of sunlight after a storm—can be recalled and savored. What positive sensation or experience, no matter how small, can you notice, remember, and savor today? Remind yourself to take notice of those things—they can calm your mind and raise your spirits in times of grief.

Improvement in relating to others: People who come through stressful events often benefit from after a suicidedeeper communication levels and recognize the value of their relationships. A need for support may draw people closer. In turn, people who have faced crises may better empathize with others, be quicker to forgive imperfections, and also recognize the value of a network of care.  One woman whose family friend committed suicide said, “The people close to me became suddenly more important. They were the only ones who understood.” Another survivor said that he made sure he told his wife he loved her every day. “I wanted her to know,” he said. “Prior to my mother’s death, I was more the ‘I married you, didn’t I?’ type.”

Appreciating life: After a long winter stretch, it feels good to see the sunlight and feel its warmth. It’s similar when we undergo emotional trauma. Some maintain that we actually need difficulties to appreciate the good. While I won’t go that far, it is certainly true that the hard times can help us to appreciate the calmer periods—and maybe be more content. We might also become more aware that life can be fleeting, and want to make the most of our moments. One survivor mentioned appreciating the beauty in a summer tree with its full regalia of leaves. “I no longer worry so much about material things,” she says. “It’s more about experiencing life, not having the right clothes or car.”

Spirituality: Spiritual growth after trauma might involve religious activity, such as attending services and praying more. Or, include spiritual thinking such as seeing nature as a community to which humans belong. A person might seek answers in order to gain a sense of peace, or embark on a spiritual quest of to make sense of heaven, hell, or life after death. After trauma, spirituality can be an avenue of personal growth that offers hope or provides security.

A better you through sharing after a suicide

In the study, those who told others about the death and shared their feelings after a loved one’s suicide were freed in their personal growth. Consider ways you can communicate—and benefit.

If you have someone you can talk to, cherish the relationship. Not everyone will feel comfortable discussing the suicide. To heal, you do need to find helpful ways to grieve. Sharing can help survivors of suicide to get past the shock, step forward with a positive outlook, and even grow from the experience.

Journaling in a private notebook, or publicly sharing on bereavement sites after a suicide by a loved one were two of the ways discussed in my recent post, Left behind after a loved one’s suicide: Permission to grieve . You might also share by taking the survey, The Impact of Suicide. As others have said they did, you might find that typing out your answers provides you with some valuable insight and allows a safe space to share your feelings. You’ll also be helping others because survey results will steer future content to help others heal after a loved one’s suicide.

Adapting after a suicide: What’s your perspective?

after a suicideThe study about sharing after a suicide followed a broader one from the previous year. In that study, adaptive cognitive strategies were a part of positive growth. To help yourself, look back at the five areas outlined above, and consider how you can learn from the questions and examples—and adapt in your thinking.

You might also find it helpful to know that the passage of time also figures into an individual’s stress related personal growth. That’s because perspective can play such a big part in how we view the crises in our lives. Just as we can look back on things we’ve gone through and derive strength from the knowledge that we endured and even grew into better persons because of those troubles, we can also look forward.

In the midst of grief after a loved one’s suicide, it may be difficult to consider the future—but purposeful nurturing of a positive outlook helps. Despite how you may feel today, imagine yourself six months from now happy. Cultivate hope. Many others have lived through the horror of a loved one’s suicide, have positively adapted to the loss, and have grown personally in a variety of ways that are helpful to them and the people around them—and so can you.

Studies/Books cited:

Levi-Belz, Y. (2015). Stress-related growth among suicide survivors: The role of interpersonal and cognitive factors. Archives Of Suicide Research, 19(3), 305-320. doi:10.1080/13811118.2014.957452

Levi-Belz, Y. (2016). To share or not to share? The contribution of self-disclosure to stress-related growth among suicide survivors. Death Studies, 40(7), 405-413. doi:10.1080/07481187.2016.1160164

Smith, J.L. & Hollinger-Smith, L. (2015). Savoring, resilience, and psychological well-being In older adults. In McGregor, Sheri. (2016), Done with the crying: Help and healing for mothers of estranged adult children, pg. 321. San Marcos California: Sowing Creek Press

Left behind after a loved one’s suicide: Permission to grieve

left behind after a loved one's suicideby Sheri McGregor, M.A.

