Losing a loved one to suicide is devastating and confusing. Here are some ways that you can move through your grief and find the support that you need...
Losing a loved one is always incredibly painful, no matter what the circumstances. Yet when that loss is due to suicide, it can add many layers of complication and confusion to the grieving process. Feelings of guilt, anger and shame — as well as the stress of dealing with social stigmas around suicide — can all add to your shock, grief and loss.
After a loved one ends their life, many bereaved people also blame themselves for what happened. You might be tormented by the feeling there was something you could have done to prevent it, going over their last days or weeks again and again in your head. In the words of Gary Roe, author of Aftermath: Picking up the Pieces After a Suicide, ‘We heap ourselves up with guilt about what we could or should have done or said.’
You might also feel angry or betrayed at your loved one for leaving or ‘abandoning’ you without warning, especially if you shared a life together or they were in a caring role, such as a parent. Shock is another natural emotion, as they may have been acting normally beforehand, giving you no warning of what was going to happen. Finally, if your loved one didn’t leave a note or any kind of explanation, you might find yourself so tormented by the question of ‘why?’ that it feels impossible to find closure. In fact, all of these thoughts and feelings can block you from moving through the grieving process, causing you to get stuck in rage, self-blame and endless ‘if onlys’.
Added to this is the often awkward reactions of others, as people who haven’t lost a loved one to suicide might struggle to understand what you are going through. They might also find it difficult to talk to you about it, due to unfair stigmas around this issue in our culture. Worse still, you might find that they somehow ‘blame’ your loved one, labelling them as ‘selfish’ or ‘cowardly.’ So not only have you lost someone close to you, but you might find yourself having to defend their character in death. Added to this, you might even feel that you somehow have to defend yourself, for instance, after being asked ‘Weren’t there any signs?’
According to Gary Roe, ‘Suicide stigma has been around for a long time. We’ve seen suicide as an unforgiveable sin...it’s been labelled as cowardly, cruel, and selfish…this is part of the suicide tsunami that we battle. On top of the death, the shock, and the grief, our loved one gets labelled…’ That is why it is important to remember that people’s reactions aren’t a reflection of you or the person that you’ve lost. Instead, they are a reflection on our culture and its limited understanding of the issue.
All of these factors together make grieving a suicide incredbly complex, but with time and patience you can find a way through your loss. One of the first steps towards healing is gaining an understanding about why your loved one might have taken such a devastating step. This doesn’t mean finding concrete and definitive answers about why they did what they did — those answers might never fully come. Instead, it means understanding why people can feel driven to end their life and why you are not to blame for this.
One of the most important things to realise about a loved one ending their life is that ultimately, they did it because they were very unwell. Had they been in a healthy state of mind, it is unlikely they would have ever taken such a step.
In fact, in many ways it might not have seemed like a ‘choice’ to them at all, as they might have been in so much emotional pain that they felt as if they had no alternative. In some cases, they could also have been living with mental health issues for so long that it distorted their perceptions and sense of reality, so that they couldn’t see a way through their suffering. In other words, they might not have fully understood the full gravity and permanence of what they were doing to escape their pain or how much pain it would cause you and others. They might have truly believed you and others would be better off without them. They might just have been desperate for their suffering to stop.
One of the most common causes of suicide is severe depression, yet if someone has been living with this for a long time, they might have learned to hide the symptoms very well. That is why some people don’t seem obviously unhappy, depressed or despairing before ending their lives. They may even have developed a ‘high functioning’ way of managing their mental health struggles, for instance, holding down a demanding job and projecting an image of success.
Added to this, other conditions that can put an individual at suicide risk include traumatic stress or PTSD (caused by issues like abuse, assault or war trauma), bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia. People with issues around substance use and addiction might also be more at risk of ending their lives. And sometimes, these issues are never formally identified or treated.
And of course, huge life upsets such as relationship loss, job loss or financial problems can also play a part in triggering suicidal thoughts, as can chronic pain conditions or being diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness. Loneliness and isolation can also be a factor (especially after almost two years of a global pandemic involving lockdowns, social distancing and reduced mental health support).
Also, it is a tragic fact that some suicides are accidental — some people feel so desperate that they intend it as a ‘cry for help’, as a way of communicating a pain that they can’t talk about. But sadly, these cries for help can sometimes result in unintentional death.
It is also worth remembering that when a person makes the decision to end their own life, they may feel a sense of relief and even peace, as if a weight has lifted off their shoulders. Yet to their loved ones this can look as if any depressive symptoms or burdens have lifted and that they are ‘on the up’, creating a false sense of security. For this reason, it can sometimes be almost impossible to spot when someone is contemplating taking this step — it is a myth that the person will always be obviously depressed, at rock bottom or threatening suicide. Because up until the day that it happens, they might be acting as they usually would. And even if they do seem hopeless or upset, their loved ones might still have no reason to suspect that they would ever do something so drastic.
