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Resources 2018-07-03T13:35:48+00:00

If you have been bereaved or affected by suicide or if you are supporting someone else, this section will help you to understand how a bereavement by suicide is different, how it affects people and ways to support.

It is important to know that you are not alone.

FAQ

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Bereavement by suicide shares characteristics with other bereavements and it is also different.

The grieving process is often complicated and typically lasts longer than other types of bereavement – significant effects may still be felt for many years after the death. We are all individuals and each person will have had a unique relationship with the person who died – there is no single or correct way to experience bereavement. However there are many common reactions and factors in bereavements by suicide.

1. Experience of bereavement by suicide

Circumstances of the loss
A death by suicide is usually sudden, often unexpected and may be violent. These factors increase the degree of shock and trauma experienced compared to many other types of bereavement. Survivors may struggle to make sense of what has happened and fundamental beliefs may be challenged.

Emotional and physical reactions
Bereavement by suicide can bring an intensity and range of emotions and physical reactions which may be unfamiliar, frightening and uncontrollable.
Emotional reactions are often complex and people may find that they are experiencing a bewildering range of feelings including guilt, anger, shame, rejection, sadness and fear. People who have been bereaved by suicide may become vulnerable to thoughts of suicide themselves.

Physical reactions may include tightness in various body parts, stomach pains, sleeplessness and poor concentration.

Post traumatic stress
Those who have been bereaved by suicide may have symptoms of post traumatic stress. If the person witnessed the death or found the body, they may suffer from flashbacks or nightmares. This can also happen even if the person did not see them, but cannot stop imagining what happened – and imagination may be worse than the reality.

2. Stigma and isolation
Death by suicide, even more than other types of bereavement, makes many people uncomfortable and unsure how to react. There is still a stigma attached to suicide, rooted in centuries of history and this generates misplaced associations of weakness, blame, shame or even sin or crime. This stigma can prevent people from seeking help when they need it and others from offering support when they want to.

There may be a desire to deny that the death was a suicide – this may be driven by cultural values or from a sense of denial or of shame. This can create further confusion in an already complex situation.

Many people who have been bereaved by suicide find that they feel isolated. Others may avoid them, perhaps not knowing what to say or because they don’t want to upset the person. The sense of isolation may be especially acute if the bereaved person perceives other people to be uncaring or judgemental. Some people are unlucky enough to receive particularly thoughtless and malicious comments.

It may also be that the bereaved person avoids contact themselves – they may struggle to share their own feelings because they are fearful themselves of what they are experiencing, they don’t want to upset other people or they may worry about how to answer questions such as “how did he/she die?”

3. Family and community tensions
Whilst family and friends are often a great source of support, they can also be a source of tension and conflict. Sometimes families struggle to communicate, protective instincts kick in and they may be worried about causing more pain or about having a different view or feeling to others. Because the range of feelings and emotions experienced after a suicide can be so unfamiliar and frightening, people may be uncomfortable or scared to share.

Existing tensions and difficulties in family relationships can be surfaced as a result of the shock and trauma. Some people cope with their pain by blaming another person for the death – this may go as far as excluding them from the rest of the family, denying them the opportunity to attend the funeral and withholding information about the investigation. This can lead to huge rifts and a deep sense of hurt and isolation being added to the loss.

4. Lack of privacy
When someone dies by suicide, it can be difficult to maintain privacy. There may be emergency services at the scene and visits from police.

The process can be lengthy, the proceedings are unfamiliar and the language is legal and technical. In addition to being an added strain, investigations may reveal information about the bereaved person which was unknown to their family and friends.

Bereavement by suicide shares characteristics with other bereavements and it is also different – it can bring an intensity and range of emotions and physical reactions which may be unfamiliar, frightening and uncontrollable.

We are all different.  You may have some, all or none of the emotional or physical feelings described.  Do not worry that you are not reacting in the “right way” – there is no right or wrong way and we all respond differently to a death by suicide.   Read on to find out more about:

1. Emotional reactions
You may experience disturbances in your thinking and behaviour, as well as the following emotions:
• Shock and disbelief
• Anguish, longing and searching
• Anger, guilt, relief and shame
• Fear and anxiety
• Despair, depression and sadness

Shock and disbelief – these will often be the first reactions. In many cases the suicide was not expected or there was little warning. You may feel dazed and numb and you may have nightmares. These are normal results of shock.

