Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2018, claiming the lives of over 48,000 people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among people age 10 to 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among people age 35 to 54.
With deaths by suicide on the rise, a greater number of people are being directly impacted. Family and friends mourning the loss of a death by suicide are often referred to as suicide loss survivors. Bereavement resulting from a suicide shares similar characteristics with other types of loss and yet it is also different.
A death by suicide is usually sudden, often unexpected and may be violent. These factors can increase the shock and trauma experienced by those who are impacted compared to many other types of losses. Survivors may struggle to make sense of what has happened and fundamental beliefs may be challenged.
Grief in response to suicide can be particularly complicated. Feelings of guilt, shame, anger, confusion, regret and blame are very common. In addition, some people find it difficult to be open about the cause of death because of the stigma associated with suicide.
There is no single or correct way to experience bereavement. However, there are many common reactions during bereavement caused by suicide. Knowing these feelings are normal and connecting with others can help people feel less isolated after a catastrophic loss.
How to Support Someone Going Through a Loss by Suicide
As a society, we are generally not good at talking about suicide, especially with those who are survivors of suicide loss. We may feel uncomfortable, at a loss for words or think we just should not bring it up. As a result, we might not reach out at all and might act like nothing happened. This is understandable, since suicide is hard to make sense of. However, for people grieving a loss by suicide, this can leave them feeling isolated or abandoned if the support they expected isn’t there.
There are several ways to reach out that can help someone grieving a loss by suicide.
- Don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out.
- Understand that everyone grieves differently and for different lengths of time.
- Let your grieving loved one know you’re there to listen. While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person, it’s actually more important to listen.
- Offer to help in practical ways – shop for groceries, watch the kids, walk the dog, bring dinner to their home.
- Don’t be afraid to speak the name of the person who died. Your friend will be grateful for the opportunity to reminisce.
- Many people find that professional counseling helps them deal with their grief in a healthy way. Help search for a therapist, schedule appointments, etc.
- Just be there. Sit with them. Watch TV or a movie. Listen to music. Go for a walk together.
- Be patient. This experience has changed their life forever. The weeks and months following the funeral, when the initial shock wears off and the full reality of what has happened sinks in, may be the toughest for them. Continue to check in, and let them know you are thinking of them, that you’re there for them and that you want to listen.
- Remind your friend of their self-care needs, including plenty of rest, eating nutritiously and laying off alcohol and drugs.
- A simple note or gesture can make a huge difference. “It was not your fault” is something many suicide loss survivors need to hear over and over again, as is “You are not alone.”
There are many resources available to assist someone who has been impacted by a death by suicide.
Each year, survivors of suicide loss come together to find connection, understanding and hope through their shared experience. This year, International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is Saturday, November 21, 2020. Many events will be hosted online if you or a loved one wish to take part.
[Jamie Becker is the Fund’s Director of Health Promotion.]