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Grief After Suicide: Finding Peace and Comfort

Supporting families after a suicide can be challenging. Learn how mental health professionals and friends can provide compassionate support and resources during this difficult time.

Losing a loved one is always painful. When the cause is suicide, there is an extra layer of pain, confusion, and grief. We spoke with grief and trauma experts about the guilt, remorse, and regret that can follow a loved one’s suicide — and suggested ways to manage your grief

When a loved one dies by suicide, family members and friends are often left grief-stricken, bewildered, and often guilt-ridden. They struggle to make sense of an unexpected or violent death. The stark reality of suicide is a painful truth that affects countless families. The statistics are staggering: over 50,000 people died from suicide in the United States last year, more than any year on record. 

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat live at 988lifeline.org. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting MHA to 741741.

Understanding the Complex Grief of Suicide Loss

Losing a loved one to suicide causes immense pain and grief, and families often face additional challenges. Stigma and shame frequently isolate surviving family members, and many religions condemn the act, leaving those left behind feeling betrayed by their faith community.

Friends, relatives, and colleagues often struggle with how to respond. Because people are uncertain about what to say, they might avoid the situation entirely. This silence and lack of contact further isolates grieving families, which they don't need.

Mary Beth Lamey, a licensed clinical social worker and bereavement counselor in Columbia, South Carolina, has over 20 years of experience with grieving families. She emphasizes that families who lose loved ones to suicide, homicide, or violence typically need more support than those who die from natural causes.

"Families that lose a loved one from suicide, homicide, or violence face real challenges. Stigma often attaches to it, and even those who care for them and want to support them struggle with what to say or do,” Lamey explained.

Lamey adds, "Instead of staying silent, which increases that sense of separation, people need to step past their discomfort and reach out anyway. There are no magic words. But simply being with someone is much better than not acknowledging them."

Extending care and compassion can significantly help families with their grief after profound loss.

Dealing with Guilt, Remorse, and Powerlessness

For every life lost to suicide, parents, children, siblings, cousins, and friends grieve their absence. They feel a tremendous amount of guilt, remorse, and powerlessness, along with their grief. Mary Beth explains: “When anyone dies, whether it is from a long battle with cancer or from suicide or other unexpected death, we think, Should I have called the doctor earlier? Should I’ve done this? Should I have done that? Those are normal grief responses. Families who have experienced a loss due to suicide, homicide, or violence frequently need extra attention and care.”

Cheryl Stevenson, MA, LPC, has plenty of experience with patients dealing with the aftermath of a suicide and other unexpected or violent deaths. The lead counselor and owner of Chronos Care Counseling since 2003, Stevenson says family members grapple with guilt: “It can be the guilt that they were not there to help the person. They weren’t there to protect the person. And then the other side to guilt is feeling that they didn’t do something right.”

Suicide Is No One’s Fault

When coping with a self-inflicted death, it’s natural to look for someone to blame — ourselves, our loved ones, others, or even a higher power. But it’s crucial to separate responsibility from blame. The blame lies solely with the pain, grief, depression, addiction, or other mental health issues your loved one was battling, which led them to make this devastating decision. It can be helpful to remember these facts from mental health experts.

  • Anyone, even mental health professionals, can miss the warning signs before suicide.
  • People contemplating suicide might not appear to be in distress. Some may exude a sudden calmness. 
  • No one can truly understand or foresee what an individual is thinking or planning, and they might not be truthful if asked. 
  • Suicide is sometimes an impulsive act that no one is prepared to deal with.

Accept That You Must Go Through, Not Around, Grief

Accept that grief does not follow a timetable. Living with changes in family dynamics, size, and relationships is a lifelong process. As tempting as it is to use the five stages of grief as a road map, the reality is messier. According to Stevenson, “Grief will come in different waves and phases. It’s not a textbook checklist.” 

Lamey agrees: “Grief is a new normal. Grief is who you are. The process of getting through it, the process of not only surviving but thriving through it, takes more than a prescriptive amount of time. When you add the complexity of having your loved one die by suicide or any kind of violent means, it exacerbates these feelings.” 

  • Feelings of grief and loss exist whether you acknowledge them or not.
  • Pushing these feelings away only prolongs and intensifies the pain.
  • Accepting and going through these feelings can start to diminish their power over our emotions. 

Recognize the Importance of Saying Goodbye

No matter how someone has died, memorial services allow the bereaved to come together and share their grief. Too often, families won’t hold a memorial or even publish an obituary after losing a loved one to suicide. They might not want to deal with insensitive questions, or they cannot shake a perceived stigma about the manner of their family member’s death. 

In Stevenson’s experience, saying goodbye is essential to the long healing journey. 

She also says that no matter how someone’s life ended, the life they lived deserves a meaningful and respectful goodbye: “Funerals or celebrations of life are important. They start the grief process where tears are fine and reassurance from those who share your pain is okay. It’s a healing thing that helps us know everybody’s working on being okay. I’m working on being okay. I’m not there yet, but I am working on it.”

Self-Care Suggestions From Experts 

There is no magic formula for dealing with the intense pain and loss when anyone dies, but the shock of suicide often adds a layer of remorse and sorrow. Here are some self-care suggestions from Lamey, Stevenson, and other reputable sources, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Reflect on Their Life, Not Their Death

Remember that your loved one’s life was about more than their suicide. Their final act does not define who they were. Celebrate the joyful and meaningful aspects of their life and your relationship. Acknowledge their achievements. Say their name aloud. Share memories, photos, and stories with others who loved them.

Put Your Thoughts on Paper (or Tablet)

Writing down your thoughts and feelings provides a safe space for reflection. Keeping a journal can be a helpful outlet for your emotions, even if you’re not ready to talk about them yet. Another therapeutic exercise may be writing a letter to your loved one, saying the things you never had the chance to share.

Expect Good and Bad Days

It’s normal for the healing process to have ups and downs. Some days, it may feel more manageable, while other days, even years later, painful reminders like birthdays, holidays, or a familiar song can cause waves of pain and sadness to resurface. Healing takes time, and it’s not a linear journey. Others may move on or stop discussing your loss before you’re ready. 

Take Care of Yourself

Try to eat nourishing food, exercise regularly, get enough restful sleep, and spend time in nature if possible. While it may be tempting to turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the grief, self-medicating delays the healing process and can create more problems in the long run. Avoid making major life decisions when you still feel overwhelmed by grief. 

Ask for Help 

A healthy support system can make you feel less alone in your grief. Organizations like the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors and Compassionate Friends provide a healing community for surviving family members and friends. Consider getting help from professionals, too. Licensed mental health counselors have training and experience with individuals and families coping with suicide. The American Psychological Association offers tips on finding a mental health professional. The website Speaking of Suicide also offers a number of suicide prevention lines and resources for survivors.

Compassionate Funeral Care Makes a Difference, Too

During such a heart-wrenching time, selecting a compassionate funeral provider can make a difference for families grappling with losing a loved one to suicide. With their understanding and sensitivity, compassionate end-of-life partners offer a safe space for families to navigate the complexities of grief, providing gentle guidance at every step. They can help you plan a memorial when you are ready to honor their life and unique qualities. You may feel alone in your grief, but in reality, these professionals can help you find a way forward.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat live at 988lifeline.org.

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