“It’s just too much for me to handle. I just can’t take anymore.” “Everyone’s better off without me.” “No one will notice that I’m gone.”
“How could he have left us like this?” “Am I so blind that I missed the signs?” “What if I had gotten her more support or been more present?”
Allow these thoughts to simmer and their gravity to sink in. Between these lines lies an unreachable distance experienced by these two sets of individuals; a distance caused by a fogged mindset drenched in a pool of constant darkness, not knowing how or when that salvation will come, and a feeling of constant restlessness resolved through a final act of skewed relief. Relief for one, yet an aftermath of anguish, confusion, unanswered questions, and an extreme sense of longing, for the other—for those bereaved by suicide.
When you are made aware that a loved one, a family member, or a close friend has died by suicide, your world may come to a brisk halt. It’s true, every person who’s experienced such a loss has had their own unique version of grief, living and describing it in a different way. One thing’s for sure: while you might experience an initial feeling of shock, of possible numbness inside, no one can equip you for the flurry of conflicting emotions—the experience of having your mind racing, assessing and analyzing each and every “should” and “could,” the warning signs that might have been missed, the last words that were had, and the “if only” that will haunt your days and nights to come.
Experiencing such trauma causes the mind and body to react and process things in different ways. The most important thing to keep in mind is not to force it, not to ignore it, and not to compare your experience to that of another. Our experience is what matters. People bereaved by suicide experience a form of complicated grief that is unlike grief experienced due to a loved one passing from illness, age, or unexpected causes—not that these forms of bereavement are anything simple. Rather, processing such a loss involves several tumultuous thoughts, emotions, and bodily reactions. Initially, the mind and the body are shaken up, traumatized by the news of the loss. The more details that come to light, the more complex the nature and processing of the trauma (hearing of the loss vs. finding the body). As the news starts sinking in, the mind attempts to make sense of what it has seen or heard through intrusive images, flashbacks, sounds, smells, and possible nightmares. This can cause the body to react or shut down. Nausea, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, sweaty palms, dizziness, and inability to sleep, bathe, or eat are all common symptoms of such experiences. These symptoms of shock and trauma might cause us to set ourselves aside by going through the motions; daily tasks that usually come naturally seem alien to us. It remains crucial to tend to yourself—your body and mind—even if it might be extremely difficult to do so. Ensuring that you get even the tiniest bit of food, sleep, and routine will help set things in motion. With time, a few weeks per se, slowly, slowly, these symptoms start lessening in recurrence, paving the way toward the continuation of the grieving process.
“What if I could have been there?” “If I insisted more on therapy, maybe she would have agreed this time.” “I can’t believe I didn’t see the signs!” “What if I did not say those last words—I was just trying to be there for her.” “I’m just exhausted…I can’t believe she did this! Did she not think of everything she’d be leaving me with? How can I do this all on my own?”
The “what ifs,” the “if onlys,” the “I should haves,” and the “I could haves” are just a few of the mind-boggling flurry of thoughts bereaved individuals go through trying to better understand and make sense of what has occurred. These thoughts, unfortunately, lead to more unanswered questions, which inadvertently create more chaos in one’s mind—more pain, more misery—and introduce feelings of anger, guilt, and rejection. Anger toward the self and the person who has passed away, guilt toward the self-reflections of not having done enough, and rejection by the loved one who’s passed, possibly for your relationship, your bond not being good enough. Our brain is easily susceptible to negative thoughts, and when in a state of emotional turmoil, it is much easier to experience a sort of rabbit hole of similar intrusive thoughts and emotions. Within seconds of experiencing just one thought, others automatically populate. A hyper-focus occurs to find all the wrongs that one might have committed. It is important to know that a large portion of our thoughts are typically not accurate, and individuals experiencing imminent suicidal ideations may not show or say anything that ensues contemplation of a plan or warning signs. Many individuals experiencing such thoughts battle long-term mental illnesses, which may be kept silently hidden from the rest of the world. Though we may be present for our loved ones, available to speak with them at a time when they are down, we are unfortunately unable to be there every second of every day or to read their minds and control their actions and behaviors; we can only be present with open arms, in hopes they’ll reach out and communicate. You are not at fault; you are not to blame. In moments of weakness, recant or journal the “I dids” and efforts made to support and be there for that loved one. Make sure to note the small acts and larger moments. This will allow you to read through and bring forth evidence needed to put those thoughts at bay. The more you read it, the more you remind yourself of your actions and the more you believe that you did not cause this.
Then come the moments of loneliness and shame and their complex relationship of inadvertently impacting one another. Our world nowadays is still struggling to speak up about general topics surrounding mental illness. When adding suicide to the mix, an eerie and awkward silence exudes. Thus, when friends, extended family, and possibly the community find about a loss related to suicide, a ripple effect of behaviors occurs, and a distance between the direct population and the person in need of emotional and physical support appears as a byproduct. Individuals find great difficulty in the ways of behaving and providing support to survivors of suicide, and as such, in order “not to bother” those grieving, they distance themselves from the whole situation, leaving the bereaved not only isolated and alone but experiencing a whole new set of challenges related to the stigma associated with suicide. This is an unfair burden set upon such survivors, and unfortunately the need to tackle and put an end to this taboo subject starts with them.
