Suicide bereavement can feel very different to other types of grief, as you struggle with a range of emotions. Here, grief counsellor Lianna Champ shares her advice
A suicide can leave behind a particularly devastating kaleidoscope of pain, which is complicated and can be long-lasting. It can become so hard to separate the fact of the death from the actual circumstances in which it happened, and the shock and disbelief are sometimes too much to bear. The edges become blurred and grief becomes enmeshed with trauma.
That we can be left with no answers and a huge ‘why?’, can leave us feeling shame and guilt at not seeing the signs and we can feel stuck in a torturous loop of self-doubt and questioning. We can become pre-occupied with missed opportunities and wanting to turn back time so that we could have said or done something to prevent the outcome. We are also robbed of the opportunity to help and losing someone to suicide can make us feel that we have personally failed them.
How do I cope with this grief, and accept what has happened, so I can start processing the pain?
When someone experiences a death through suicide, their challenges become two-fold – firstly, they must cope with the distress of the lost relationship and they must also cope with the trauma of the manner of the death. We always want to protect the ones we love and, when we can’t, we can find ourselves continually taking the blame and drowning ourselves in guilt.
Following the shock of suicide, our self-talk is vital to our recovery.
Constantly asking ‘why’, ‘what if’, or, “why didn’t I…”, can increase feelings of failure, shame, and guilt. We can only work on our half of any relationship, so try to focus on the things you did in a positive way. Instead of asking, “Was I kind enough?” Ask yourself, “Was I kind?” Following a suicide, we can all berate ourselves into believing we should have done more, or even that we could have prevented the suicide.
It can be a great support to reach out to others who have suffered a similar loss and to hear other people’s experiences of suicide. This can help to reduce feelings of isolation.
Be honest about how you feel. Take time to feel whatever it is you are feeling. Let the pain of loss wash over you.
Dealing with shame and guilt
The truth is, we can never really know what someone else is thinking. If we believe that we could have prevented the suicide, and we keep re-writing different outcomes, we create barriers to moving forward and will struggle to accept what has happened.
The guilt following a suicide can be all-consuming. This means that you need to have a really in-depth and very honest look at what might be making you feel guilty and is holding you in a place of pain. We must be totally honest with ourselves when carrying out this exercise. By breaking down the relationship, we can identify the things that we wish we could have changed – but we also need to learn the difference between guilt and regret.
Guilt holds you in a place of pain. Guilt follows deliberate wrongdoing, an action, or words that we know was not the right thing to do or say at that particular time. Regret is a wish that something could have been said or done in a better way than it had been, had we known what was going to happen. If we had known the outcome we would have acted differently, instead, we acted in innocence.
By letting misplaced guilt go, we are allowing ourselves to grieve in a healthy manner.
Writing down how we feel about the relationship can identify areas where we are stuck. This in itself can be a most healing exercise as just realising something can be a cure in itself.
Suicide is the harshest answer to any kind of problem. There should be no judgement against the person who has died or against yourself. The truth is that often there are no signs and we have to accept the things that are out of our control and make a concerted effort to make a difference in the areas that we can.
How to ask for help
When others know the circumstances of the death, they may feel uncertain about how to offer help. Even in the best of times, we find it difficult to ask for help – but the longer we grieve the more difficult we may find it to ask. We may not want to burden others, or may worry what they will think of us, or maybe we fear that we are asking too much. We may be afraid of being judged because of the stigma surrounding suicide.
But asking for help does not mean that you are losing control, neither is it a sign of weakness. There is no rule book for grief. Most of the time people love helping others, as long as they don’t already have more responsibility than they can cope with. Just think of a time someone asked you for help and how it made you feel when you were able to make a difference. So maybe we just aren’t used to reaching out and asking for support, or we simply don’t know what support to ask for because we have never needed it before. Reaching out to others and sharing our emotions can positively affect how well we cope.
Whether you need emotional support or practical help, decide who you feel most comfortable asking. Be honest with them about how you are feeling and what you need. People who care about you will always want to help you, but sometimes it is up to you to start the conversation.
How can I help someone who has lost a loved one to suicide?
Don’t avoid people because you don’t know what to say or do. Most want, and need, to talk about their relationship with the person who has died, and share their feelings around the loss.
Be patient. Accept whatever reaction they show. Grief has many expressions. Please do not judge. Just be there with open, loving acceptance. You don’t need to lead them through their grief or take it away, just accept the changes and emotions it brings. Above all, listen.
Be practical. Don’t ask if they need something doing. Just do it and make a commitment to see it through. Help them make a list of things they may need help with and allocate duties to relatives and friends. There is something very healing about helping others in times of need.
When they withdraw, don’t try and force change. Grief can be silent too. Grief changes in intensity minute by minute. If you feel that there is too much withdrawal, it maybe time to find a professional who can help to unravel their thoughts and provide some hope.
Be aware of the difficulty of approaching birthdays and the anniversary of death – don’t just be there in the early days and disappear when it looks as if life has returned to normal. It hasn’t. Keep in touch, keep talking, and keep sharing.
Why is it good to talk about death and thoughts of suicide?
If someone feels that they can talk to you about anything and come away from you with their self-esteem intact, and feel that they have had a confidential sounding board, this can go a long way in being an outlet when things become challenging for them.
It is said ‘a worry shared is a worry halved’, yet it can feel so awkward to start a conversation around the things that really affect us on a deep emotional level. We seem to be terrified of the very thought and this can stem from years of withholding our innermost feelings. But it is only by talking about our fears and thoughts surrounding death and suicide can we begin to unravel what has taken us to that point. The power of spoken words can release so much pressure. We need to speak and put our pain into words. It’s one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves. By being open and honest with others, we allow them to be open and honest with us.
Don’t debate whether something is right or wrong or whether feelings are good or bad. Always be honest and direct with your words. Use no platitudes. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide and above all, be non-judgmental and try not to lecture on the value of life.
Sudden death can give us an understanding of the miraculous gift of life
Although we can’t always control how or when we die, we can control how we live. By making good and correct choices we can live in such a way that if or when our lives are impacted by a sudden and traumatic loss, we are working from a stronger position to absorb the shock and find a sense of balance. Through grief, we learn the importance of giving expression to our pain. If we don’t, we run the risk of filling ourselves up with unresolved grief and end up living half a life.
Therefore we must use what we have learned about grief in a positive way. Being honest, not just with ourselves but with everyone we share our lives with. This will enrich how we interact with others and give greater depth and meaning to our relationships.
Where can I go for support?
If you are affected by suicide, it is vital that you share your thoughts with someone you trust. Talking to the right person can help with the isolation of suicide grief. Yes, it’s good to talk but it is also important to have the right ‘ears’ around you. People you feel safe with, who won’t judge you or criticise you. A lot of our grief is tied up with fear because we don’t understand suicide and can be seriously affected by the violence of it.
Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of practical guide, ‘How to Grieve Like A Champ’
If you need support and wish to connect with a counsellor, search for professionals using counselling-directory.org.uk