Suicide - Survivors

By Jerry Price
Nov 1, 2006

“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.

Further Learning

Learn more about: Life, Suicide,

12 Comments

1 On Aug 17, 2007, at 9:49pm, Susan wrote:

I am grateful for this resource. I lost my 15 year old daughter over 10 years ago. She shot herself in the woods behind her grandparents house. It was and still is unbelievable to think my daughter chose to end her own life. I have been revising a book of poems in memory of Jessica. The poems could possibly help others who have endured something of this magnitude. I was wondering if I could share one or two with a larger audience?

Also, your stages of grief are so accurate, although we all grieve differently and some of us take longer to heal or deal I should say with this type of loss.

Thank you for listening.

2 On Sep 30, 2007, at 7:49pm, Jennifer wrote:

We also lost our son (16) to suicide.  He hung himself in our home.  My husband found him.  This happened almost four months ago.  I have experienced many of the stages of grief, some more than once.  In the end (not that there will be an “end” of the grief, just a final result) I believe with my entire being that Joe’s death was meant to draw me and others closer to God.  Joe knew Jesus.  Joe just experienced a moment in his life where his agony over being epileptic and having a failing brain overtook him and he chose to end his life on earth.  I believe in the goodness and grace of God Almighty.  I believe He is a just God.  I believe He is the ONLY God.  I believe He has NO beginning and NO end.  I believe that Joe went immediately to heaven, and will be part of my welcome wagon when I arrive.  I will serve the Lord faithfully until the day He takes me home. 

I love Joe, but God loves him more.

3 On Aug 14, 2008, at 8:02am, Ashley wrote:

My Father took his life at 60.Jan 15,2007 I still find it hard to get rid of the preoccupation w/the loss. He served his country for 20 yrs as a Marine. A Vetietnam Vet. I was blessed to have both Mom & Dad.  My guilt is how my Mom & I have changed.I am lost & dont know how to deal with this. I also find it hard to have any feelings of angery for his choice. He had a hard life & it was taking its toll on his body. Any suggestions/places to go I would appreciate it He served & beleived in his country. My Dad was an amazing man. I was his 1 & only daughter. He made sure I could handle myself. I am so lost & into myself.I have a Mom that I can’t even help..she has lost the man she married & loved for 40 yrs. Their annivesery is next week. To me my Dad is the world & well my world is crumbling. I need to ease the pain the void find that small piece of joy in life again w/out him. Thank you for your time in reading this & if you have suggestions please let me know Daddy’s Girl Semper FI

4 On Aug 18, 2008, at 6:56pm, Bob wrote:

What city and state are you in?  Maybe someone on here can help direct you to a good Church where they can answer some of the questions you have.

5 On Sep 2, 2008, at 8:12pm, Debi wrote:

My mom was suffering from ovarian cancer and had been doing chemo for over a year.  There was no end to the treatment in sight.  She shot herself last night, while my dad was downstairs.  I realize her pain is gone.  I appreciate the information here on what I should expect for my dad and myself.  I believe there is a God and he will welcome her because there isn’t a single person alive or passed that can ever measure up to who my mom was.  I hope I can be at least half as good of a person as she was.

6 On Sep 2, 2008, at 11:46pm, Ashley Phoenix AZ wrote:

Debi - My heart goes out to you and your father.  Just be ready to not be ready for any of the feelings that you and he will be having.  One momment you will be so ok with the fact that she is no longer in pain and then within seconds it may switch to a horrible empty feeling that I have only heard about never experienced until it happened.  I am not sure I am the one to give advice as each person will go thru everything totally different.  I wish your strength!!  My Mom found comfort in things I do not and vice versa….please feel free to contact me if nothing else just to vent.  It is hard talking to others that have lost but not to suicide.

7 On Oct 11, 2008, at 4:45am, Becky wrote:

20 years ago my friend’s wife killed herself. His oldest son blamed him and never spoke to him for 3 years.  Through the years the relationship has changed, but the son made his Dad pay for his house, swimming pool, vacations, and now his oldest son college tuition. If my friend doesn’t pay, then the son talkes horribly to him, bringing on major guilt and depression.  He is afraid of losing his youngest grandchild if he doesn’t pay for the things the son wants.  The oldest grandchild that is in college is a carbon copy of his Father.. all he wants is money from his grandfather. The daughter-in-law is no help, she likes the lifestyle she lives in and will not go against her husband.
Can you give me something to tell him that would help the situation?

8 On Nov 6, 2008, at 6:07am, Becky wrote:

I lost my son on march 8th, 2007. He was just 19 yrs. old. He would have been 20 on May 3rd of that yr. He hung himself in the front garage. He had ADHD & had been depressed over his relationship with his girlfriend. Right now, to me, time has stood still, like it had been yesterday. It’s been very hard on me & I often wonder if I will make it past this. I’m angry, very much so & I hope that this will pass in time as I’m sure it will. I believe that he is with Christ now, which is a comfort to me.

9 On Feb 26, 2009, at 10:27pm, Beckey wrote:

My husband committed suicide on September 30th, 2008. My 10 years old son and I found him hanging in our garage. We had absolutely no signs symptoms or warnings. This was also our 1st born granddaughters 2nd birthday. We were married for almost 19 years, and now my best friend, partner and lover is gone forever. I find it so hard to believe because this was something that he was so opposed to, we had lost 2 friends in this way and he had always said “How could anyone be so selfish to do something like this to their family “? “Why didn’t they ask for help”? I don’t know what was going through his head or why he made such a choice but I just want him to be at peace now for whatever he was going through and couldn’t share, but I still have moments of being angry with him that he left me, my son, his 3 daughters, and 3 grandchildren. I miss him and love him so much.

10 On Mar 16, 2009, at 11:29am, Barbara wrote:

My former husband, father of my two wonderful children 22 & 25 yrs old - OD’d on his precription meds for gout. He had been holed up in a motel for days while everyone frantically searched for him.  He was found but still perished the following day. I still can’t believe the shocking circumstances around his death and how our amazing children were drawn into his sad, sick demise. The man who died is nothing like the person I loved & had children with years ago. How does this happen??  Although I was personaly removed from his life - I am extremely angry about the “legacy” he has left our children.  They are wonderful and I am so proud of them.  I am sadden/disgusted that he left them with so many questions and a huge mess.

11 On Mar 29, 2009, at 5:20am, melanie wrote:

Does anyone know the statistics of how sucidie runs in families?

12 On Apr 10, 2009, at 1:17am, Ashley wrote:

Melanie,

I know that you can do a google search regarding the statistics.
Just by me putting in this part of your question to google I got a lot of information: how suicide runs in families

Here are a few I could find,it does not mean that I agree or disagree with any of them, hope it helps:
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-in-the-us-statistics-and-prevention/index.shtml

http://erlc.com/article/suicide-statistics/ (this site is one)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/jan/24/oliver-james-suicide

To my knowledge there had not been anyone that we knew of that choose this way to end their life in the family.  However, we did know a few others over the time I lived in ND.

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