Coping with Suicide Loss
By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | June 15, 2018
Co-authored by Dr. Rochelle Perper and Dr. Francine Martinez
“So ask me if I am alright.
‘I’m fine; I’m always fine.’
You see this look in my eyes.
‘No, I’m fine. I am always fine.’
There is a corpse behind my smile.
‘Listen, I am fine. Always, always fine as fine can be.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘I am more than okay. I am more than fine. I am wonderful!”
― Emma Rose Kraus, A Blue One
The recent public deaths of two well-known persons has propelled the topic of suicide into the forefront of our minds; screaming to be heard and discussed as an issue of immense proportions that has affected more people than we can imagine. Losing someone through suicide is one of the most shattering and life-changing experiences in a person’s life. The topic of suicide is a vast one, and daunting to approach. Whatever words we can offer, if they touch someone, they are worth saying.
The introductory poem is an indicator of the scope of this article. Rather than focus on answering the elusive question “Why?” this article will address the question of “What now?” and “How do I move forward?” We will not address “what you could’ve done” after the loss of someone to suicide. Rather, we encourage you to recognize that you were provided insight into the person who died at the level they wanted, and you probably did everything you could with the information you had.
Reactions Following Suicide
As human beings we are highly complex. When we suffer a devastating loss such as suicide, all aspects of ourselves are deeply impacted. In fact, the word ‘bereavement’ comes from the root word “reave” that literally means being torn apart. When we suffer a loss by suicide, not only do we experience the myriad of emotions of grief, such as guilt, fear, confusion, and disbelief, but we also suffer the suffocating and sometimes immobilizing spiraling questions of “What if…?” These questions, coupled with anger and shock can engulf our ability to focus and think clearly. For these reasons, among others, bereavement following a loss by suicide is called traumatic grief. Traumatic grief occurs when a loss is sudden, unexpected, and perhaps violent. Our reactions are similar to how we respond following a trauma and our grief is understandably more complex.
Healing from Suicide Loss
Healing happens, but not all at once, and not in isolation. Taken on all at once, moving forward seems overwhelming and monumental. By taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, over time and in community, we heal. Over time, the healing we desire takes hold in our hearts and our minds. A new life emerges and we can live in our “new normal”. But healing doesn’t just happen; we must take steps to allow it to happen: we must be intentional about how we move forward.
When grief threatens to overwhelm you, or you get discouraged that things aren’t happening as quickly as you hoped, the act of self-compassion can provide you with the safe haven that you seek. Simply put, self-compassion means caring for yourself in the way you would care for others. When you are tempted to judge yourself or reprimand yourself for not being far enough along in the process, focus instead on all the things that you are doing right. List all the things, even the small ones, that you do to take care of yourself, and the steps you are taking to heal. Keep doing the small things, day in and day out, until your healing happens, and you regain a sense of purpose and meaning in your life again. Things will never be the same, but that doesn’t mean they will feel as acute as they do in those initial moments.
Below are some self-care steps that can help in moving forward:
Establish, or return to your sleep routine
Sleep may be difficult when you experience traumatic grief with your mind racing and emotions surging. And yet, sleep is the cornerstone to your emotional healing. Work towards beginning and ending your days as consistently as possible. Build-in a “winding down” time before bed that includes relaxing rituals such as a hot bath, listening to calming music, or aromatherapy. Be sure to make this period of time screen-free.
Eat healthy and nutritious meals
Nutrition plays a very important role in mental health. Begin by making small healthy choices with your eating and stay hydrated. If you have friends or family around who bring meals, ask for healthy options.
Make it a point to move your body at least once a day. This can be as gentle as stretching in the morning and taking a walk or doing yard work. You might also feel up for going on a bike ride or a hike. If you have a former exercise routine, allow yourself to gradually work back into it.
Identify relaxation techniques that work for you. Some examples are deep breathing, meditation, laughing, music, connecting with friends, gardening, and activities that use your hands to create something (painting, music, knitting, woodworking, puzzles, etc.).
Emotional and Mental Care
Therapy can be one of the safest places for you as you move through this process. Again, talking about suicide can carry a negative stigma, yet talking about trauma is essential to our healing and understanding. Find a therapist who specializes in grief and loss, as well as traumatic loss. Specifically, therapy can help you in the following areas:
- Develop a level of understanding about the loss that makes sense to you
- Learn to balance your critical and judgmental thinking
- Understand your unique grief response
- Practice self-compassion about your individual journey towards healing
- Identify healthy outlets to express your grief
- Recognize your strengths and resources available to you
Take a media holiday
This may be especially helpful with highly publicized deaths of individuals with whom you connect in a secondary manner. Coming to own your own story is important, leaving the sensationalism that may be in the media will help you do that.
Allow yourself to cry, be angry, be sad
Counterintuitively, the prescription for grief is to grieve. It is important to give yourself permission to go through the process and truly feel the myriad of emotions associated with traumatic grief.
Identify what brings you joy
Guilt is a common emotion at this time, and it may hold you back from allowing yourself to feel joy again. Start by bringing your awareness to other related emotions such as hope, compassion, love, empathy, and pleasure. Eventually you will reconnect with, or uncover, aspects of your life that bring you joy.
Spend time with family and friends
The social group you begin to connect with initially may be small and intimate, that is perfectly understandable. Resist the urge to isolate yourself from others and avoid talking about the loss. It is important to surround yourself with people you trust and feel safe with.
For the love of pets!
Studies continue to show that the emotional support offered by our pets is immeasurable. So engage in the walks, romping, cuddling and conversation with the animals who bring you comfort.
Take time for reflection
Whether your church is in a particular faith, found on a mountaintop, or within the internal place of self-awareness, this is a time to seek those moments of reflection.
Find others who share a similar experience
Sometimes we create our own “church” when we find others who “get it” as we maneuver through this traumatic loss. In San Diego, Survivors of Suicide Loss, is an excellent resource as you seek support, understanding, and a means for you to help others.
Suicide is a haunting experience for those who experience it personally, one that can leave us questioning so much about our own life and the world we live in. Continuing to place a stigma on those who take their own lives closes the door for survivors to find places to heal. Challenge yourself to keep the door open and continue to engage in one of the most critical conversations of our time. Let’s talk about suicide with the intent to help others, not to shame.
If you, or someone you know is considering suicide, get help now. The resources below are available 24/7.
For more information about suicide, the following sites are reputable sources:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Suicide Prevention Resource Center
VA Suicide Prevention
Department of Defense Suicide Prevention
American Association of Suicidology
International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP)