What might we experience as a Suicide Survivor? _________________________________
(This, the first in a series of postings on suicide issues, is based on a very real need for me and my family to know how to support people experiencing the death of a loved one by suicide.
The people left behind when suicide has occurred face not only grief, but a complicated grief, full of many questions and challenges. We who are left behind are often referred to as suicide survivors…..)
Most of us have experienced the death of a loved one. And we can appreciate that the grief that follows is always difficult, even though it is an instinctual and helpful reaction. Suicide survivors too, are left with grief and feelings of loss, sadness, and loneliness after the death of a loved one. Yet these are often magnified by feelings of guilt, confusion, rejection, shame, anger, and the effects of social stigma and personal trauma.
As suicide survivors we are plagued by the need to make sense of the death and to understand why suicide appeared to our loved one as their only option. We may overestimate our responsibility, as well as guilt for not being able to prevent the tragic outcome. Survivors may replay events up to the last moments of their loved ones’ lives, looking for clues and warnings that they blame themselves for not noticing or taking seriously.
We might recall past disagreements or arguments, plans not fulfilled, calls not returned, words not said, and ruminate how if only we had done or said something differently, perhaps the outcome would have been different. If it is easy for we who are suicide survivors to get caught up in self-blame, it may help to understand that many (most) people who complete suicide were struggling against mental illness when they died.
Suicide survivors sometimes feel rejected or abandoned by the death. Survivors may see the deceased as choosing to give up and leaving their loved ones behind. Also survivors can feel bewildered, wondering why the relationship they had with the person was not enough to keep them alive.
Anger is a common response: Directed at the person who died, or at themselves, or perhaps at other family members, at professionals, at God or the world in general. “Why did my loved one not seek help or feel our love and concern?”
Suicide is stigmatized. The bereaved may find it difficult to talk to others about their loss because others often feel uncomfortable discussing a death by suicide. This can leave the family/friends feeling isolated. For all of us, talking about a loved one’s death is vital for our recovery. Stigma concerning suicide poses an unwelcome barrier to the healing process.
Finally, survivors of suicide find themselves at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior than are other bereaved individuals (Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, Vol 14, No. 2, 2012).