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.


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