A lot of people think that if we talk about suicide to an individual expressing such ideations, it might unintentionally cause them to take next steps. That. Is. Not. True. Talking about the mental struggles that might lead to experiencing suicidal thoughts, ideations, and self-harming behaviors does not lead to suicide but rather normalizes and validates the life difficulties individuals have been experiencing and possibly opens the doors to seeking the right support through self-expression, therapy, established self-care strategies, as well as a strong support system. Talk about it; share your story as a person who is bereaved by suicide. Start with close friends and family that have been there for you during this difficult time. If you are not ready, then there is no rush; process your emotions, grieve at your own pace, and then talk about it or write about it. Allowing yourself that space and time to grieve, to research and educate yourself on this topic, gives you more insight, more process time to make potential peace with the loss and start moving on. Educating yourself will bring awareness to not only you but to others. As you become more comfortable talking about your experience, others will open up as well. Starting with knowing what words to use when talking about suicide can be enough. Who knows, you might find your voice writing a blog about your experience, delving into expression through art, opening a support group, or raising awareness. What works for you is what matters most.
Though they do have their differences, grieving the passing of a loved one due to age, illness, or other causes and grieving the loss of a friend or family member to suicide do have some commonalities. There is no manual to the grieving process; there is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss experienced. The journey through grief is no straight road, and the experience can be emotionally and physically taxing. There will be days where you will wake up feeling life has gone back to normal and then others where you might experience feelings of despair or a pang of longingness for your loved one. There will also be self-defeating thoughts and “what ifs” that appear along the way. At times, you might even feel anger, loneliness, and longing for them all at the same time. This can and will be confusing; do not give up. Allow this process to occur; express and acknowledge the emotions you experience, as this is your mind and body’s way of informing you they are reacting to the loss and preparing for what it means to continue life without your loved one. In moments such as these, ensure you have a support system in place to vent to or check in on you during those tough times.
There will be days, especially right at the beginning, where doing daily chores might feel impossible; reach out to these friends and ask them to help during this period of time. In moments where you feel you might not be ready to talk to your close circle, but are ready to discuss your experience with others, seek out support through groups of individuals who have experienced what you’re going through. Sometimes our own experience might be difficult for others who haven’t gone through it to understand, and that’s completely normal. Instead, reach out to the community—you’ll be surprised to find many support groups for survivors bereaved by suicide. If support groups aren’t your thing, consider individual or group therapy and possibly journaling as a mode of self-expression.
Routine has a huge way of keeping us on track, a sort of “work-life balance” per se. When news hits of the loss of the loved one, no matter what, that routine will go out the door. It’s important to give yourself that opportunity to put the routine on pause but bring it back in slowly to help go back to a sense of normalcy. Try to get back to doing small things you used to enjoy, be it things you used to enjoy doing on your own or with your loved one. Self-care is crucial to the grieving process; pace it out in a healthy way. Cook, bake, go to the gym, play your favorite sport, go to your favorite café, play a musical instrument, journal, draw, paint, or even watch a scary movie—work with what works best for you.
Celebrations and special occasions might stir up a lot of emotions; allow yourself to feel these emotions and guide you to what you would like to do or not do. If it might be too painful right at the beginning, consider putting a pause on such celebrations. These also do not necessarily need to be celebrations as well. Sometimes, you might find yourself searching for that loved one in places you used to frequent together or avoiding those places altogether due to overwhelming emotions. When you are ready, you might want to look back on these places and occasions and create new ways of commemorating or celebrating these moments. Their final act should not be how you define or remember them by, nor should it be how you define your future. Remember the good memories, the joyous ones, even the tiniest ones.
If you experience extended feelings of despair and longing for your loved one as though years have passed and the grief is still as it was when you first found out of their passing; if waking up in the morning is causing significant hardship, and doing daily tasks such as bathing, eating, sleeping, and going to work seem extremely difficult to fathom; or if you feel extreme longing to join your loved one or start experiencing thoughts of suicide yourself, consider seeking urgent support through your general practitioner. You can also seek out psychotherapy and group support, or contact your local emotional support helpline. If anything, reach out to a close friend to discuss your thoughts and ask for support. You are not alone.
With time, patience, support, and self-care, the ups and downs of this tumultuous grief will diminish, but the grief itself will always be there; it will just be a different version, one you have adjusted to and molded into your everyday life. If you find yourself at that stage, which I hope you will, then consider this; write yourself a letter, a goodbye or thank you letter, expressing how you felt and how you feel right now and how they made you feel and how that’s changed now. Write it all down—your thoughts, your emotions, and the acceptance and self-compassion you have had to give yourself through this journey. You might experience some emotions, thoughts, and memories; allow them to happen. Once you are ready, close that letter and tuck it away for any time you want to go back to it, it’ll be right there—a reminder of your resilience and the grief you have overcome.