When a loved one dies by suicide

6 min read

When a loved one dies by suicide, it is perhaps the most wrenching loss of all. It is common for families to feel shocked to their core, and wracked with feelings of helplessness.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of families are dealing with suicide today, with deaths from suicide rising 5% in 2021, after declining in 2019 and 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And provisional estimates show that they increased again in 2022, rising 2.6% for a total of 49,449 deaths across the US. 

If you are dealing with this kind of loss, it is important to take extra care as you are grieving. The intense trauma of this experience can affect survivors in numerous and even surprising ways. Pushing yourself to “get back to normal” quickly will not make things better, and may even backfire.

You have suffered a deep and complex blow; it is completely normal and common to need some time to come to terms with what happened—in addition to grieving the loss of your loved one. As you take the time you need, there are some things to know about the experience that may help ease the confusion and pain of surviving a loved one’s suicide.

The strain on survivors

Grief after suicide can feel like a series of intense ups and downs. And it has some particular risks associated with it because news of a loved one’s suicide sometimes brings up suicidal thoughts in others.

These feelings are common, and it is important to reach out for help when they come up: Reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or their number (1-800-273-8255). This kind of crisis support can help you and your family members understand more about suicide and dismantle old, harmful myths that add to our suffering unnecessarily.

Dealing with guilt

Most people in grief experience guilt of some kind. It’s a way that we may unconsciously try to exert control over the situation to make it less painful, by imagining that we could have done something different to stop it.

Guilt is one of the many reasons that grief can feel complex and overwhelming while you’re going through it.

When a loved one dies by suicide, these feelings may be even more intense.

Resolving feelings of guilt after the death of a loved one is no easy task, because the person is no longer able to grant you the closure you may feel you need. It’s challenging, and can often be a long road to reckon with your new reality.

You should not, however, embark on this journey alone. The best long-term solution to dealing with guilt and grief is to seek out a therapist who can help you work to live with and potentially overcome long-standing feelings of guilt in your relationships. 

Sharing the news

As you begin to tell others about your loved one’s passing, be prepared that people may try to make sense of the unfathomable by going over the details again and again.

You are under no obligation to share every small detail, especially if you do not want to rehash them again and again with well-meaning but insatiably curious (and inadvertently hurtful) friends or family.

It is OK to protect your own peace. In fact, it is important that you do, for your own health. You can reply to these questions by simply saying, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that.” If they persist, repeat the phrase until they get the message.

Dealing with PTSD

According to a 2014 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, “unexpected death was associated consistently with elevated odds of new onsets of PTSD, panic disorder, and depressive episodes at all stages of the life course.”

Symptoms of PTSD include heart palpitations; sweating; hyperventilating; problems sleeping; feeling angry, tense, or jumpy; and dwelling on what the person might have gone through in their final moments.

Granted, there is quite a bit of overlap between these symptoms and the different ways that grief can be expressed. But PTSD may be a factor when the symptoms dramatically affect your day-to-day life and do not ease up with time.

Either way, the help of a good therapist can help you work through these intense feelings and processing your grief. Your loved one’s sudden death may have been the most harrowing day of your life, but it does not have to define you or torture you forever.

Self-care after suicide

While professional help is important, there are also everyday habits that may help you process your grief and find strength through connecting with others.

Eating nutritious meals, taking walks or getting other forms of exercise, and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule are all hugely helpful as your body, mind, and soul go through what is likely to be the most difficult days of your life.

Admittedly, that is easier said than done for a body going through grief. But every little bit counts, especially when it comes to adequate rest.

Another way to help yourself in grief is to lean on your support system. It might seem like a simple answer, but our close friends and family are often the most able and willing to care for us.

After a suicide, this is particularly true because of the misconceptions and misunderstandings about the experience. Talking with friends and acquaintances may prove to be challenging or even upsetting. You may naturally want to lean on a tight circle—or perhaps a support group for suicide survivors—and that is completely healthy and normal.

Talk to people you trust about your feelings, or at least try to put aside some time each day to acknowledge your grief. Aside from talking, there are other methods of release such as writing in a journal, poetry, music, writing, painting, and dancing. Holding in your feelings and pretending they are not there is not an ideal way to handle your grief, so any outlet that works for you is beneficial.