Every year in the United States, about 33,000 people take their own lives. Every one of these deaths leaves an estimated six or more “suicide survivors”—people who’ve lost someone they care about deeply and are left grieving and struggling to understand.
What makes Suicide different?
Death by suicide if sudden, sometimes violent and usually unexpected. Survivors typically have recurring thoughts of the death and its circumstances. They may replay the final moments over and over either in an effort to understand or simply because they can’t get the toughest out of their heads. Some suicide survivors develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that can become chronic if not treated.
Suicide can isolate survivors from their community and even from other family members. There is still a powerful stigma attached to mental illness, which is a factor in many suicides. In fact, several religions condemn it as a sin. Survivors often feel they should have done something to prevent it and shame that they didn’t.
After a homicide, survivors can direct their anger at the perpetrator. In a suicide, the victim is the perpetrator. Feelings of anger, abandonment, guilt and rejection are common and are especially difficult to sort out after a suicide.
What if”questions are common. What if I hadn’t gone out? What if I had said something sooner? These questions only serve to unrealistically punish the survivor for failing to prevent or predict the suicide in time.
“Unfortunately, survivors usually overestimate their ability to affect the outcome and spend many years wishing they had acted differently.”
Survivors are at increased risk for thinking about, planning or even attempting suicide. If these feelings persist or grow more intense, please confide in someone you trust or seek the help of a mental health professional.
How can I help a suicide survivor?
Knowing what to say after any death is always hard, but it often even harder after a suicide. As with any other death, it is important to express your concern, listen to whatever the person wants to talk about and offer help with practical tasks. Here are some considerations that are particularly useful for suicide survivors:
- Don’t ask for an explanation. Survivors need support and a shoulder to cry on. You’d could try holding their hand while listening to them talk or placing your hand on their shoulder. You could also try active listening, which simply means listening intently and the repeating back what they’ve said so they hear heard.
- Avoid “hollow reassurance”such as “things will get better”or “at least he’s no longer suffering”. The survivor is likely to feel that they are unable to express their pain and grief.
- Help with practical things. Stay close and be there for the long haul. Survivor’s often feel that once they are back at work, they are no longer able to grieve. Be patient and be willing to acknowledge emotional days, such as a birthday or anniversary of the death, either with a card or a phone call. In other ways you can invite them to lunch or a movie. Call them up to see if they need to talk or get out of the house. You can even ask them directly, “What is the best way I can support you right now?”
How can a mental health professional help?
It is important to seek out a therapist who is experienced in working with grief after suicide. Such a therapist can provide support in many ways, including:
- helping you make sense of the death and better understand any medical, addiction or psychological problems the deceased may have had.
- helping you cope with tensions among family members.
- offering support and understanding as you go through your unique grieving process.
Immediately after the suicide, assistance from a mental health professional can be particularly beneficial if you are experiencing any of the following:
- increased or worsening depression.
- suicidal thoughts or plans.
- flashbacks, anxiety or other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
- physical symptoms such as problems sleeping, weight loss or gain or increasing dependency on tobacco, alcohol or other drugs.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling and need help please reach out to our office immediately. We offer same-day or next day urgent appointments and this can dramatically help you avoid expensive ER visits or even hospitalization. We are a patient focused practice and here to help you recover.
Dr. Nicola Gray