Grief After Suicide Loss

By Jill Lehman 

Grief after suicide is always complex. In addition to the characteristics found with other types of loss, suicide loss carries an additional set of burdens. In my experience, the grief that survivors experience is more complicated, more difficult, and more intense than the grief of clients coping with other types of loss. The consequences for those left behind are far-reaching and profound.

I'd like to share some insights I've gleaned in my work with suicide survivors. By understanding some of the unique characteristics of this devastating event, you can be better prepared to support a survivor as they struggle with the aftermath of a loved one's suicide.

Discovering or Witnessing the Death

For many survivors, the initial trauma of suicide begins when they discover their loved one's body. Survivors experience a "living nightmare" when confronted with the death scene. Death by suicide is always traumatic, but it is also frequently violent and bloody. Bodies of loved ones may be found hanging or drowned. Blood and other body material may be found on the carpet, the furniture, the walls or the ceiling. Bodies may still be warm, or stiff with rigor mortis. In the worst case, survivors may have even witnessed the moment of death itself.

Those who witness these terrifying events first feel disconnected from reality, followed by overwhelming fear and anxiety. Survivors never fully forget the sights, smells, and sounds of their loved one's suicide scene. In many cases, those who discover or witness a suicide may later exhibit signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If a survivor is showing signs of PTSD or related problems, you can help by urging them to seek professional counseling as soon as possible. Many mental health professionals have specialized training in complicated grief, PTSD, and related disorders.

Potential Investigation by Law Enforcement

In most cases of suicide, law enforcement will play a role. There may be an investigation into the circumstances leading up to the suicide. For example, if a weapon was used, the police may want to determine if the weapon was obtained illegally. If the position of the body and/or weapon is deemed suspicious, there may be a homicide investigation as well.

After an investigation is complete, survivors may have to pick up the weapon that the decedent used from the police department. Finally, the spouse or next of kin will receive an autopsy report approximately one month after the suicide. The report will contain detailed descriptions of the suicide scene, including the condition of all body parts.

There are many ways you can help survivors in these situations. You can offer to accompany survivors to the police department. Having a trusted companion on these trips can be a huge relief to those in need. You can also arrange to pick up mail or answer calls for survivors and pass on the information when the time is right.

Potential Media Coverage

Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death, a suicide may make the evening news. Survivors may be inundated by phone calls from neighbors, coworkers, friends, and acquaintances who heard of the death via television or radio. Most survivors have trouble even putting sentences together after such a traumatic event. This tremendous violation of privacy only adds to a survivor's sense of confusion and disorientation, often prompting a reaction to withdraw. As a result, survivors often isolate themselves from many potential sources of support.

Media reports on suicide can also be a source of misinformation. For example, some media outlets may discover a recent loss of a job, or a relationship, and quickly attribute the suicide to these factors. When the media sensationalizes a suicide, they miss an opportunity to educate the public about the underlying factors of suicide, such as depression or mental illness. In some cases, such coverage can even act as a catalyst for "copycat" suicides.

If you have the strength and presence of mind to do so, you can volunteer to act as a liaison between the media and the survivors. This can remove a huge weight from the shoulders of the survivors, allowing them some privacy and a means to begin processing their grief.

Lack of Support

Suicide strains nearly all relationships and erodes the capacity to trust. Within families, there is a tendency to scapegoat one or more members. Outside the family, social relationships deteriorate quickly under the weight of the suicide.

It is during these times that your support can have a profound, positive influence on the life of a suicide survivor. Any support will help make the burden a little easier and will be remembered long afterward.


The stigma of suicide continues to persist. Survivors worry about how others will perceive them. Some survivors fear they might be viewed as "defective" or in some way responsible for the suicide.

Remind survivors that no one is the sole influence in another person's life. We cannot control what others choose to do with their lives, even those closest to us. When the decedent chose to take their life, it was their decision alone.

The Emotional Turmoil of Survivors

There is no way to adequately prepare for a loved one's suicide. The grief itself is intense, and the healing process is slow. Survivors feel a variety of emotions, including shock, denial, anger, blame, sadness, and guilt. Some may even feel a sense of relief, particularly if the suicide followed a long and difficult mental illness.

It is very common for survivors to feel overwhelming despair that their loved one could find no acceptable solution other than death. Survivors also feel worthless, because the decedent "didn't think enough of them" to stay alive; survivors feel that whatever they had together with the decedent was, in a sense, meaningless. This further leads to a feeling of being rejected and abandoned by the decedent.

Almost all survivors are left with a legacy of unreasonable guilt. They ruminate on the days and weeks before the suicide, replaying events over and over to try to figure out what they did "wrong". Survivors blame themselves for not being able to anticipate and/or prevent the suicide. As a result, survivors feel like failures, with high levels of shame, guilt, blame and responsibility.

Ultimately, survivors are haunted by the question of "Why?" Even when the decedent leaves "clues", survivors will continue to search for answers. No matter how long and hard they search, there will always be unanswered questions.

Helping Survivors Heal

Remember that you cannot "fix" the problem. Sometimes, the most important thing you can do is just be present for survivors while they grapple with their emotions. Here are some additional tips for helping survivors heal through this tremendous loss:

Refrain from judgment; try to listen with an open heart. This is more difficult than it sounds. You may have strong feelings of your own that are in opposition to the survivor's. If you find yourself becoming angry, resentful, and/or judgmental, take care of yourself by removing yourself from the situation.

Allow grief to unfold naturally at its own pace. An individual's grief is just that - individual. The tendency in American culture to rush people through their grief is unhealthy and can lead to further difficulties down the road.

Respect survivors' need to tell and re-tell the story of their loss. This is a natural response to loss and a way for survivors to process through their grief.

Expect strong emotions. Powerful emotions will occur and will lessen in time. The best way to handle strong affect is to remain calm and grounded. If personal safety becomes an issue, remove yourself from the situation and call for additional help.

Gently suggest support groups and/or professional counseling. If possible, obtain literature from agencies and/or support groups in the survivor's area to give to survivors when appropriate.

Respect your limits. Helping others through grief can be a slow, emotionally draining process. Take time for self-care and to recharge yourself so you can be there for others when they really need you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jill Lehman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Lafayette, California. She specializes in Grief and Bereavement, providing psychotherapy and grief counseling to individuals, couples, and families. She welcomes your comments and can be reached at 

(c) Copyright - Jill Lehman

Article Source: Grief After Suicide Loss

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