Experiencing bereavement is really tough. Whether it’s the death of a pet, family member, friend, or even someone we see each time we go to the supermarket, it can hit us hard and send a big jumble of messy feelings our way. When our loved one dies by suicide, we experience unique challenges and our grief can come out in different ways.
It can affect us differently according to how we’re related to the person who’s died. There isn’t a hierarchy of grief, one person’s grief is no ‘worse’ than another person’s, but the way that our loved ones die can impact our grieving process.
It Was Never Our Job To ‘Save’ Them
We aren’t in control of anyone’s actions except our own. It’s impossible to be awake, and by our loved one’s side, every second of every day. We can’t ‘cure’ our loved one’s mental illness, however much we might wish we could.
No matter how hard we try, how much we love someone, how often we check in with them or their mental health team, how many nights we stay up with them or how tightly we hug them, we can’t miraculously ‘save’ or ‘cure’ them. The phrase ‘we can support but we can’t rescue’ is one that can be helpful to remember.
Their Suicide Is Not Our Fault
We are not to blame for our loved one’s suicide.
Had an argument with our cousin the last time we saw them? Their suicide is not our fault.
Slept on the sofa the night before our partner died? Their suicide is not our fault.
Shouted “I hate you” at our parent the morning before they died? Their suicide is not our fault.
Teased our sibling about something one time? Their suicide is not our fault.
Went through illness ourselves? Their suicide is not our fault.
Forgot to reply to a friend’s text? Their suicide is not our fault.
Didn’t notice any signs in our neighbour? Their suicide is not our fault.
Missed a phone call from our son because we were asleep? Their suicide is not our fault.
Their suicide is not our fault.
A Suicide Doesn’t Indicate Lack Of Love
If one of our loved ones dies by suicide, it does not mean that they didn’t love us. Whatever happened over the course of our relationship, the way in which our loved one died doesn’t indicate the amount of love they had for us. Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong, and people die, and that’s so hard to cope with, but it doesn’t mean that they didn’t love us.
When We’re With Them As They Die
Our loved one might be found at a point where they haven’t died, but they will never recover. Medics might attempt resucitation before gently telling us that they’re going to stop trying. We might have to decide whether we want to be by our loved one’s side when resuscitation is stopped.
If we make it as far as a hospital, then we might be asked to make a decision about removing life support. In some situations, we might also be asked about organ donation. Sometimes, our only option is to lean on medical professionals and trust their judgement. We don’t have to have all of the answers.
We might be able to take comfort in being by our loved one’s side as they die. Equally, we might find that too painful, and choose to step away. And that’s okay. We have to prioritise our own wellbeing.
When Our Loved One Dies By Suicide And We’re Not There
Sometimes, we’re not there when our loved one dies. Perhaps we don’t live near them. They might have gone missing and been found a while later. Maybe they died while we were at work. We can’t be by their side every second of every day.
This can be so hard. If our loved one died alone, it can haunt us.
Our loved one may have died with nobody physically by their side, but that doesn’t mean that they were alone. They might have had us, and others, emotionally by their side every step of the way. Their own personal cheerleaders and shoulders to cry on.
We are not bad people if we’re not with them as they die. It’s not physically possible to be glued to our loved one 24/7; we’d both go bananas. We loved them so they were never truly alone.
A Post-Suicide Investigation
After an apparent suicide, a coroner will always be notified. There is usually an investigation to try and find out what happened. This will often include a post-mortem. The investigation is often followed by an inquest.
We might discover things about our loved one or their death that we didn’t want to know. The local community could find things out and people might gossip. Our loved one might have been found in a way that we find particularly distressing. If there is a lot of media surrounding their death, it can feel overwhelming and intrusive.
We might have religious beliefs surrounding burials or post-mortems and it’s important to discuss this with those involved so that they can appropriately support us. It’s only right that we’re supported to follow our beliefs as much as we’re reasonably able to do. Where we can’t follow specific customs or traditions, we deserve support to work through that and make peace with it.
An inquest into our loved one’s death can be a difficult experience. We might hear our loved one described using very clinical words and could hear things that we don’t want to know.
Inquests aren’t always quick. They can go on a bit. It’s a lot to cope with and it’s more than okay to do what we need to do to (safely) get through it whether that’s asking for particular adjustments or bringing a close friend with us.
Following an inquest, there is usually a conclusion. Sometimes this conclusion isn’t the resolution we want. For example, we might believe that our loved one intended to die, but their death could be recorded as misadventure. This can muddle our brain up and be tough to come to terms with.
Taking Further Legal Action
We might decide that our loved one completed suicide due to negligence. In these cases, it’s often the NHS, a private company, or another care provider who we believe has been negligent. We could choose to take legal action. It might be something we feel we need to do to gain closure or justice for our loved one. We might believe that specific members of staff should not be working in that service any more and want to make sure that nobody else is let down in the way we believe our loved one was. Legal cases such as these can be expensive and go on for years. Even then, we might not get the outcome we want and have to work out a way to make our peace with that.
All of this stuff is so difficult to cope with. It’s important to look after ourselves throughout. To try and let those close to us know when significant dates are, such as the date that the inquest is opening. We might not want them to come with us, but by being aware of the date, it keeps them in the loop and makes things a little easier if we need their support on the day.
We’re allowed to ask for support. If support is offered, we’re allowed to accept it. We don’t have to go through all of this alone.
The Question Of Why
When someone completes suicide, we often have lots of questions. One of the more common questions is ‘why?’. Why did they die? What happened to make suicide feel like the only option? Why didn’t they talk to us? These thoughts can be particularly prevalent following the inquest.
Sometimes people leave something behind that might help to answer, or partially answer, some of our questions. Other people don’t leave anything much at all. Unfortunately, no matter what we read, or how much information is left behind, the question of ‘why’ usually remains. We may never get the answers we’re looking for.
One of the hardest aspects of death by suicide can be coming to terms with the knowledge that we can never ask our loved one why, and will never know the answers to our questions.
Coping With Other People’s Reactions
People don’t always know what to say when someone dies, and this awkwardness can be amplified when someone completes suicide.
Sometimes people say stuff that we think is really stupid. At times they say things that we don’t agree with. Sometimes they say stuff that upsets us or makes us really angry. Often, there will be questions about exactly how our loved one died, which can feel totally inappropriate.
Most people mean well, even if they say something unhelpful. Often, we can tell when someone is trying to be kind and isn’t aware that they’ve what they’ve said could be upsetting, and when someone’s being deliberately unkind.
Sometimes people won’t react at all. In fact, they practically disappear off the face of the earth for a while. It can be really tough, especially if they’re a close friend or family member. When this happens, it’s usually because they don’t know what to say, aren’t coping with it themselves, or don’t want to accept that it’s happened.
We might find that we lose friends (which is the last thing we need). But we might also be surprised by those who step up. People can be kinder and more supportive than we think they might be, and a helping hand can appear from the most unexpected places.
Unfortunately, when someone dies by suicide, people sometimes think that we need to hear their opinion.
They might tell us that suicide is a selfish act (fact check: it’s not – in fact, many people who die by suicide think that they’re making things better for their loved ones). Someone might tell us that a particular religion has a certain view and our loved one is going to hell (fact check: religious texts can often be interpreted in different ways and if it’s worrying us we can speak to a faith leader). They might repeatedly use the phrase ‘committed suicide’ (fact check: suicide hasn’t been a crime in the UK since 1961).
It’s not our job to fact check their stigma. Nor is it our job to myth-bust their misconceptions or de-bunk their discrimination. If we want to it, and it helps us, we might choose to enter into a conversation with them. But if not, that’s okay too. We can simply walk away and ignore their messages. Stigma isn’t something we need to hear, and we’re not responsible for stamping it out.
Coping With Other People’s Grief
As well as coping with our own grief, there are some circumstances where we also have to cope with other people’s grief.
This is common in family units. For example, if our aunt dies then we might have to cope with our parents’ grief.
At times this can be a comfort. We can offer mutual support to one another. But as we don’t always grieve in the same way, sometimes our grief isn’t quite ‘compatible’. For example, we might be someone who’s a big talker or hugger, and our sister might be someone who processes for ages and then talks. This can be tough. Sometimes we have to prioritise ourselves and turn to different people for the support we need.
