Coping After a Suicide
Regrettably, suicide is all too common. Roughly one in four of us know someone who has died by suicide. When suicide happens the impact of it affects friends, family, loved ones, and many others whose lives the person touched. When we lose someone to suicide, we generally go through several kinds of responses. There is no set amount of time that’s “usual” for getting through the stages of grief. Below are some of the more common responses that a person who has lost someone to suicide may experience:
At first, a person frequently responds with numbness and disbelief. It’s hard to grasp the reality the suicide. This numbness is frequently replaced with intense emotions. These responses vary widely by individuals. Deep sadness is common; so too, anger and despair. It is even possible that you may feel relief if the person had been in prolonged pain or distress.
Once the shock of the suicide has subsided, it is normal to experience tearfulness, loneliness, and depression. You may have difficulty getting things done at home, school, or work. If these feelings are seriously disrupting your ability to complete your required daily tasks or schoolwork, you may want to reach out for help from a counselor, clergy, or doctor. For Cal Poly students, the Dean of Students can help you contact your instructors. Their number is 805-756-0327.
Return to Functioning
Over time you will notice that you have periods during your day when you are no longer thinking about the suicide. During this time, your emotions may not be as intense as they had been. At this point you may be able to start re-establishing your daily routines.
The length of time it takes to work through the stages of grief also varies depending on the circumstances.
Feelings of anger, confusion, guilt, and relief are natural. They may occur days, weeks, or months after your loss. It is important to acknowledge these emotions in order to move through the bereavement process. Make sure that you have people to talk to about your feelings.
What Can I Do to Get Through a Friend or Loved One’s Suicide?
Adopt healthy coping strategies
The aftermath of a suicide can be physically and emotionally exhausting. As you work through your grief, be careful to protect your own well-being.
- Keep in touch. Reach out to loved ones, friends and spiritual leaders for comfort, understanding and healing. Surround yourself with people who are willing to listen when you need to talk, as well as those who'll simply offer a shoulder to lean on when you'd rather be silent.
- Let people help you. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for support. Let your friends and family support you through acts of kindness and concern.
- Give yourself permission to grieve. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and express them.
- Accept that you will not be yourself for a while. Take on less, focus on the essentials. For Cal Poly students, if you need help reducing your academic stress, the Dean of Students office can help. The Dean’s number is 805-756-0327.
- Grieve in your own way. Do what's right for you, not necessarily someone else. If you find it too painful to visit the person’s gravesite or share the details of their death, wait until you're ready.
- Be prepared for painful reminders. Anniversaries, holidays and other special occasions can be painful reminders of the suicide. Don't chide yourself for being sad or mournful.
- Don't rush yourself. Losing someone to suicide is a tremendous blow, and healing must occur at its own pace. Don't be hurried by anyone else's expectations that it's been "long enough."
- Expect setbacks. Some days will be better than others, even years after the suicide — and that's OK. Healing doesn't often happen in a straight line.
- Take care of yourself physically. Get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise. Be careful about alcohol usage, because ultimately alcohol can act as a depressant.
- Consider a support group for people affected by suicide. Sharing your story with others who are experiencing the same type of grief might help you find a sense of purpose or strength. In the San Luis Obispo area, Hospice (www.hospiceslo.org) often has support groups.
- Consider getting professional help. If you experience intense or unrelenting anguish or physical problems, ask your doctor or mental health provider for help. Seeking professional help is especially important if you think you might be depressed or you have recurring thoughts of suicide. Keep in mind that unresolved grief can turn into complicated grief, where painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that you have trouble resuming your own life.
- Face the future with a sense of peace. In the aftermath of a suicide, you might feel like you can't go on or that you'll never enjoy life again. In truth, you might always wonder why it happened — and reminders might trigger painful feelings even years later. Eventually, however, the raw intensity of your grief will fade. The tragedy of the suicide won't dominate your days and nights. Understanding the complicated legacy of suicide and how to cope with grief can help you reach inner peace and healing, while still honoring the memory of the person you lost to suicide.
As a Friend, What Should I Do for Someone Affected by a Suicide?
- First and foremost, be present with your friend or family member and LISTEN. Encourage them to talk about whatever is on their mind.
- If your friend or family member is feeling guilty, acknowledge that those feelings are common at a time like this.
- Be understanding and patient with a grieving friend or family member. This is a terrible loss and it will take a significant amount of time for people to get back to “normal.”
- Do not ignore or overwhelm a person who has lost someone to suicide. Contact them regularly and offer support.
- NEVER BLAME ANYONE. Suicide is a tragic loss that is very difficult to understand. Avoid making judgments regarding the causes or who could have done what differently.
- Do not try to accelerate the process of bereavement. Healing from loss takes time, and grief often takes longer when the loss is from suicide. It can take a long time for a person to work through the grief, to deal with the confusion and to come to terms with their feelings.
- If you have a friend who has lost a family member to suicide, treat your friend as you would treat anyone who has lost a family member. Be available to listen or to help out with chores or errands.
- Encourage your friend to consider outside help from a counseling agency or support group in the community, especially if they are unable complete the basic tasks of daily living and school.