A suicide death leaves family members and friends shocked, confused, and struggling with many unanswered questions. In addition to sadness, their loss is complicated by other emotions, including guilt, anger, and shame. Any loss involves grief, but for those who remain following a suicide death—suicide survivors—grieving is intensified by the fact that others often don’t respond.
Centuries-old myths and misconceptions surround suicide, leaving those who would normally reach out to someone who’s experienced a death unsure about what to say. And sometimes, those who respond do so based on their inaccurate understanding of suicide and say words that hurt rather than heal.
One of the most believed, repeated, and detrimental myths purports death by suicide results in the loss of eternity in heaven. No scriptural support exists for this erroneous belief.
Suicide survivors need compassion and support as much or more than others who have experienced loss. By putting aside fears and misconceptions, you can step beyond the stigma surrounding suicide and reach out to those coping with a suicide death.
Understand What Suicide Survivors Experience
A suicide death is usually sudden, unexpected, and sometimes violent. Even if suicide survivors know a loved one is struggling with issues that put him at risk for suicide, they often feel suicide comes without warning. Suicide survivors experience a wide range of intense emotions and feelings including:
- Disbelief – Survivors are in shock and find it difficult to accept the reality of death and the method.
- Guilt – Often suicide survivors experience extreme guilt for not realizing what was about to happen and stopping it.
- Anger – When a person dies by homicide, survivors can direct anger toward the perpetrator, but with suicide, the deceased loved one is responsible for self-murder. This results in mixed emotions for suicide survivors—sadness, anger, and then guilt for being angry with the loved one who is dead.
- Shame – Despite changing attitudes toward mental health, many people still label a person who takes his own life as “crazy.” The stigma of mental instability often attaches to the family, increasing shame and grief.
- Anxiety – It is not unusual for suicide survivors to replay the events surrounding the suicide death of a loved one, imaging an altered outcome if they had done something differently, like come home sooner or recognized clues and taken action. Many also experience anxiety about finances and how life will change as a result of their loved one’s death.
- Abandonment – Survivors sometimes feel deserted by the one who has taken his own life, left alone to face existing problems or new ones created by the death.
- Isolation – People avoid talking about suicide so the customary cards and calls often don’t occur following a suicide death.
What You Can Do to Support Those Coping with a Suicide Death
One of the hardest aspects of grieving a suicide loss is the fact that often friends, and sometimes family members, disappear and fail to support those coping with a suicide death. You can help someone who has lost a loved one to suicide by doing the following:
- Put aside pre-conceived ideas about suicide based on myths or religious teachings
- Don’t express judgmental opinions about the person who died or the situation surrounding a suicide death
- Mention the suicide victim by name. Share stories that promote positive memories.
- Allow survivors to talk, listening quietly without injecting comments
- Provide practical support such as transportation, help with children, or meals
- When appropriate, encourage counseling with a therapist trained in suicide grief or support group attendance
- Continue to be available beyond the first few weeks
- Pray for survivors of suicide and for wisdom to know how best to respond
In overcoming hesitation and reaching out, you help to break the silent barriers surrounding a suicide death. Your concern and action will be an example to others and encourage a compassionate response to those who experience the difficult grief surrounding the loss of loved on to suicide.
September is Suicide Awareness Month. Find helpful resources at Suicide.org
Candy Arrington has written hundreds of articles, often on tough topics. Her writing provides practical support and insights for moving beyond difficult circumstances. Candy’s books include AFTERSHOCK: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide (B & H) and When Your Aging Parent Needs Care: Practical Help for This Season of Life (Harvest House). Learn more about Candy at CandyArrington.com, where you can read her blog, Forward Motion: Moving Beyond What Holds You Back.