“My world fell apart when my gentle, beautiful son died. The shock was immense. I cannot find the words to describe these moments… nothing made sense”

You may also feel disorientated and out of touch with the world around you

“I walk down the street and nothing seems real, including myself”

Anguish, longing and searching – You may have a desperate longing, not just to see the person again but to sort out whatever problems they were having and change the outcome for them. You find yourself searching for them and thinking that you see or hear them. You may find yourself behaving in ways which appear odd to outsiders but which help you to feel close to the person who died.

Anger – this is a common response to bereavement. You may be angry with yourself because you feel that you should have realised there was a problem or that you could have acted differently. You may be angry with others and this can take the form of blame – there is a danger of tormenting yourself if you pursue this. You may also feel angry with the person who died.

“I feel so guilty when I get angry with you and I do get angry with you. Angry for the way you made me feel. Angry for the way my life has changed since you died. Angry with you for leaving. Angry with you for so many things – none of which is truly your fault.”

Guilt – you may feel guilty about things you believe that you could or should have done, or about your feelings about the death. Those bereaved by suicide are plagued by thoughts of “if only…” Very often it can be some time before we realise that the decision the person made was a result of many factors and that the apparent reason for their decision was just the last in a long series of events.

Relief – When the person who died was known to have had a troubled or unhappy life, or made repeated suicide attempts, it is common for relief to be mixed in with other emotions that we feel. It can be difficult to admit this to ourselves and, when we do, we feel guilty about it. It is however a natural reaction. We are relieved not that the person’s life is over but that they are no longer suffering and perhaps that constant threats of suicide or other destructive acts will not happen again.

“It was only many years later that I learned my private, guilty, sense of relief was an understandable reaction to the stresses of living with my mother and her subsequent death from an overdose.”

Shame – some survivors feel ashamed because they feel that the suicide has branded them as, say, a bad parent, sister or partner in eyes of the community. This feeling of shame is often made worse by the stigma still attached to suicide and may be intensified if we isolate ourselves from people who we fear will blame or judge us.

Fear and anxiety – you may be worrying about the welfare of other family members and terrified about the consequences for vulnerable relatives. How will you and others cope? What will the future be like? These are normal concerns.

Despair and depression – following a bereavement by suicide, the constant swings of emotion, the never ending questioning, the physical pain and lack of sleep all have an effect and you may need to consult your doctor. The pain you experience may be so intense that you find yourself having thoughts about taking your own life – you must seek help if you have these thoughts, get support from your Doctor. Don’t delay.

Sadness – This is one of the most common feelings. It is natural to cry but it is also quite normal for some of us not to do this as we were brought up not to show our feelings. Men typically cry less than women but this is not always the case.

“There were days when I could feel myself going downhill with no brakes and all I could do was shut myself in my bedroom and howl”

Grief can also affect sexual feelings and this can become a source of conflict between partners and lead to a greater sense of isolation.

2. Physical reactions
You may experience some or all of the following physical sensations:
• Hollow or twisting pain in the stomach
• Tightness in the chest
• Tightness and pain in the throat
• Sensitivity to noise
• Breathlessness
• Disturbed sleep
• Poor concentration
• Lack of energy

You should be aware of any physical symptoms and consult with your doctor if they persist over a long period of time as they may lead to a more serious physical condition.

Trauma
The death of another person by suicide can be traumatic. If you discovered the body or witnessed the death you may find yourself experiencing recurring nightmares or flashbacks. You may even be imagining what happened. Flashbacks are very distressing and can be symptoms of post traumatic stress.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. You should speak with your Doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress. Whilst anti-depressant medication may be prescribed, you may feel that these are not appropriate to your needs and you may want to explore an intervention such as psychological therapy.

There is no blueprint for how we react to and cope after a suicide. We each have our own relationship with the person who died and we all grieve in our own way and at our own pace.

When someone grieves in a different way to you, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care – they are just finding their own way to cope. But it can be hard if they behave in a way that you can’t relate to. It can also be difficult to express our own grief around others if they are reacting differently, especially if those people also had a close relationship with the person who died.

