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How to cope and grieve after losing someone to suicide

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The death of someone close to us is always difficult to bear, but losing a loved one to suicide is often unique given the circumstances of the sudden trauma of losing someone and certain societal messages about suicide that can leave the person experiencing grief feeling isolated or even shunned. These feelings reflect the importance of the relationship you had with the person you’ve lost. Acknowledging that relationship and the loss you’ve suffered are an important part of suicide grief. 

You may always be left with questions when someone dies by suicide, and your sadness at losing them will likely stay with you. However, there are ways to cope and grieve and integrate this loss into your life. Below, we’ll discuss suicide grief and how you can support someone who has experienced this kind of loss. 

This article has been reviewed by ​​Carly Boeselt, a Licensed Professional Counselor and owner of New Vision Counseling, with locations in Denver, Colorado and Austin, Texas.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find additional resources at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

How to deal with losing a loved one to suicide

Hundreds of thousands of people die by suicide every year in the United States, which means there are just as many families and friends facing the loss of a loved one. Whether you’ve lost a parent, child, sibling, or friend, everyone’s grief is personal. There’s no right or wrong way to handle this loss. 

While it may feel like you will never heal from a death by suicide, there are healthy ways to process the pain

Acknowledge your loss

When someone dies by suicide, it can be shocking. In the wake of that shock, you may feel like you need to be stable and put together. However, one of the most important things you can do for yourself and those around you is to acknowledge that you’ve experienced a great loss. Allow yourself to feel that sadness rather than pushing it down or avoiding it. This is the first step toward integrating this death into your life. 

Name and express your emotions

In addition to shock, there are a number of powerful emotions that you may experience after a death by suicide. You may at times feel angry or guilty. You might feel despair and confusion. Each of these emotions is valid, and it may help you to name each of them as you feel them. Researchers call this process of naming our emotions “affect labeling,” and in studies, they have observed that people who name emotions can lower their distress

As a grief counselor, Carly reminds us that different emotions can occur at different times throughout the healing process. We don’t move through grief in a linear way — it’s normal to be angry and sad then years later, anger may pop up again.

Know that grief can affect you physically

You may have heard the phrase “sick with grief” before, and in recent years, researchers have found that grief does have physical effects. Grief has been shown to increase inflammation, leading to a number of other physical symptoms, such as a weakened immune system. Grief affects the heart and can lead to high blood pressure, a risk of blood clots, and a condition called broken-heart syndrome, which can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack.

Knowing that you could have physical manifestations of your grief may help you understand what you’re experiencing and consult with your doctor to treat those physical symptoms. 

Reach out for help

There are a number of support systems for losing a loved one to suicide that you may want to consider. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a resource where you can find support groups in your area. 

Unfortunately, there are still some societal stigmas about suicide. Seek out the people and community groups that can support you. Lean on your family and friends throughout your grief. While people don’t always know what to do or say, many people are likely there for you — even if it’s just to sit together, go on a walk, or give you a home-cooked meal. 

You may also want to consider reaching out to a mental health professional, like a grief counselor. Having consistent support and someone to talk with about your loss can be comforting. 

You may never know “why?”

When you lose someone to suicide, it’s normal to wonder why they made such a choice. In truth, there are often many contributing factors to someone’s death by suicide and no simple answers. Mental health, substance abuse, relationship challenges, financial stress, and many other factors can play a role. 

It’s common to characterize death by suicide as selfish, but the research into the changes that take place in the brain during suicidal ideation suggest that selfishness isn’t the cause. 

Researchers have observed what they call cognitive constriction. In this state, people contemplating suicide have trouble identifying other solutions to the challenges they’re facing. People experiencing cognitive constriction begin to believe that their pain will never end. In this state of mental anguish, much like the feeling of severe physical pain, they’re unable to focus on anything else.

In your grief, it’s natural to ask yourself “why?” and to think about what you could have done to prevent it. It’s likely you’ll never know the precise cause of your loved one’s pain or how it felt to them. Even if you could know all the answers, it wouldn’t change the fact of their death and your grief over it. Accepting the unknown will be a part of your healing journey. 

Remember the full life of your loved one

The way someone dies is only one part of their life, not the whole story. Remind yourself to recall the positive aspects of your loved one’s life: their milestones, relationships, and happiest moments. It may help you to still celebrate events in their life, keep photos of them around, and tell stories about them to keep their memory alive. 

Do what’s right for you 

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Your loss is personal, and you should do what feels right for you. Find ways to treat yourself with care and compassion. Simple acts of routine and health may go a long way: brushing your teeth, eating well, going outside, and talking with friends and family are seemingly small steps that can help you through the deepest parts of your grief. 

“While a tremendous loss will change our lives forever, the intensity and rawness of our grief will subside over time with intentional mourning,” says Carly . This doesn’t mean moving on or forgetting what happened. Rather, it means that you have integrated a loss into your life — aware of the love you felt for someone, sad at the fact of their death, and able to continue your life, with its ups and downs, in light of that. 

How to help someone cope with a death from suicide

When someone loses a loved one to suicide, you may feel awkward and unsure of what to say. In fact, because of the stigma around suicide, people who’ve lost someone in this way may feel especially isolated in their grief. If you care about someone who has experienced a death by suicide, it’s important to reach out early and consistently. 

What to say and do when someone dies by suicide

  • It’s ok to admit that you are unsure of what to say. Rather than letting discomfort prevent you from reaching out, you may say to the bereaved person, “I’m not sure what to say, but I’m here for you.”
  • Allow them to express their feelings without judgment. Losing someone to suicide is often shocking and can be confusing. You may want to say, “Whatever you’re feeling is ok, and I’m here to listen if you want to share what you’re going through.” 
  • Help out with everyday tasks. Everything from grocery shopping and house cleaning to notifying others of the death and arranging the funeral will help support your loved one and is often appreciated. 
  • Research and offer support options for them. There are community resources available that they may appreciate learning about. You could say, “I’m here for you. If helpful, I know of a support group in our area.” 
  • Let them take their time. Because losing someone to suicide can be sudden and shocking, it may take time for the bereaved to process what happened. Allow them to talk about it as much as they need, and don’t rush their grieving process. 

What not to say and do when someone dies by suicide

  • Don’t say phrases like “committed suicide.” This characterizes suicide as a crime, reinforcing the stigma and making the bereaved feel more isolated. Instead, use “died by suicide” or “lost their life to suicide.”
  • Never ask questions like, “How did they kill themselves?” Carly reminds us that this question can be insensitive and very hard for someone to hear. Instead, she suggests we are simply there for our loved one as they are grieving without asking questions. 
  • Don’t label the person who died as selfish, crazy, or weak. The latest research suggests that these character traits are not connected to suicide. Rather, a person is more likely in a state of mental anguish that prevents them from seeing other solutions to their pain.
  • Don’t guess at “why?”. It’s normal for the bereaved to wonder why their loved one made this choice. Be supportive and listen to them as they process this question, but don’t participate in speculation. 
  • Don’t use common phrases like, “They’re at peace now.” In a time of grief, statements like this can minimize the sadness of a bereaved person. Instead, say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or an alternative

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find additional resources at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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