How to Survive When Your loved One Has Completed Suicide
Someone you love has chosen to take their life away from you. The grief experienced by survivors is intense and unique. Most survivors of suicide find that guilt, social stigma, religious conflicts and anger cause them to feel different than other grievers. A trust was broken and it will take a while before the pieces are put back together. Sherry Williams White, nurse, writer and grief specialist provides practical information for surviving the death of a loved who has completed suicide.
by Sherry L. Williams
Someone you love has chosen to take their life away from you. The grief experienced by survivors is intense and unique. Most survivors of suicide find that guilt, social stigma, religious conflicts and anger cause them to feel different than other grievers. A trust was broken and it will take a while before the pieces are put back together.
WHAT IS GUILT?
Human beings experience four different basic emotions - anger, sadness, fear, and happiness. Guilt is a combination of anger and sadness. After a suicide these two emotions often fight each other. Sometimes anger is too threatening to acknowledge - or you don't know what to do with emotions. We often "swallow" them or displace them for a while. Combining anger and sadness allows us to think and try to find control through "reasons."
WHY DO I FEEL GUILT?
During griefwork, guilt serves as a means of gaining some control over your life. Guilt seems to be more pronounced, however, for survivors because you may feel there really was something you could have done to prevent the death. "If only I had listened more carefully. If only I had taken her (him) for professional help. If only I had left the house one hour later. If only I had known (s)he was feeling so desperate?"
WHAT CAN I DO WITH MY GUILT?
Blaming others or yourself are very natural reactions that put anger in a defined place. Try to be aware that your blame is part of your grief. Talk about your feelings of guilt and blame to trusted friends who are not family members. Family members are all overwhelmed by their own feelings and cannot give each other as much support as each needs during this time.
Keep a journal and write down all the things you feel guilty about. Writing is a way of expressing your feelings and it is very important you move feelings from your insides to the outside.
SOCIAL DISGRACE: WHAT WILL OTHER PEOPLE THINK?
Most survivors find that they begin to wonder if others blame them for being a poor parent, child, brother, sister, aunt, friend, or whatever the relationship was between you and the person who completed suicide. You may even have heard someone make a remark which blamed you or a member of your family. You may even have felt that way yourself before this happened to you. A major reason for this attitude is self-protection. If we can blame someone else or something else, then this kind of horrible event will never happen to us. It is a form of "magical thinking" or superstition that promotes social stigma after suicide.
Even though at first you may say, "I don't care what others think", you may later find that your need for others, for social support, is intense. Don't stop yourself from reaching out! Suicide is little understood in our society, but pain is something we have all shared in common. If you are terribly judgmental of yourself, you may look for that in others, and isolate yourself during a time when you probably really need to do just the opposite - reach out.
RELIGIOUS CONFLICTS: WILL MY LOVED ONE BE CONDEMNED FOR "SELF-MURDER?"
Most people were brought up to believe that suicide was the one unforgivable sin. Part of the reason the churches promoted this attitude was to save lives by designing a punishment that was intended to stop people from killing themselves. This is no longer part of any doctrine of organized religion.
Talk to a compassionate minister, priest, or rabbi if you have this question. It is often buried deep inside survivors. Expressing your anguish about the spiritual and religious aspects of suicide to other survivors of suicide can be very helpful. Some of the deepest wounds and greatest anger tends to arise out of what the dictionary still refers to as "self-murder."
I AM ANGRY!
You may or may not be angry with the person who has left you with all this pain. You may find yourself feeling betrayed or abandoned. You may be outraged at God, or outraged at those who suggest you could be angry with God. You may be angry at a society which somehow creates such despair. You may be angry at the professional who did not give enough help. You may be angry at yourself.
All of these feelings of anger are normal. Just as each of you is an individual, so will the reason for the suicide and your grief about it be individual and personal. It is helpful to know, however, that other survivors are feeling the same way you are. There is some solace in the fact that you are not alone.
WHAT CAN I DO WITH MY ANGER?
Express it in constructive ways! Talk to trusted others who you feel can really listen and will not judge you. Write your anger. Draw your anger. Beat on a pillow or scream out your anger. Later you may find that turning anger into working on social problems, particularly those which might have been a part of your loved one's suicide (such as alcohol or drug abuse), can be very healing. You will have given a meaning to the death of your loved one that will give you a sense of direction and hope in life once again.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?
Most survivors search for the answers to these three questions:
Did my loved one know what (s)he was doing at the time (s)he took life away?
Will I ever believe there was nothing I could have done to stop the suicide?
Is my loved one at peace?
You are not going crazy because you ask your self these questions again and again. We suggest you read as much current literature on suicide as you can. Attend your local S.O.S. (Survivors of Suicide) group. If there isn't one in your area, you may wish to help organize a group.
Know that you can and will survive (even though there will be days when you may not wish to survive). Life may be a series of small steps for you now. Just as a baby must stand before walking and become steady before climbing stairs, so must you progress slowly. You will, however, progress. These feelings will not last forever.