Eight months after her son Amory took his own life, Kathy became my grief counseling client. Grief can be overwhelming no matter the cause of death, but navigating loss in the aftermath of suicide can be particularly complex. Survivors of suicide loss experience the same painful emotions as others who grieve the loss of a loved one, but additionally have to cope with messy, complicated and often overwhelming emotions such as shame, guilt, self-blame, shock, disbelief, and anger. Knowing Kathy reiterated for me that even the most self-aware, courageous and resilient among us can struggle to find healing and a path forward when a loved one dies by suicide.
Traveling the Road to Healing
Grief-processing requires that we move toward what was lost in order to get through - no matter how painful. This can be especially challenging when trauma is present, and social and cultural stigmas are associated with a death, as they are when a loved one dies by suicide.
Healing in the context of grief and loss means that we are able to feel within ourselves a qualitative or subjective change in the midst of pain and suffering, even when that pain and suffering are not fully removed; making this inner shift can also be especially challenging due to the emotional turmoil that often accompanies a loss by suicide.
As a grief support specialist I often share psychologist J. William Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning with my clients as a way to provide a general framework for understanding how grief is processed and healing occurs. The tasks unfold in no specific order and it is not uncommon to go back and forth from one task to another until over time the intensity and complexity of grief is healed. Worden’s four tasks of mourning and grief-processing are:
Task One: To accept the reality of loss.
Task Two: To process or work through the complexity and pain of grief.
Task Three: To adjust to an environment or world in which the deceased is missing/absent.
Task Four: To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life.
It may seem like a strange concept but traveling these steps can be thought of as a form of self-care – a way to attend to the needs of your feelings, thoughts, physical body and spirit. Through self-care we can find greater inner ease in all aspects of our being; opening to greater inner ease helps us to navigate whatever is required to heal. The below are coping strategies that can help survivors of suicide loss grieve and find a path toward healing.
Support Is Imperative
For survivors of suicide loss, accepting help from others is imperative in easing feelings of isolation, as well as in learning to accept the reality of loss, and process or work through the complexity and pain of grief. Support can mean:
Professional grief support. A grief support specialist can help you: work through shock and trauma; learn coping and stress resilience strategies that work best for you; provide a safe nonjudgmental space to voice uncomfortable or difficult emotions; work through unfinished business and forgiveness issues; cope with the reactions of family members and friends; gain a better understanding of any mental or emotional health issues that your loved one may have been dealing with; find a way to move forward with your grief.
Joining a group for survivors. Connecting with others who have been through the same sort of loss and can understand the complexity of what you are going through can be of benefit and a source of comfort after a loved one dies by suicide.
Drawing on existing support systems which may include your family members, friends, and people of your faith community. There is no “should” (“he/she should help me at this time!”) when it comes to receiving support from your existing support system. Connect with people you know to be particularly caring, nonjudgmental and compassionate.
Acknowledge and Accept Difficult Emotions
Grief feels so uncomfortable because it has a profound effect on the body causing the functioning of your immune, hormonal and nervous systems to become depleted which then affects executive brain functioning. Depletion is driven by emotional processing. Losing a loved one to suicide can heighten the intensity of emotions felt during the initial mourning period, including emotions you might find bewildering or beyond what you usually feel or think you should feel, such as:
Shock: shock, numbness or a sense of inner frozenness is a common initial response, often based in trauma.
Anger: anger at yourself for not seeing “warning signs” and/or anger at your loved one for taking their own life.
Confusion: confusion can flow from trying to answer unanswerable questions.
Guilt: guilt is a form of self-blame connected to a sense of “I should have done something to prevent this.”
Shame: shame that someone you love could do something you consider unimaginable is not uncommon, especially in regards to explaining to others how your loved one died.
Despair: a sense of sadness that impairs functioning, as well as feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, are all aspects of despair.
Depression: grief and depression are not the same thing but can look similar – both can be expressed as crying, difficulty sleeping, lack of appetite, or inertia. The difference is that grief is a deep sorrow or response to loss felt as waves of emotions; depression can be experienced as a profound sense of emotional disconnect. If depression is present, professional help in the grieving process is optimal.
During the grieving process it is important to know that there are no good or bad, right or wrong emotions – all of your emotions are informative letting you know that you are trying to work through the complexity and pain of grief and also that self-care is needed. If you have difficulty acknowledging, accepting and processing difficult emotions a grief professional can help you find and learn coping skills that are right for you. Coping skills do not have to be complicated to learn or do – simple breathing techniques that can be done when waves of grief arise can help you find relief from the physical, mental and emotional discomfort of grief.
Complicated grief can be defined as an unresolved ongoing heightened state of mourning that inhibits grief processing and keeps you from healing. The pain of grief usually begins to ease over time, allowing you to move forward with life even as you continue to grieve. If emotions of intense grief persist or worsen or do not improve during the year following the death of your loved one complicated grief may be present. Survivors of suicide loss can be at increased risk for developing complicated grief, increasing the need for professional support.
Dealing With the Stigma of Suicide
My friend Joe once said of his father’s death by suicide: “If you want to clear a room, mention suicide. You’ll not only clear the room, but those who remain in the room you’ve now identified as your potential go-to people when you need to talk.”
There is a social stigma associated with suicide. The stigma arises from a general societal discomfort with issues that have to do with mental health, religious or cultural value judgments placed on someone who takes their own life as well as judgments placed on you because your loved one took his/her own life, and not knowing how to talk about isolating subjects.
The reactions of other people to your loved one’s death can compound feelings of grief, loss and isolation. Support from a grief professional, or from those who - as Joe puts it - “remain in the room” can be vital in relieving yourself of carrying the unfair burden of other people’s emotional reactions.
When the death of a loved one is anticipated or uncomplicated by the shock and trauma that can follow in the wake of suicide, finding an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life connotes that healing is in process or present. That continuing bond or connection can be made more difficult - and take longer - to establish when a loved one dies by suicide. But it is possible. And it can aid in the healing process.
The way an enduring connection or bond is expressed is unique to each griever. Some people talk to their deceased loved one. Others engage in activities they know their loved one valued. As a way of processing and healing grief, my client Kathy compiled, edited and published a selection of her son Amory’s haiku poetry and photographs* called Blue Hour; in the book’s introduction she calls the grief project “a way of keeping the memory of my son alive and carrying on my relationship with him.” In other words it was a way of keeping alive her son’s essence, his spirit - the thing she wanted and needed to remember most in order to embark on a new life.
Resources for Suicide Loss Survivors
Resources can be found in the Find Support section of this website.
Life after Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort, and Community after Unthinkable Loss by Dr. Jennifer Ashton
Blue Hour: Haiku and Photographs by Amory Hayden Tarr compiled and edited by Kathy Allen (see the Book Review section of this website.)
Grief and God by Dr. Terri Daniel
It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention