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Losing a Loved One to Suicide and Learning to Properly Grieve

When suicide takes a life, it leaves behind not only grieving loved ones but also a community of people asking why.

Suicide is the 9th leading cause of death in the United States and claims more than 7000,000 lives each year. This number doesn't reflect the number of people who have attempted suicide, which is estimated to be 1.2 million people annually.

The pain caused by suicide can feel insurmountable. Grieving the death of a loved one to suicide can be especially complicated because there are so many unanswered questions.

But as there is always light in the darkness, there is hope in learning to process the pain and come out on the other side.

What to Expect in the Early Stages of Grief

The initial stages of grief after a suicide can be disorienting and chaotic. Many people feel overwhelmed by emotions like shock, disbelief, guilt, anger, and intense sadness. It is normal not to know how to process the situation and feel like you struggle each day without direction.

Your loved one's death may be especially difficult compared to other losses. Suicide is unexpected and can often lead to feelings of confusion, pain, and betrayal. Thus, grief can be even more complicated and harder to understand.

Nonetheless, it's important to remember that no two people experience grief in the same way; what works for one person may not work for another. Each individual's journey is unique and deserves to be respected, even if it doesn't follow the traditional stages of grief.

The Five Stages of Grief

One of the best-known models for understanding sorrow is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief. Although each phase does not necessarily occur in order and may take hours or years to navigate, understanding each can be helpful.

The first stage, denial, is when a person refuses to accept the reality of the death. During this time, one may feel numb or in a state of shock and may believe that the end was just a dream or nightmare.

The second stage is anger, which manifests in various forms, such as blaming oneself or others for death. It is common in this phase to feel that the world is unfair and that life robbed you of something precious.

Bargaining is the third stage and involves a person attempting to undo or postpone their loved one's death. A person may also try to make a deal with God or some higher power in an attempt to reverse the situation.

The fourth stage, depression, is often characterized by extreme sadness and hopelessness. This period is usually the longest and most painful as the reality of the situation begins to sink in. Finally, there is acceptance, which does not necessarily mean that all sadness has vanished. Rather, it is a recognition that you cannot change the loss and that life must move on.

But at the end of the day, grief is not linear. You may experience any of these stages at any time or in multiple cycles or find yourself backtracking to an earlier stage as you work through your pain.

Grief can be unpredictable. There are no set timelines for healing; feelings may come in waves or linger for a long time. But as hard as it is, it is possible to learn to cope and create a meaningful life in the wake of tragedy.

How to Get Through the Tough Times

The emotional and psychological turmoil that follows a loved one's suicide can be devastating and should not be ignored or suppressed. After the initial shock has subsided, you must focus on healing and begin to take care of your own mental and physical health.

However, this process will differ for everyone depending on their individual grief experience. So, respect your journey and trust that you will find ways to cope.

Here are some suggestions for how to get through the toughest times:

Let Go of the Guilt

One of the most challenging parts of grieving is living with all the questions and "what ifs" that come with suicide. You may feel immense guilt for not having seen the warning signs or being able to prevent it from happening. Remember that you are not responsible for your loved one's death. It's okay to feel bad about not being able to help them, but you can't blame yourself for something you couldn't control.

Give Yourself Time

An important part of grieving is to allow yourself the time and space to come to terms with your loss. Many people think that they should be able to "snap out of it" after a few weeks, months, or even years, but the reality is that grief takes time. Accept that your feelings are valid and allow yourself the space to express them.

Don't be Ashamed to Grieve

Many people feel embarrassed, ashamed, and even judged when talking about suicide. After all, it’s still a largely taboo topic, so you may feel pressure to hide your grief and pain. But keep in mind that despair is a normal reaction to loss and that you don't need to pretend it didn't happen. Find a safe space to express yourself, whether it be with friends, family, or a mental health professional.

Seek Professional Help

Grief counseling can be a great tool to help process your emotions. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore your feelings and help identify new coping strategies. Talking to friends or family members who have been through a similar experience can also be beneficial. You may find comfort and understanding in talking to someone who has gone through something similar.

Reach Out for Support

Anguish shared is anguish halved. Find a support network that can provide guidance and understanding as you navigate your heartache. Consider talking to friends or family members who have experienced loss or joining a support group. It can be helpful to have someone who understands what you are going through and can provide comfort and support as you work through your feelings.

Seek Comfort in Creativity

Creative outlets can be an excellent way to express your pain and healing. Writing, drawing, painting, playing music—any form of art can provide a powerful outlet for emotion. You can also find comfort and catharsis in reading books, watching movies, or even cooking.

Find a New Normal

Life will never be normal again, but that doesn't mean you can't find a new kind of normal. Give yourself time to adjust to the changes and plan for the future. Allow yourself to find joy in life again and seek out activities that bring you peace and comfort. Be open to new possibilities and experiences, even if they may initially be difficult.

Be Patient with Yourself

Grief is a challenging journey; it can take time to process your emotions and come to terms with the loss. So allow yourself time to heal, and don't be too hard on yourself when it feels like the healing process is taking longer than expected. Be gentle with yourself and practice self-care and compassion as you work through the pain.

Expect Setbacks and Ups and Downs

As mentioned, grief is rarely a linear process. You may find yourself experiencing good days and bad days or even setbacks where it feels like you're going backward instead of forward. That's okay—acknowledge the emotions, learn to recognize your triggers, and take care of yourself.

Limit Social Media Exposure

It's easy to become overwhelmed with news and images on social media that trigger painful emotions. Keep in mind that you should be mindful of what you're reading and engaging with online, as it can impact your mood and mental health. Thus, try limiting your exposure to certain people or topics or take a break from it altogether.

Engage in Self-Care

Take care of yourself, both mentally and physically. Simple things like taking a walk, going to bed early, or eating healthy meals can help keep your energy up. Taking time for yourself is essential when dealing with the aftermath of such a traumatic event to avoid exhaustion and overstimulation.

Honor Your Loved One's Memory

One of the best ways to cope with losing a loved one is to honor their memory. Take time to reflect on the good memories you shared, and keep them in your heart. You may also want to find ways to keep their memory alive, such as planting a tree in their honor or donating to a cause that was important to them.

Focus on the Present Moment

Live in the moment as much as possible to ride the waves of grief. Take your time and recognize the beauty still present in life, even amid sadness. Then, notice your feelings without judgment and practice being present and mindful of your body, mind, and heart. Remember, it's not a race to get over the pain; it's about taking each moment as it comes and finding small moments of peace.

Turn to a Higher Power

Grief can cause us to question the world around us, which may lead us to reach out and seek comfort in a higher power. Whether you find solace in prayer, meditation, yoga, or other spiritual practices, these can help provide clarity and perspective on the world and your situation.

Allow Yourself to Feel Joy Again

It is possible to find joy after loss. You will never forget your loved one, and it is okay to be happy again. Allow yourself to experience joy and gratitude, even if it initially feels strange or wrong. Doing so will not diminish your love for them and can help you move forward in your healing journey.

No matter where you are on your grief journey, remember that it's okay to not be okay. Loss is a difficult and painful experience, but there are ways to cope with the heartache to make it through each day. You are not alone, and there is hope for a brighter future.

Supporting Friends and Family Members Who Have Lost Someone to Suicide

If you have a friend or family member who has lost someone to suicide, let them know that you are there for them in whatever way they need. Consider the following tips for showing support:

  1. Listen Without Judgement. If your loved one wants to talk about their emotions and experiences, lend an ear free of judgment or assumptions. Acknowledge their pain and provide a safe space for them to express themselves.
  2. Be Patient and Understanding. Understand that your friend or family member's journey may take some time, so be patient with them as they navigate their grief. Allow them to take their time and not pressure them to move on too quickly.
  3. Invite Them Out. Offer to take them out to get their mind off of things. Whether it's going for a walk, getting a cup of coffee, or just enjoying some time together, your presence can be a calming influence.
  4. Send Notes of Encouragement. Sometimes words of encouragement are more helpful than anything else. Send them handwritten notes or cards with uplifting messages and scriptures to help keep their spirits up.
  5. Help With Practical Matters. Offer practical help with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping, running errands, or house chores. They will show your friend or family member that you are there for them in any way they need.

Ultimately, note that everyone grieves differently and that there is no right or wrong way to process the loss. Allowing your friend or family member to find their path through this challenging time and simply being there to offer your love and support will go a long way in helping them through this trying time.

When to Reach Out For Professional Help

The pain of loss can often be too overwhelming to handle. If your loved one is struggling with severe depression or any other mental health issues following a loss, it may be a good idea to reach out for professional help. A therapist or counselor can provide support and guidance as your loved one works through their emotions and develops healthy coping strategies.

If you or someone you know struggles with suicidal thoughts or behaviors, please do not hesitate to contact Jackson House for help. Jackson House provides 24/7 crisis counseling and suicide prevention services for individuals in crisis. Reach out for help today.

About the author

Jackson House

Jackson House

We built Jackson House because we realized there was a critical gap in our healthcare system and many individuals with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems were struggling because of it. While there are many outpatient treatment options and locked, inpatient facilities there was nothing in the middle. Nothing to help people who needed around the clock care but wanted to receive treatment voluntarily, on their own terms. Jackson House is different. We provide clients with the level of care they need in a welcoming environment. When you walk through our doors, we will meet you wherever you’re at and help you on your journey toward feeling better.

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