Suicide - Survivors
“When the quake finally hits, the person completes the act so long contemplated. For the suicide victim, the end has come. For those left behind, the devastation has just begun.”
David Cox and Candy Arrington, Aftershock: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 19.
“Some survivors have the horrible experience of witnessing the actual suicide … Others have the shock of discovering the body and thereafter are haunted by images of blood and death. Pictures are seared in our memory … Those of us who hear about the discovery after the fact, while spared the graphic memory of our loved one’s act, nonetheless are plagued by our imaginations. We wonder what the scene looked like. We envision the final moments. Whether we witnessed the death or not, we replay images over and over in our head, like a movie on a loop that we can’t turn off.
“Survivors of suicide have a variety of initial reactions to the news. Some shut down emotionally … Others feel physical upheaval, as if punched in the gut. We might be overwhelmed by uncontrollable wails or sobs, or we may experience rage or anger. . Another common response is to attribute the death to something other than suicide. If the cause of death is ambiguous, survivors may call it an accident … Or we may even hope that the death was actually a murder rather than a suicide. Perhaps some unknown intruder killed our loved one and staged it to look like a suicide.”
Excerpted from Albert Y. Hsu, Grieving a Suicide (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 17-18.
“Whatever your initial reaction to the news of your loved one’s suicide, know that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to respond. How you feel or what you think at the time of the tragic news is immediate and visceral, and it usually need not be evaluated, modified or self-censored. It simply is. Granted, some survivors may need to be protected from responding in ways that may be destructive to themselves or others. When we receive the bad news, our minds and bodies respond with a defense mechanism, a survival instinct to keep us going. Because of individual circumstances and personalities, all of us will respond in different ways, yet our various experiences will have much in common with those of other survivors.”
Excerpted from Albert Y. Hsu, Grieving a Suicide (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 18.
After a loved one’s suicide, the survivor(s) experience a combination of grief and trauma that Albert Hsu calls turmoil—a time when feelings and thoughts go in many different directions. Some of the categories of turmoil are:
- Shock, disbelief and numbness. The days following a suicide are filled with confusion as survivors make funeral arrangements, decisions about many things, possibly talk with police as well as close friends and relatives, sort through legal and financial matters, etc. A sense of bewilderment is normal for survivors.
- Distraction. Survivors often find it difficult to focus or concentrate. They often find themselves asking someone to repeat what they have just said because their mind just cannot concentrate.
- Sorrow and despair. A deep sense of sadness may linger for weeks. Emotional and physical exhaustion that may lead the survivor to identify with the hopelessness felt by the one who committed suicide. Life can feel meaningless during this time.
- Rejection and abandonment. The survivor’s sense of self-worth may be called into question. Questions like “Why, if they really loved me, did they leave me like this?” This may be one reason why survivors many times try to explain the event as something other than a suicide. If that is true, then the one who died may not have chosen to leave.
- Failure. Feelings of failure often accompany a suicide. The survivor feels that they should have been able to keep the suicide from happening. They may wonder what clue they missed that would have been the tip-off that would have allowed them to intervene.
- Guilt and regret. Many survivors feel a sense of responsibility for the death of their loved one. They may be bombarded by a series of “what ifs” and “if onlys.”
- Shame. Survivors often feel a sense of shame since suicide was viewed as something evil for so long. Sometimes they are made to feel shame by the comments that ill-informed and judgmental people make without thinking of the damage they may be causing.
- Anger, rage and hatred. Anger is very common after a suicide. The survivor is angry over the sense of helplessness that they feel or the feeling that the one who died was selfish to leave them with the trauma that they must deal with.
- Anxiety and fear. There is fear that it could happen again to another loved one. The fear of loss leaves the survivor with a sense of dread as they think about the possibility of losing someone else.
- Paralysis. Little things that happened at or near the same time as the suicide may suddenly paralyze the survivor—the ring of a phone, a knock on the door, the wail of siren.
- Relief. If the one who died was experiencing grave physical or emotional problems, the suicide may provide some sense of relief that their ordeal is over. Their death is troubling in many ways to those who are left, not the least of which may be the sense of relief they feel since that seems illogical and unnatural.
