Coping With Losing a Loved One to Suicide
Australia averages over 3,000 suicide deaths each year (Suicide & self-harm monitoring data). With that many people dying by suicide, there are even more grieving family members and friends.
Grief is a complex, personal experience for each individual who encounters it. Losing someone to suicide can be especially difficult. Bereaving a suicide loss can bring up confusing and seemingly contradicting feelings like confusion, guilt, blame, or even relief.
This blog post is intended to provide insight into the experience of a client who has experienced a suicide loss. Whether you are meeting a client in the early stages of their grieving process or have been supporting them for some time, we hope that the information presented here will help you understand the nuances of grief in the context of suicide loss.
Studies have found that people who experience suicide loss are more likely to develop complicated grief than uncomplicated grief (Tal Young et al., 2012). Uncomplicated grief decreases over time, while complicated grief is characterized by prolonged and intense sadness, despair, and difficulty moving on. It can persist for years and interfere with an individual’s ability to function in their daily life. They may experience symptoms akin to depression, like hopelessness, guilt, shame, or difficulty concentrating. Although a client may initially present with depressive symptoms, it’s important to remember that complicated grief is not a disorder but rather a reaction to an abnormal loss such as suicide.
As a part of the grieving process, a survivor of suicide loss may reckon with the following nuanced emotions:
- Shock, confusion, or disbelief at the loved one’s suicide
- Despair and overwhelming sadness
- Anger at the loved one
- Blaming themself (guilt) or others for being unable to prevent the suicide
- A constant mission to seek to understand why the individual took their life or asking, “what if?”
- Relief that the loved one is no longer suffering
- Guilt for feeling relief
Answers and Closure
It’s important to balance an understanding of the “why” behind suicide while still holding space to accept that the griever may never fully understand. People commit suicide as a result of a complex combination of factors. These include mental health conditions, substance abuse, relationship issues, financial troubles, or other life problems. An immense challenge the griever will face is that their loved one is no longer here to provide answers.
This can lead the griever on months, years, and sometimes decades-long missions to find these answers. In seeking a sense of “closure,” they may dig into their loved one’s history like a detective, chasing explanations from others who knew them or going through old belongings.
Their mind may be occupied with fictional scenarios in which they were able to prevent the suicide in some way. They may play real memories on repeat, punishing themself for what they did or didn’t do.
The grief of the loss of a loved one to suicide can be so overwhelming and cause such despair that the griever contemplates suicide. It’s vital that the griever has access to suicide prevention resources and that, as a provider, you can administer these resources and assess for suicidality in your grieving clients.
Although a griever of a suicide loss may have thoughts of their own death or suicide, it is a myth that suicide is contagious or that talking about suicide increases its likelihood. Talking openly and honestly about suicide reduces its stigma and is important for prevention. Clients should know that discussing these thoughts while in your care is safe and acceptable.
It’s expected that the process of grieving a suicide loss will be complex and overwhelming. You can encourage your clients by validating their experience as a normal reaction to an abnormal type of loss. The grieving process will take time, the duration of which is different for every individual in every circumstance.
Ensure that your practice is a supportive space for these grievers to talk openly and that you have suicide prevention protocols in place. As a support person, you must be comfortable hearing and speaking about suicide in order for your clients to find healing and reduce the stigma around suicide and mental health. With the proper support, suicide can be prevented, and grievers can find hope in a healed future.
Suicide & self-harm monitoring data. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (n.d.).
Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
Tal Young, I., Iglewicz, A., Glorioso, D., Lanouette, N., Seay, K., Ilapakurti, M., & Zisook, S. (2012, June). Suicide bereavement and complicated grief. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384446/#:~:text=Complicated%20grief% 20in%20survivors%20of,higher%20risk%20of%20developing%20CG