Patience and understanding is helpful and it important that you try and find somewhere you can share your feelings. And remember that there is support available from others from outside friends and family – this can provide a space to “be yourself” without having to worry about how others will react.

Read on to find out more about suicide bereavement can affect:

Partners
Losing the person you have chosen to share your life with can destroy your hopes and expectations for the future. When you lose a partner to suicide it is not unusual to experience strong feelings of rejection or betrayal – a sense that they broke your shared commitment, that they chose to leave you or that they did not feel that they could look to you for help.

“I felt I was not good enough to stay alive with….”

You are likely to have had one of the closest relationships with the deceased – physically and emotionally. If there were no indications of their intentions, you may question yourself about how you could not have noticed or feel that they deceived you by hiding it. Or if there were indications, you may feel guilty that you did not do enough. You may find yourself questioning other aspects of your relationship and worrying about how others perceive you as a partner or spouse.

It is likely that you will be grieving alongside your partner’s birth family and it may be that their reactions leave you feeling blamed in part or whole for the suicide. This may be unintentional but sometimes people voice explicitly where they think that the blame lies.

“This wouldn’t have happened if (s)he hadn’t been with you…”

If you have children, you may find that you have to manage your experience of grief as a spouse alongside supporting your children through the loss of their parent.

In addition to the emotional impact of your bereavement, you may have practical concerns as a result of now having to cope with finances, home and family single handedly. There may need to be major changes to your life – changing or giving up your job, moving to a more affordable house or becoming a single parent.

You may also find that your social life is impacted too – the world may suddenly feel as if it is made for couples. You may find that it is difficult to contemplate developing new relationships in the future.

Siblings
When you lose a brother or a sister, you lose someone who shared many experiences and memories and who you may have expected to be with you for most of your life. Many siblings share a deep, protective connection. You may feel very guilty that you did not do enough to help them or that you are still alive when they are not.

Siblings may find that they become isolated in the family – perhaps because the parents seek to protect their remaining children by not sharing or involving them in the experience or it could be that remaining brothers and sisters do not share fully with their parents because they do not want to provoke worry or distress.

Brothers and sisters may also feel overlooked when attention is directed towards the parents by others:

This can feel very isolating but is worth remembering that sometimes people find suicide a difficult topic and so they may use an indirect question to start to a conversation – “how is your mum?” – which may then lead to a more direct conversation.

Twins may feel an even more extreme sense of loss – emotional and physical – and may feel further isolated as so few will have a shared understanding of their experience.

Sons and Daughters
The death of our parents is always challenging but even more so when they die by suicide. It can invoke feelings of abandonment or rejection when someone who holds a key caring and guiding role in our lives takes their own life. The loss of a parent can have a particularly damaging effect on our self esteem.

In addition to dealing with your own grief and confusion, you may also find yourself dealing with a remaining parent who is grieving for their partner. This may be the first time that you have seen them emotionally vulnerable and it can be very distressing. If you are a child, they may still be caring for you whilst dealing with their own bereavement; if you are older you may find yourself caring for them as they grieve and that the roles become reversed.

If you lose your parent as a child you may find that people around you try to protect you and exclude you from details about the death. You may not be able to grieve fully and feelings may remain undealt with. This protection may even be so extreme that you may only find out the truth about your mother or father dying by suicide many years after the event, which may lead to a lot of memory searching, questioning and a break down of trust.

Grandparents
Grandparents are vulnerable to being hidden grievers, as much of the focus is on the partner or the parents – however the relationship is very close. You are likely to also be very concerned for your own children, the parents of the deceased and want to be supportive to them. Your own grief reaction may get overlooked.

Extended Family
You may not have been closely related however you may still be deeply affected by a suicide in your family, particularly if you had close relationship with the deceased. Other family members may not realise the depth of your grief – indeed they may look to you to provide practical help and support. However it can be very supportive to let them know how loved and appreciated the deceased was, when you feel that the time is right to share.

Ex Partners
An earlier separation or divorce may not limit the grieving – you may still care deeply for the person or be affected even if your relationship was not good. Some aspects of your pain may be increased – for example you may fear that your separation was a contributory factor.
You may feel confused about how you are feeling, particularly if you were not on good terms prior to the death. Your grief is normal – but others may not recognise this or may assume that you are not deeply affected.