A loved one’s suicide can have far-reaching implications for the mourners who are left behind. There’s the shock, the lingering questions, fears, and pain. And survivors may feel isolated in their grief.

The nature of the death itself adds complexity that can make grieving difficult. In cases when no services are held, loved ones are much less likely to gather and talk, as is typical for natural deaths. It may be troubling to talk about the death, which makes it difficult to receive support. And even when you do reach out to talk, people may respond with silence. They don’t know how to react to the revelation that your parent or sibling or child killed himself. Even those who already know the circumstances may not know what to say, and rush to change the subject. Perhaps words they intend to comfort you really don’t. Instead, you feel pushed into cheering up, to alleviate their discomfort. There may be judgments expressed about your loved one. Or maybe you worry there will be.

For many reasons, those who are left behind after a loved one’s suicide may feel isolated, all alone as they deal with their distress.

Memorial websites could help people express their grief after suicide

Researchers say that a suicide typically has a more profound impact on survivors than death by natural causes, as shown by a 2012 study of memorial websites. Sites made by the bereaved of people who committed suicide contained significantly longer words and sentences than memorial sites honoring people who died from natural deaths. The writing on these sites was darker as well. They contained more frequent use of death-related words and reflected strong feelings such as sadness and anger rather than happy memories of the deceased.

There’s really nothing earth-shattering in the finding that those left behind after a loved one’s suicide often suffer profound emotional distress. But having experienced the feeling of being alone in grief after suicide, I wonder if the drawn-out sentences and dark words might also reflect the isolation that’s often experienced by those left behind? Maybe a memorial site is a place that mourners feel free to let their feelings out.

Left behind after a loved one’s suicide: Help others to help you

As best you can, tell your friends and relatives what it is you need from them to feel supported. Maybe you need them to remember the deceased with you as they once were, rather than focus on the horror of the death. Or maybe you need them to let you cry some, rather than feeling rushed into moving on. You might even need to feel as if it’s okay to talk about your shock over the death, or how it took place—which may require choosing carefully who is best able to hear your thoughts.

Helping yourself

Talking things out can help, but if we don’t feel comfortable discussing the suicide, then how do we successfully grieve?

Maybe you’re one who types with a username on an internet forum for the bereaved. If you feel safe among other faceless, anonymous people who have similar feelings and understand, and you benefit from the sharing—that’s good.

Prayer can also be a positive means of expressing emotions. Prayer can provide a safe place to speaking openly about your anguish, anger, or doubt—without the worry of upsetting another person. A 2010 University of Wisconsin study found that in prayer, people were able to see themselves as a loving god might. Believing in a forgiving god could help a person be more self-forgiving. This could be helpful to someone who is troubled by their anger toward the deceased for committing suicide, for example. Self-compassion in our time of grief is vital to working through our feelings.

Writing a letter to the deceased could be another useful way to explore and release our feelings.

In expressing our feelings, we can come to understand and accept those feelings. That’s one reason why keeping a journal, and using it to vent about our experiences is so often recommended by experts for those who grieve (or suffer other trauma). A journal can provide a space for all the scary, sad, or disturbing thoughts and emotions. And a journal can be looked back at later, and provide a sort of gauge as to how far you’ve progressed.

Left behind after a loved one’s suicide? Let your feelings out

The pain experienced after your loved one’s suicide is uniquely yours. If you’re able to express your grief with a supportive friend, a relative, or in a therapeutic relationship, then do so. For some of us, though, expressing our feelings in private may be more comfortable than sharing them with other people. Maybe you feel a need to stay strong for those around you, or fear losing control. Regardless, your feelings are important, and there can be great value in letting them out, if only to yourself.

Whether you’re able to talk openly with others, or rarely discuss your grief, I hope you will consider sharing your experiences by taking the confidential survey: The Impact of Suicide. The survey has space to share your thoughts and feelings, or you can tick off just the facts. Your participation and comments can steer the development of resources to help those left behind after a loved one’s suicide—and as some have expressed, you may benefit from taking the survey itself.


Take the survey: Impact of Suicide

The impact of suicide can be far-reaching, and disrupt family and personal life. Your insight can be used to help others, and lessen the negative impact of suicide.

Create your own user feedback survey