Sometimes seeing other people’s grief can be heartbreaking. Supporting our children to grieve for their parent while we grieve for our partner could be one of the hardest things we will ever do. In these circumstances, it’s important to make space for others to grieve, but it’s just as important to make space for ourself to grieve.
We don’t have to go through it alone. Outside help can be hugely beneficial both to us and the other grievers in our life. This help could be in the form of friends, our extended family, or professionals.
The Grieving Process
If we start to search for information about grief, we’re likely to come across the concept of ‘five stages of grief’; denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. This is based on early research about the grieving process. Some people think that this pattern still applies, others think that the stages are relevant but rather than working linearly, we jump backwards and forwards between them, and some people contest the theory altogether.
It would be really nice if there was a logical step-by-step process that we could plot ourselves on and tick off as we go. But in reality, grief is messy. Grief can drown us in every single emotion. We might not be able to name all the emotions we feel; sometimes it’s just one huge blob of painful overwhelm.
Some Reactions We Might Identify With
We will all react differently when we’re bereaved by suicide, because we’re all different people. but there are some things that others who have also been in our situation have experienced. Perhaps we’ll react similarly, or perhaps we won’t, but through learning what others have experienced, it can help us to feel less alone, and to identify some of our own emotional and physical responses.
Sometimes we feel guilty about the emotions we feel. It’s not uncommon to feel some relief when a loved one dies; especially if they’ve been unwell for a long time. That can be hard to grapple with because we’d do anything to have our loved one back, and the feeling of relief can feel contradictory to that. But our relief isn’t usually a sense of relief that they’ve died, often we’re relieved that they’re no longer in pain and that we no longer have to worry about them harming themselves.
There are some other feelings that are often associated with grief. We’re likely to feel sadness, although this sadness might not arrive for a while because it can take time for us to process what we’re going through. Sometimes we will feel despair, desperation and hopelessness.
We might worry about other family members and friends. For some time after our loved one dies, we could be hyper-vigilant for any signs that someone else is going to die, too. Every single time our phone goes off it can make us jump.
Due to the stigma that still exists around suicide, we might feel ashamed and as though we have failed as a parent, cousin, partner, sibling or friend. This can stop us from reaching out for support – but we don’t need to feel ashamed. Our loved one’s suicide is not a reflection on us and we deserve help and support to learn to live life without them.
As well as the messy emotional feelings, we might also have physical symptoms of grief, such as chest tightness, hyper-sensitivity, problems sleeping, poor concentration, lack of energy, and aches and pains.
A Trauma Response
The death of a loved one by suicide can be a traumatic experience and our body and mind might react as such. This can add another layer of ‘stuff’ to our grief. It’s often helpful access some support from a trauma-informed practitioner to help us to learn how to cope with it all.
We’re all different, and there is no right way to feel or react. Sometimes all we can do is ride the waves of emotion, try to be kind to ourselves, and keep expressing ourselves in ways that suit us.
When a loved one dies by suicide, we might feel intense anger. Perhaps we have kids to look after and have no idea how we’re going to cope as a single parent. Maybe we have huge debts to manage. We might be unable to understand why they completed suicide and could be angry with them for leaving us. Sometimes we feel betrayed.
We might be angry at an illness or a situation that may have contributed to their death. Sometimes we’re angry that the world isn’t fair. We might feel angry that others still have a son/Mum/friend/uncle/granddaughter. Our anger could be directed at the professionals who were supporting our loved one. Sometimes our anger is directed at ourselves for not saying the perfect thing, not saving them, or not being ‘enough’ full stop.
And then comes the guilt. Guilt about feeling angry. The shame of feeling angry at a person who’s died. Intense guilt over the thought that ‘I wish it was you/me/whoever instead’ so frequently comes to mind. Guilt at feeling anger towards those who we know did so much to help and support our loved one.
It’s natural to be angry. Our body and mind are attempting to make sense of a senseless situation. We can’t choose which feeling we feel at any one time. It’s okay. Punch pillows, go on a run, scribble, shout at nothing in the middle of a forest, rant, do whatever, it’s okay to do what we need to do to (safely) cope with our anger. But it’s important to get it out and not to let it consume us.
Sometimes we’re bereaved by suicide more than once.
‘Again?!’ is often one of our first thoughts. It can feel indescribably confusing and painful.