Friends and Colleagues
Even if you are not related at all, you may still find that you are deeply affected by the suicide of a friend or colleague, particularly if you had a very close relationship or if you were part of a very close community – perhaps through education or work.

If they were a close friend you will grieve for their loss and may wonder if you could have done something to prevent their death. If your relationship was more formal (e.g. they were an employee), you may wonder if somehow you contributed to their distress. This may affect your confidence and impact your ability to manage others.

You might not realise that the suicide has had a significant impact on you – you may think that because you are not related, that you are or should not be affected in the same way. However it is important that you are able to talk about how you feel and that you seek support from your friends, family, community or elsewhere.

People who didn’t know the person who died
A suicide can have an impact even if you did not know the person. It may be that you somehow became involved in what happened (e.g. you found the body) or that they were part of your community. Whatever the circumstances, it is important to recognise that the suicide of a stranger can still have a profound effect on you – it may not cause you to grieve in the same way as family and friends but it can trigger strong emotions and questions. It is important that you find someone you can talk to and seek support from.

Most people bereaved by suicide are haunted by two questions – “why did the person take their life?” and “could I have somehow prevented it?”. These are impossible questions to answer and eventually the person may have to either have to accept that they will never know or settle on an answer which they can live with.

It is natural that the bereaved person will take some considerable time in exploring these questions and it is an important part of the grieving process. However it can also be damaging if they are unable to reach a stage where the questions occupy less of their thoughts or if they cannot find an answer they can accept. Self esteem, confidence and hope can be severely compromised.

The sad truth is that we can never really know the complete answer, as the only person who could tell us is the person who died. They might not even have really understood themselves.
These questions are a normal part of the journey as we try to make sense of what has happened. We might each have our own thoughts or insights however we rarely have all the pieces of the picture. Eventually you may find that you can settle on an answer that you can live with or that you can live with not knowing.

“After a while, the pauses between you asking yourself the questions get a bit bigger. You might stop thinking about it for a minute, then an hour, then a day and so on. It is always there but it does get less”

Why did they do it?
When a person ends their own life, it is usually the result of many factors and circumstances and not the result of a single incident. Only the person who died understood all of the “why’s” and how they fit together.

There may have been some clues about what may have led them to take their life for example if they had a history of depression or mental ill health. There may have been previous suicide attempts. Or there might not have been any indication that anything was wrong – indeed to the outside world it appeared that everything was normal and they had everything to live for.

Some people leave a suicide note though this is not as common as people think. Even if a note is left, it may not provide answers – it may be unclear what the words intended, there may be multiple interpretations or it may simply be impossible to comprehend and accept.

You may wonder if they actually meant to take their life. Were they simply making a cry for help that went too far? Were they actually aware of what they were doing, did they make a conscious choice?

“Over the years, I have changed my mind so many times about why I thought Sarah did what she did. Different answers have felt more comforting or helpful at different times. I know that I will never know the true answer – all I can do is work with what makes most sense to me in the moment”

Know that asking why is normal and that at first it may feel impossible that you will ever get beyond that question – but eventually you will find a way of thinking that you can accept or live with. Many people find that talking with others who share something of your experience helps them to reach this place.

Could I have done something to prevent it?
Guilt and self reproach are very common reactions when someone takes their own life – we all wonder if we could have somehow prevented it. It is one of the most difficult struggles for those bereaved by suicide – especially at first.

You may wonder if you missed the signs, that perhaps you were not attentive enough to what was happening. They may have hidden things from you. You may find yourself worrying why they didn’t feel that they could come to you.

If there were indications, you may feel guilty that you didn’t do more. A common experience is that they may have appeared to be getting better, for example they had a positive lift in mood and energy, in the period before they died. This is thought to be because the person experiences calm once they have made their decision to end their life.

Blaming yourself is a common reaction but potentially damaging to your health in the long term. The difficult truth is that we cannot be responsible for what happened, no matter how close we are or how much we love people. It is important that you get support and have people that you can talk to

“I have learned to live with a contradiction – logically, practically I know now and I accept that I couldn’t have prevented it. But I still feel guilty. Emotionally, I still feel that I should have been able to do something, that I let her down.”