- Self-destructive thoughts and feeling. The survivor runs the risk of becoming another suicide if they allow themselves to leave their own sense of despair unchecked. Almost all suicide survivors have fleeting thoughts of their own suicide.
Adapted from Albert Y. Hsu, Grieving a Suicide (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 27-36.
“Mother, father, and parent are among the most emotionally charged words in our vocabulary. Parents stand between you and the world. They meet your needs, love you more unconditionally than anyone else ever will, and present you with your first and most lasting view of the world and yourself. They set standards and examples, both good and bad, for your behavior forever. When a parent dies, no matter how young or old you are at the time, you are left feeling that there is no one standing guard for you anymore. You are alone in a very profound way. Many people feel their own mortality only after the death of a parent.
“Even when your real parents are not as perfect as you might wish, as long as they are alive there is hope that they will change and become the ideal parents that you long for. Someone is there looking after you. Someone cares about your triumphs and your defeats. Someone will cheer you on or, if needed, rescue you. The death of a parent destroys that hope forever. You feel abandoned by that person who, by giving you life, has implicitly promised to make it worth living.
“When your parent seeks death through suicide, your sense of having been abandoned increases immeasurably. That person upon whom you so depended appears to have deserted you by choice. You feel as if you have been told you were not worth staying alive for. Even in your grief and despair you feel resentment and rage at being left. No matter what your age or circumstance, no one can be prepared for this. How could this be done to you? How is it possible ever to come to terms with the idea that your parent did not feel that you were important enough to live for? ‘What does this suicide mean about me?’ you ask yourself. ‘Was I so unloved or unlovable that I deserved to be left?’ Feelings of abandonment by the suicide of a parent are difficult at any time in your life, but different life stages and circumstances present different problems for recovery.”
Ann Smolin and John Guinan, Healing After the Suicide of a Loved One (New York: Fireside, 1993), 100-101.
Survivors of a suicide experience several phases or stages of grief. According to John Hewitt, “These different grief phases or stages do not occur automatically. Not every person will move directly from one to another. Your own phases of grief may not all occur in this order. However, almost everyone will experience these particular emotions sometime during suicide grief. The phases overlap, and will even recur at later times.”
A brief summation of those stages follows:
- Shock. The mind is anesthetized because of the tremendous blow it has received. Physical symptoms include tightness in the throat, upset stomach, shortness of breath, and lethargy. Questions begin to flood the mind: Why did this happen? Was it my fault? What did I do to cause this?
- Relief. If there was a great deal of turmoil in the family caused by the one who died, there may be a sense of relief that it is over.
- Catharsis. The numbness begins to lessen and the sense of loss is finally realized. A flood of emotions may overwhelm those left behind. One emotional wave follows another, including fear, denial, guilt, anger, relief, and depression. All of these feelings must be allowed to come out, not be bottled up inside. This is no time to be brave and “keep a stiff upper lip.”
- Depression. The preceding emotional flood will eventually subside to some degree and depression will come with the realization that the suicide really did happen—that the person is dead. This is the time when the survivors may need the help of a doctor or counselor (or both).
- Guilt. Feelings of guilt are common among survivors of a suicide. Guilt comes in many forms. Survivors may feel guilty for any death wishes they had toward the deceased, whether conscious or unconscious. There may be guilt over arguments and angry words exchanged with the deceased. There may be guilt over what survivors thought they could have done or wish they had done to stop it. Guilt, whether it is real or imagined, must eventually be dealt with.
- Preoccupation with the loss. Survivors often find many of their waking moments filled with thought of the suicide—some harmless and some destructive. This preoccupation may express itself in daydreaming, identification (mimicking the mannerisms, speech patterns, etc. of the deceased), bereavement dreams, shrine building (creating a museum to the deceased), selective memory, and idealizing the deceased.
- Anger. It is normal and natural for survivors to be angry. That anger must come out for real healing to begin. Survivors feel angry toward the deceased for rejecting them. They feel anger over the lasting effects of the death. They may feel anger toward God for allowing it to happen. They may feel anger toward other people. They may be angry with themselves over what they feel they did or did not do that led to the death.
Adapted from John H. Hewitt, After Suicide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1980), 32-50.