The Meaning of Suicide to Those Left Behind

Grief and loss are the words professionals use to describe the emotions people experience after someone close to them has died. There is no word in the English language to accurately capture the depth of pain and suffering that family members, loved ones, friends, and partners experience after losing their beloved to suicide. All the emotions associated with loss may be present, but rendered complex by so many additional emotions, memories, and questions. Perhaps like no other loss, those left behind after a suicide struggle with second guessing themselves and their actions, sometimes for years after the loss.

Complicated Grief, Complicated Mourning

Psychotherapists and grief and loss specialists refer to "complicated grief" to help people understand how the loss experienced when a loved one suicides is unique. Complicated grief means that the normal grieving process isn’t proceeding, but instead is "stuck." It’s is as if the loved one left behind is trying to digest what has happened but some aspect of the incident or the relationship is preventing this digestion or ability to process in order to moving forward. The loss and all the concomitant emotions just sit, unprocessed and indigestible, until the loved one is able to address what has happened in its entirety. Complicated grief can occur with any loss, and may be a sign that there was an unresolved problem or issue in the relationship. It can be that this unresolved issue, present during your relationship with your loved one, is what is making the loss so intolerable or difficult to process.

What to Expect

What might you expect to feel as you try to heal from losing a loved one to suicide? Many emotions are common and every person is different. However, listed below are a few of the most common emotions survivors report.

  • Anger. Anger comes in every flavor after a suicide. You may feel angry at yourself, angry at your loved one, angry at people in your community who may or may not have tried to intervene, and possibly even angry at God. It is normal and part of the process to experience strong and even debilitating anger at any or all of these people, and to feel powerless over how upset and enraged the suicide has left you.
  • Sadness. It is normal, expectable, and important to allow yourself to feel sad after a significant loss. The sadness may feel overwhelming at times and may even border on despair. Please seek help if you find yourself overwhelmed and thinking of suicide (see below).
  • Guilt. While it is common for loved ones to experience guilt after a close friend or family member has died, the feelings of guilt, often mixed with anger, are even more commonly expressed after a suicide. Holding yourself responsible for the loved one’s actions, or ruminating over how you might have been able to intervene are common responses to suicide.
  • Shock. In some cases, shock and psychological numbing occurs after a suicide, and survivors feel nothing but emptiness and "dead inside" for some time.
  • Denial. The death may be undeniable, but sometimes an almost delusional refusal to admit what has happened, or a fantasy that it did not happen, takes over and despite what you might know, you just cannot believe it. Sometimes family members insist that a suicide did not occur due to the inability to digest what has happened. A part of this denial may include a persistent searching through the past trying to determine why the suicide occurred.

As you might have gleaned, these emotions are often deeply intertwined and experienced more as a giant blend of unhappiness then as discrete episodes of single emotions. It can be difficult to tease them all out, but useful as part of a healing process to do so.

What to Do

The words "process" and "digest" keep coming up in this discussion. Both of these words indicate that you will be sorting through experiences and emotions, keeping those that are helpful or positive and getting rid of those that are unhelpful or further compound or even extend your grief. As you do so, be aware of warning signs that you may need professional help as you heal.

  • Thoughts of suicide, wishing you could die too, feeling like you want to go to sleep "and just never wake up"
  • Feeling like you should have been the one to have died, either instead of your loved one, or along with your loved one
  • Problems sleeping and/or changes in appetite lasting longer than a few days
  • Changes in your behavior (especially regarding anger management or use of alcohol or drugs)
  • Feeling like you have nothing to live for, nothing that interests you, and no one that would care if you were to die

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek help from a professional right away. If you are not feeling suicidal yourself, but are ready to seek assistance in moving forward, check out your local mental health association for free community groups. Often local libraries have such information readily available. You may find that a self help group comprised of others who have gone through what you are experiencing offers the support and community you need.