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Support for Survivors

The American Psychiatric Association ranks the trauma of losing a loved one to suicide as “catastrophic”; on par with that of a concentration camp experience.

The death of a loved one is never easy; even if you are “expecting” it. Say for example, an elderly loved one who has suffered many years from a lengthy illness. Grief is a universal experience that we all go through. The death of a loved one who has died by suicide, brings on a whole other level of grief and pain. A pain so intense that it is almost intolerable. “The suicide survivor faces all the same emotions as anyone who mourns a death, but they also face a somewhat unique set of painful feelings on top of their grief.”

While all those who mourn a loved one may share in the different stages of grief, for the survivors of suicide it can be complex. It is important to remember that grief is not an event; it is a process of experiencing the physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of the loss. It is also important to realize that everyone grieves differently and at their own pace. There is no right or wrong in the process (as long as it is not harmful to themselves or someone else). Grief is a personal experience and does not follow a linear path.

Responses/Emotions survivors may experience:

  • Shock: Suicide is a shocking event that shatters your world. You may feel numb; like you are just going through the motions. You may experience Fight/Flight/Freeze. Fight: you may physically attack the person giving the notification or scream so you can’t hear what they are saying. Flight: you may faint or attempt to run away. Freeze: you may not be able to speak or move.
  • Denial: The mind is very powerful. Denial is the mind’s way of buffering the full weight of a trauma until it can be absorbed. Grief is not always rational, especially in the beginning.
  • Sleep issues: Either difficulty sleeping or wanting to sleep all the time.
  • Eating issues: Either stop eating or eat more than you normally would.
  • Vulnerability: May feel that the world no longer makes sense.
  • Sadness: This may be overwhelming. You may feel empty and question whether life will go on.
  • Abandonment/rejection: Suicide is often misunderstood and family/friends may shy away from offering support because they do not understand or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.
  • Physical responses: May be more vulnerable to physical illness. You may feel worn out or experience headaches, dizziness, digestive issues, chest pain, or breathing problems.
  • Crisis of faith: You may question your relationship to God, religion, or your spiritual community. For some, they may find comfort and support from their faith community.
  • Relief: Especially if your loved one suffered from a mental illness or struggled with everyday life. As much as you miss them, you do not have to worry about them anymore. This does not mean you loved them any less.
  • Anger: This is very common and it is important to express it. Anger because of the loss of all the possibilities that could have been. Anger that you did not have the opportunity to help them or chance to say goodbye. You ask yourself “WHY?”
  • Guilt: Anger may turn into guilt. You end up feeling guilty that you have been angry at your loved one. So instead, you may begin to blame yourself. This may include a lot of “should haves/ should not have”. The belief that you could have done something to prevent the suicide. This mistaken assumption is the survivor’s greatest enemy. “Thinking that you (or anyone else) could have prevented the suicide, is assuming that we all have far more power over the lives of others than we actually do”. It is important to acknowledge the difference between blame and responsibility. Blame is judgmental. Assigning responsibility is just acknowledging a fact. No one is the sole influence in another’s life.

Despite the enormous loss, it is possible to overcome one of life’s most difficult experiences. You are on a journey that you did not choose. There is help out there. You are not alone.

Ways of Coping:

  • Communicating: Talk and write about your feelings. Begin a journal or use an online forum. Tell your story.
  • Support groups: Either in person or online. Avoid prolonged periods of isolation.
  • Counseling: Look for a trauma counselor who has experience with survivors of suicide. Could be individual or family counseling.
  • Listen to yourself: Be aware of the signals from your body, mind, heart, and spirit.
  • Be gentle with yourself: Let yourself grieve. Let yourself cry. Let yourself heal. Let yourself laugh.
  • Exercise: It releases endorphins, which enhance the immune system, relieves pain, and lowers stress. Other ways to produce endorphins are meditation, deep breathing, and laughing.
  • Maintain a normal routine: This may help the survivor regain a sense of control.
    • “The truth is that you will never “get over it”, but don’t let that thought discourage you. After all, what kind of people would we be if we truly got over it, as if it were something as trivial as a virus? Your hope lies in getting through it, putting your loss in its proper perspective, and accepting your life as it now lies before you, forever changed. If you can do that, the peace you seek will follow.”

National Traumatic Loss Resources

Local Traumatic Loss Programs

Halifax Health Traumatic Loss Program

The Halifax Health – Hospice Traumatic Loss Program is designed to meet the needs of those bereaved by a sudden, unnatural death. These specialized services are offered to residents who have experienced a loss due to homicide, suicide, accidents, line of duty, war, terrorism, or natural disaster. Call 386.425.3339 for more information.

Halifax Health’s BeginAgain Children’s Program

The Lawrence E. Whelan BeginAgain Children’s Grief Centers provide a safe and child-friendly environment. Modeled after the DougyCenter in PortlandOregon, this hospice-related program encourages grief expression in ways best suited for children and teenagers. Some of the activities include support groups, art, drama, music and physical activity. Children from age 4 -18 who have experienced the death of someone close to them are eligible to participate. Flagler Beach location, call 386.425.3100