Death by suicide, even more than other types of bereavement, makes many people uncomfortable and unsure how to react.  There is still a stigma attached to suicide, rooted in centuries of history and this generates misplaced associations of weakness, blame, shame or even sin or crime.  This stigma can prevent people from seeking help when they need it and others from offering support when they want to.  It can colour our perceptions, our thoughts and our actions – and we may not always be aware of it.

Many people who have been bereaved by suicide find that they feel isolated.  Others may avoid them, perhaps not knowing what to say or because they don’t want to upset the person.  Or people talk to them about their own experiences of bereavement – this is well intentioned, meant as a way of connecting but it can be hard to bear at a time when the bereaved person actually needs to be listened to.  The sense of isolation may be especially acute if the bereaved person perceives other people to be uncaring or judgemental.  Some people are unlucky enough to receive particularly thoughtless and malicious comments.

It may also be that the bereaved person avoids contact themselves – they may struggle to share their own feelings because they are fearful themselves of what they are experiencing, they don’t want to upset other people or they may worry about how to answer questions such as “how did he die?”

Whilst family and friends are often a great source of support, they can also be a source of tension and conflict.  Sometimes families struggle to communicate, protective instincts kick in and they may be worried about causing more pain or about having a different view or feeling to others.  Some families are not comfortable with certain types of expression or emotion, so it may be hard for family members to share how they are feeling.  It is important to remember that we each have our own way of dealing with the pain – someone elses reaction may seem strange, even uncaring to you but comparing or judging them is only likely to lead to more pain for you and for them.

Sometimes one person will assume the role of “being strong for everyone else” – or others will expect this of them.   It can be a great strain to care for others who are grieving whilst not feeling able to grieve yourself.

Existing tensions and difficulties in family relationships can be surfaced as a result of the shock and trauma.  Some people cope with their pain by blaming another person for the death – this may go as far as excluding them from the rest of the family, denying them the opportunity to attend the funeral and withholding information about the investigation.  This can lead to huge rifts and a deep sense of hurt and isolation being added to the loss.  Blame often comes from the pain of someone who is already blaming themselves in someway.

Cultural customs and beliefs about death, and suicide in particular, are varied.   It is important that you feel that you are understood by those from whom you are seeking support, otherwise the sense of isolation may be compounded.

A common concern is how to tell people about how the person died.  Many people worry that others might judge them when they hear that the person took their own life – if they are already experiencing doubts themselves, it is natural to imagine others will think the same.  It is important to remember that most people care for you and when they hear your news, what goes through their mind is how much they feel for you.  It can be helpful to try and think in advance how you want to explain it – some people say that the person took their own life, others find it easier to say that they died by suicide.  You might ask other family and friends to help with communications, there can be a lot of people to inform and preparing yourself and having each conversation can be a huge strain.

At first, and for some time after the death, you may not even be able to think about the way forward because all of your efforts will go into surviving and dealing with the emotional challenges and practical problems it has brought.  Losing a loved one always takes a long time to come to terms with but bereavement by suicide is known to involve a particularly difficult and lengthy period of grieving.

People may expect that you will recover within months; the truth is that you may never recover completely but you will adapt to a changed life over time.  Many people find that the second year may feel worse than the first (apart from the shock) and the third may be little better.  Be prepared for this however don’t think that it means you will always feel the pain so keenly.  You may not be able to imagine how the pain will lessen but over time the gaps in between the moments of thinking about your loss gradually get bigger and bigger.  Things will never be the same as before but you will find a “new normal”.

Many bereaved people find anniversaries difficult – it could be a birthday, Christmas or the anniversary of the death.  They are reminders that time has passed and that our loved ones are no longer here.  Often the anticipation of the event is worse than the reality, perhaps driven by a fear of re-experiencing the shock and pain.  Some people find it best to try and go about their normal routine or do something to keep busy, others find it helpful to organise a day out with a relative or friend, perhaps to go somewhere that you can remember the person who died.

Eventually you may find that life is feeling “more normal” and at some stage you may find yourself considering major life choices – perhaps meeting a new partner, having a baby or moving to a new home.   Be prepared that these new opportunities can suddenly raise feelings and questions which you may not be expecting.  Be aware of this, it is very natural and make sure that you continue to seek support when you need it.

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