When we go through multiple bereavements, our thoughts can be amplified. One of the hardest thoughts to cope with is the one that says it’s our fault. It will probably tell us that we should have learned from the first one, seen the signs, and how could we let this happen again?
The guilt and worthlessness we feel can leave us feeling utterly dejected. Our trauma response can go into overdrive. We might have absolutely no idea what to do.
Whether we’ve been bereaved by suicide once or 100 times, it is not our fault. We are not responsible for saving others. Additionally, each death is different. The signs, symptoms and circumstances will be different for each person.
It’s not our fault or a measure of our worth. It’s an awful situation that we deserve help and support with.
Supporting Someone Who’s Been Bereaved By Suicide
If one of our friends or family members has been bereaved by suicide, we might be unsure of how we can best support them. Helping a friend through bereavement is hard, and often we’ll keep coming back to the thought: ‘I don’t know what to say or do’.
Be honest. It’s often a relief to hear ‘this sucks’ instead of ‘they’re in a better place’ or ‘they’re free from their pain’. When a friend plonks themselves next to us, acknowledges the awfulness of the situation and asks us what we need, it can give us the space we need to drop the mask, feel, and show up as we are.
Show up. This one of the most important things we can do. We might not know what to say or do – but who does? There’s no guidebook for coping with dreadful situations. It’s much better to turn up and say ‘I don’t know what to say or do, but I’m here’ than to avoid the situation because we’re not sure of the perfect words.
Reach in. When we go through a traumatic loss, it can be incredibly difficult to reach out. We might fear judgements, worry about burdening people, or struggle to have the motivation or brain space to write a text. Sometimes, we need our friends and family to contact us first.
Be patient. Coping with bereavement is not a quick process. We’ll probably never get over it – we often grow with and around grief as opposed to escaping it altogether. Please don’t abandon us. Keep reaching in even if there’s no response. Remind us that you care. Don’t expect us to heal overnight.
Help us with death admin. We might need support with the funeral, inquest, and any other ‘admin-type’ tasks that need doing. Even something like trying to close down a bank account can take a huge amount of mental energy and might be much harder than it initially seems. Having a friend by our side can make a big difference.
Practical support. Perhaps we need a hand with childcare. Maybe we need a hand moving our loved one’s stuff. It might help us out if you could give us a hand with cooking, washing or shopping. Ask us what we need.
Talk to us about our loved one. Sometimes when someone dies, people become fearful of talking about them or saying their name. But we might want to talk about them. We might want to reminisce, laugh, and share things that remind us of them. When people die people often talk about them as if they can do no wrong; we might need to talk about their downs as well as their ups. In time, we might want to do something to remember them such as a fundraising event, or a creative project to keep their memory alive. As time passes, we might appreciate you remembering significant dates such as our loved one’s birthday, an anniversary, or the date of their death.
Help us to find support. Trying to find support services can be overwhelming. We might need a hand with booking a GP appointment, or someone to sit in the waiting room with us. Maybe it would help us if you found out which charities and local services operate in our area. Don’t push stuff onto us, but let us know that you’re up for helping with that kind of thing if we need a hand.
Most of all, be our friend. We’re not an alien – we’re the same person you always knew. Talk to us as you always have. Sit and watch a film with us. Do the things you’ve always done with us. We haven’t turned into our ‘loved one’s bereaved person’ overnight. We’re still us, please keep being our friend.
Support And Resources
We can always make a GP appointment and they might be able to refer us to local services. There are a range of organisations who might be able to help us. Cruse are a bereavement charity who offer free counselling including support specifically for those who’ve been bereaved by suicide. Survivors Of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) also help people who’ve been bereaved by suicide.
GriefCast is a podcast run by Cariad Lloyd in which she talks to other comedians about grief and loss. It can be comforting to hear others talk about things that we feel because it can help us to feel less alone.
Healing takes time. Coping with a bereavement is tough, and we’re likely to go through all sorts of different phases, feelings and emotions. At times, a tsunami of emotion can come out of nowhere. We’ll probably start seeing little reminders all over the place.
It’s important to be patient with ourselves. We deserve kindness and support; we deserve to feel okay. And in time, we will feel okay again.
Please help us to help others and share this, you never know who might need it.