What are the emotions of suicide grief?
By Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D.
To lose someone to suicide is complex and confusing. It’s unique from other ways people die because someone ended his or her own life. They made a choice and that leaves those of us left behind wondering if there is something we could have done to change that choice. Often, there were mental health issues involved that also could have included substance abuse. There is not one factor that goes into a suicide death. Each of the stories that follow this chapter describes the unique aspects of the losses although there also are parallels that run through all of them.
Our reactions to suicide loss begin with our view and attitude of suicide. If we were raised to believe it is a sin (culturally and/or through religion) or a crime, we often still feel that stigma. And we feel fear that we don’t know where our loved one went after he or she died or what will become of us because we fear telling anyone what happened. Or if our loved one coped with a mental illness, we might believe the suicide was inevitable. Many of the emotions we feel can be traced back to our past experiences of death and suicide (Do we have any? What have they been like?). Even death is a taboo in many families and to top it with suicide makes people more uncomfortable.
Who we are and what’s going on in our lives when the person dies also affects how we grieve. We could be going through some difficult circumstances in our lives, but we also might be experiencing happy events (like a new marriage, new job, or the birth of a child) and the loss tempers them. What was our relationship with the person who died? Were we close to them? Had we shared a history with them? There are many factors to sort through during the processing of a loss and what it means in our lives.
The emotions of suicide grief are endless. By trying to include them all, we inevitably would forget some of them. Instead, here are some of the major ones that people often experience:
It’s very common for survivors to feel guilty after a suicide death, where people wonder what else they could have done, or what could have made the outcome different. The reality is that, although we believe we might think it would have been different if we had done things another way, there’s no way of knowing that. Guilt is an emotion that sometimes overwhelms people, but it’s one that needs processing to let go and realize we did all we could to help them.
Coping with Guilt
"I keep feeling guilty that I didn't help enough....what can I do now? The guilt is eating me alive."
Know guilt is a common feeling after a suicide death. What helped me with my guilt was talking to other family members and friends who lost a loved one from a suicide death. Talking about my feelings of guilt helped me to understand where the feeling is in the grieving process.
By Janet Schnell MSW, survivor, former Suicide Prevention Action Network USA board member
One significant place on the suicide journey is the asking of the Why? question. This can go on for some time as we try to place all the puzzle pieces together after a loved one has died. The reality is that the person who died often took some (or most) of the pieces with them, and we never will truly know why they ended their lives. But it’s important that we ask ourselves this question as it is part of traveling on the road of suicide grief.
While not usually discussed, sometimes there is relief when a loved one has ended his or her life. If the person were severely mentally ill or struggled with everyday life, some families feel relieved that they don’t have to worry about a loved one anymore. But with the relief comes guilt for feeling relieved that they have ended their lives. Know that relief is common and it doesn’t make you miss your loved one any less if you feel that way.
What is there not to be angry about? A loved one has left us. We feel hurt and that manifests itself into anger. As human beings, we have a tendency to look for someone and/or something to blame. We usually do this in our anger because we’re trying to make sense of what has happened. We are trying to understand why our loved one has left us. Often though, our anger and blame are misdirected and hurt the people we care about the most. It’s okay to feel angry about the choice your loved one made to end his or her life.
Coping with Anger
"What a mess was left behind for me to clean up.....that makes me so angry."
Anger is such an integral part of the grief process. It comes at all stages in different doses. Anger is fear: we are fearful when we are left alone to clean up the "mess" that we so often have to do. Anger at the person who died, anger at ourselves for not detecting it, anger at others for various reasons. It is an emotion to be dealt with as are the others: shock, denial, bargaining, and acceptance. It is okay to be angry at someone who has forevermore disrupted our lives...and we had no vote in the final decision.
By Stephanie Weber, Executive Director, Suicide Prevention Services of America, survivor of her mother’s suicide
Sadness is a fundamental part of grief. We feel sad that our loved one has chosen to end his or her life and is no longer with us. Sadness is a very common emotion of any grief journey because we must acknowledge that we don’t have our loved one with us anymore.
In suicide grief, abandonment also can be a very common emotion. We feel like our loved one left us and didn’t consult us. We might feel that to be left in this world without them (because they were so important to us) is painful and difficult.
Suicide grief is lonely. We all have to travel our own roads, even when we are part of a family or have many connections in our lives. We also feel lonely because someone significant to us is gone. And we feel lonely because often we don’t have any to share the road with us. Our family members might not be in the same emotional place we are, our friends might not understand, and/or we just aren’t sure how we can connect with others who have been through something like we have.
The Holistic Self
As human beings, we have a tendency to see ourselves in pieces. We forget that our body, mind, and all the other aspects of us work together. When we grieve the loss of a loved one, particularly after a suicide, we feel it emotionally. We can’t stop crying. We don’t understand. We feel confused. But we also feel tired and exhausted.
Grief is hard work and we must process it in the many pieces that make us holistic beings. Often we talk about how we emotionally cope with grief, but it’s much more than that. We also must be aware of ourselves physically to keep from getting sick as we travel our grief journey. It’s important to eat balanced meals, and try to get sufficient sleep and exercise. It can feel overwhelming to think about these things when we feel like our world is crashing down, but it also can give us a much-needed focus.
And we should nurture our spiritual selves. Again, this can be like a burdensome task especially because we might be angry with God or our Higher Power. We might doubt that anyone exists beyond the here and now where we live. But asking these questions is part of the grief journey, especially after suicide when a loved one has ended his or her life. The questions feel larger, more difficult to answer. By reaching out spiritually we are allowing ourselves to find help and hope in ways we might not have thought of before.
We often discount the importance of routine in our lives. When we have a suicide loss, it throws life as we know it out the window. We don’t realize how much we miss our routine until it has been stripped away. We are creatures of habit and often we complain about our routines, about the seemingly flatness of daily life, because we are looking forward to the “big” parts of life– the holidays, the vacations. We forget that life is really about savoring the simple aspects and when our loved one dies, we often feel like we missed out on something.
In this confusing and often lonely journey we call suicide grief, there is one aspect that sustains us and guides us, although much of the time it feels hidden from us. Hope. It is hope that keeps us forging forward. Hope helps us to know deep down somewhere inside of us we will one day feel good again. What we each define as hope will vary among us, but the most important part is that we all know it is there. Hope is what life ultimately is about.
For some of us, there is hope that we will see our loved one again in another life, for others it’s feeling the presence of our loved one in some way in our life. And yet for others it’s the sense that we will find purpose in our lives again.
To have hope in our lives, we also have smaller symbols of hope that sustain us in times of sadness and difficulty. This symbol can be as basic as the sun rising in the morning. There is hope in seeing the sun come up, in seeing a new day with a clean slate. While some people might find dread in a new day, the ultimate comfort is knowing that we have a chance to have another opportunity at a new day. Other symbols of hope in our lives can be children, pets, material objects– whatever is important to us in our lives that we grasp when we are in pain and need something to give us relief. For some people, reaching out to others through suicide prevention advocacy, helping people grieve a suicide loss, or in another helpful manner is a way to find hope again.
The grief journey we must travel after suicide often is treacherous because we aren’t sure what to expect. Life never prepares us for the kind of grief (and the reactions that tumble after it) that suicide loss brings. We also don’t realize that we don’t have to travel it alone. There are many other people out there who are going through a similar journey (or are much further along on the road) and would welcome some company or a chance to help us. Ultimately, we must find our own way and our own hope and peace, but it’s there waiting for us to discover it.