Coping with the death of a loved one is among life’s most challenging experiences.
No two individuals experience grief in the exact same way or in the exact same intensity. There is no right or wrong way to grieve; however, unacknowledged or repressed grief can lead to further complications.
The late Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who wrote many books on death and grief, described the stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. For survivors of a suicide death, the grief can be more complex partially due to the social stigma associated with it and religion’s stance regarding suicide. They may feel extreme guilt (I should have recognized the signs and prevented it); doubts (Does this mean I did not love her enough?); and fear (What will people think?). Feelings of failure, shame and blame intensify the pain of the loss.
What surviving family members should know
What survivors should know:
• You are not alone. Approximately one in four people know of someone who died from suicide.
• Understand that depression, bipolar disorder and other psychological illness are the underlying cause of 90 percent of suicides.
• Know that illnesses such as depression are a no-fault brain disorder.
• Suicide was the decision of the person who died.
• Emotions of grief can be overwhelming and intense. This is normal. You are not going crazy.
• You may have thoughts of suicide. This is common. But if it persists and becomes a more serious state, especially if accompanied by depression, you should seek help.
• Grief has no predictable pattern or timetable. Each person will experience it in his/her unique way.
What parents should know
For parents who have lost a child to suicide, the experience is excruciatingly painful. Though their feelings of pain and grief may never completely go away, there are steps to take to begin the healing process:
• Talk openly with your spouse, your other children and other loved ones so everyone’s grief can be acknowledged and expressed.
• Be patient and gentle with yourself. Healing takes time. This experience will be one of the hardest things you will encounter.
• Delay making major decisions if possible. Resist the urge to match the finality of the death with the finality of major changes in your life.
• Give yourself permission to seek professional help.
• Find a support group where you can share your stories, memories and coping techniques.
• Avoid becoming a total recluse. Reach out to your friends and guide them, if they don’t know, on what to say or what to do for you.
• Avoid people who try to tell you what and how to feel, especially those that think “you should be over it by now.”
• Be aware that anniversaries, birthdays and holidays can be especially challenging. Do what is best for your emotional needs.
• Understand that it is normal to feel guilty and to ask “why.” Also know that you may never get a satisfactory answer. According to KidsHealth, the healing takes place when you reach a point of forgiveness for yourself and your child.
How to respond to survivors
And finally, some helpful hints for how to respond to suicide survivors. According to SAVE, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, it is most effective to:
• Express sympathy.
• Avoid statements like “you’ll marry again” or “at least you have other children.”
• Statements like “I’m sorry for your loss” are appropriate.
• Understand that the survivor may be experiencing a number of intense emotions, which may include shock, pain, anger, disbelief, yearning, anxiety, depression and stress.
• Listen with compassion and without judgment.
• Even if you have experienced grief in your life, avoid saying, “I know how you must feel.” Instead, just ask how the person is feeling.
Even though death is a natural part of the life cycle, for the people who remain, coping with a loss is never easy. And when the death is from a suicide, the intensity of grief becomes even more magnified. But with family, friends, and professional support, healing does happen.
• Tram Vuong Meadows is the Therapeutic Foster Home Program Therapist for Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i Inc., 2959 Umi St., Lihu‘e, HI 96766.