How to cope with the suicide of a loved-one

Following the tragedy of Robin Williiam's death from suicide, I was struck to hear how many people were affected by his death.  Clients, who I was seeing for depression, told me how they thought maybe suicide was a good idea and they seemed to be considering it more seriously since the comedian's death.  While, it is not uncommon for those who have or are suffering from depression or loss, to have thoughts of suicide; It usually passes with time and stays just a thought.  For those who are seriously considering suicide, I hope they get the help they need and also it may be important to understand the devastating repercussions that suicide impacts on those who are left behind.

Violent death, such as suicide, is sudden, unexpected, and creates shock and devastation in the survivors.  The prevalence of complicated grief among those bereaved by a violent death is 12.5% - 78.0.  Loss is always difficult to deal with, but when the loss is sudden or unexpected, frightening, or the result of a suicide, grief can become more complicated and overwhelming. Posttraumatic stress disorder has been known to occur in some cases.   Other factors also play a role.  A person's experience of mental illness, lack of personal and social supports, and difficult personal relationships can also affect the impact of grief.  Grief counselling is sometimes necessary when the grief is a complicated one.

In addition to the normal emotions of grieving, survivors feel shock, guilt and responsibility.  The nature of a suicide loss is that it can sometimes but not always be prevented.  Loved ones who die this way sometimes keep secrets about how badly they were feeling and some never fully understood the depression they suffered.  Survivors can become obsessed with all the ways they might have prevented this act.

The healing process comes in waves and like everything with every process, there are the ups and downs.  Survivors describe the overwhelming feelings of deep sorrow and pain that come upon them suddenly.  The trigger could be anything; a movie, a birthday, seeing a mother and daughter together, a restaurant where they would eat together, a piece of clothing, a picture etc.

Deep sorrow exists about the fact that loved-ones are gone and with no more chances for closure or reconciliation.  This can be very difficult to move through.  Encouragement for rest, taking a break from normal responsibilities, having a support system and good self- care is important.

Each person has their own way to grieve, there is no correct way or accepted timetable for the grieving process though there are some common stages survivors may move through.  Family friends and member with the best of intentions, can often say the wrong thing.  Telling them they will meet someone new, or they can have another child is not being helpful.  The survivor will often feel as though their loss is being minimized and trivialized.  No one can replace the loved-one who is gone.

If friends and family members don't know what to say, just offer your sympathy and tell them how sorry you are for their loss.  Also it may be helpful to ask what you can do to help.

Part of the healing process is having a safe place to talk about the isolation and sorrow that come with it.  Sometimes the survivors aren't comfortable talking to family or friends because they don't want to feel like a burden and are afraid they will be told that "it is time to get over it".  That's when it may be beneficial to speak with a professional with experience in this area.

While support groups can be very helpful and validating, not everyone is ready to join a support group soon after the death.  Many feel they need privacy and a one-on-one relationship to discuss their particular situation and grief.

Here are the stages that most survivors go through.

  1. Shock – Often survivors' initial reaction is shock and disbelief.  Denial is a common defense mechanism to buffer the traumatic events that overwhelms the coping mechanism.  Gradually, recognition and acceptance that the event is real sets in, though for some, shock is experienced repeatedly as the survivor revolves back and forth between recognition and denial.
  2. Anger – Many survivors feel angry at the beloved one who has committed suicide for leaving them and for the emotional pain inflicted by their death.  Understanding that anger is a normal and acceptable reaction can help survivors avoid self-blame and depression.
  3. Guilt – Guilt can be one of the most difficult emotions associated with a loved one's suicide.  Survivors may blame themselves for not recognizing warning signs, not providing the person with the help and support they needed or not having taken steps to prevent the suicide.  Experts stress that it is important to recognize that you are not responsible for the person's actions.
  4. Depression.   Intense sadness and depression often follow the death of a loved one.  The stigma and misconceptions associated with suicide can prevent the survivor from seeking needed support.  Studies have shown survivors to be more prone to depression that those not affected by a suicide which places them at a greater risk of suicide themselves.  Survivors are also more prone to "complicated grief" in which the normal grieving process becomes more debilitating, long lasting and severe.  Finding meaning or purpose in the life of the loved one and the grieving process can help survivors make sense of the trauma and work through depression.

For those still considering suicide, please get help and please know that if you have children, experts have found research to prove that they are much more likely to commit suicide themselves if their parent has committed suicide,  for they believe that if they weren't important enough for you to stay, than why should they? – Something I hope you will consider.

For those survivors, I found this poem that I hope will help with the healing process.

I thought I would miss you so, and never find my way
And then I heard the angel say, "She's with you every day."
"The sun, the moon, the wind, the stars, will forever be around,
Reminding you of the love you shared, and the peace she's finally found?


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