Finally, the majority of people who end their lives do so as a fairly impulsive snap decision, rather than planning it for weeks or months. This means that those close to them often have no advance warning signs of their intentions, giving them little or no chance to intervene. However, although the decision itself might be impulsive, the roots of it can stretch back very far in their lives. According to Gary Roe, suicide is, ‘...usually the culmination of of a number of factors over time. Childhood trauma or strongly adverse early experience have a massive impact on how we interpret and respond to what comes at us.’
So while your loved one might have made their decision impulsively and given no indication of their plan, their reasons for doing so were likely highly complex with roots stretching back years.
Added to this, factors like gender, age, cultural background or social status can make it much harder for some people to seek support when in despair. This means that they might never reach out to their families for help and could also feel too ashamed to get therapy or see their GP.
These groups include men, who might struggle to seek support as they may not want to seem ‘weak’ and might never have learned how to express more vulnerable emotions. Shockingly, suicide is the single biggest cause of death of men under 45 in the UK, with men being three times more likely than women to take their own lives.
Also, people from older generations — who might have grown up believing there was some form of ‘stigma’ or ‘shame’ around mental illness — could also be reluctant to get help. Added to this, individuals who put a lot of importance on the outward appearance of ‘having it all together’ might not want to admit to others that they are struggling. So if they are dealing with a possible loss of social status — for instance, through job loss, business failure or bankruptcy — they could feel that suicide is the only way out.
Yet even if your loved one wasn’t in any of these groups, it is important to remember that two key aspects of depression are deep feelings of hopelessness and shame. In other words, they might have felt that there was ‘no point’ in seeking help from you or anyone else, or might have simply felt too ashamed to open up about their feelings. If this was the case, then it was a very cruel and debilitating cognitive distortion. But it is not something that you — or they — are to blame for in any way.
Dealing with the loss of a friend or family member through suicide is never simple. The grief journey takes a lot of time and could feel totally overwhelming. However, help is out there and you are not alone. Here are a few ways that you can gain perspective and begin to move forward:
As we have explored above, when a person ends their own life it is almost always because they are dealing with some form of emotional or mental health struggle (even if this wasn’t outwardly obvious).
In fact, deciding to end their lives could well have been the culmination of many years — perhaps a lifetime — of low self-worth, overwhelming emotions, trauma or loss. Even if there was a triggering incident (such as being made redundant), it probably wasn’t just the job loss itself that caused them to take the step that they took. Instead, there could have been layers of unresolved pain and grief that led to them feeling they just couldn’t go on any longer. It is possible that your loved one was living in a distorted reality for a long time, where they couldn’t see themselves or the world clearly. In fact, If they felt that suicide was the only solution, then this was almost certainly the case.
But whatever the individual circumstances of your loss, you were not to blame for your loved one’s illness or despair, nor could you have somehow ‘rescued’ or ‘cured’ them. They were most likely dealing with huge, overwhelming, highly complex problems. No matter how much you might have wished to, these were not issues that you could have ‘fixed’ for them by saying the ‘right thing’ in a single conversation. And if they struggled to open up to you, then there was also no way you could have known the depths of their feelings.
The sad fact is that there is no ‘one right thing’ that any of us can say to rescue a loved one when they’re struggling with their mental health, emotional trauma or grief. We may not even be able to get through to them at all. No matter how much we love someone and try to show them they are valued and loved, we can’t take away their pain or make things better for them — as much as we might wish we could. Even qualified therapists — who are highly trained to support depressed people — can still lose clients to suicide. So even although feelings of guilt and blame are a totally natural and normal part of grief, none of this was your fault (any more than it would have been if your loved one had passed away from a physical illness).
In fact, if you are blaming yourself then this is what is known as the ‘bargaining’ stage of grief, where you question what you could have done to prevent the loss. Even people who lose loved ones to illnesses or accidents go through this stage, tracing back sequences of events in their heads until they convince themselves that they were somehow responsible for the death. This self-blame is rarely rational yet it can feel absolutely justified, with people believing that if they had done just one thing differently, their loved one would still be alive. For instance ‘If I had just persuaded her to go to the doctor sooner…’
Bargaining creates the illusion that you are totally in control of your reality and responsible for everything that happens to you and others, yet this isn’t remotely true. It is also a way of delaying full grieving, as you can become stuck in a guilt cycle that blocks you from feeling pain. Yet thankfully, while bargaining can feel all-consuming it is also something that you can move past. And with suicide loss, one way to do that is by gradually coming to understand that your loved one’s decision was highly complicated and a result of them being unwell.
Anger is another totally natural stage of grief that can be experienced by any bereaved person, even if that loss was not connected to suicide. When a loved one dies, the feeling of being ‘left behind’ or ‘abandoned’ can trigger a lot of understandable rage. Anger can also be caused by a feeling of unfairness, for instance, ‘Why did it have to be my brother who died?’
Yet similar to the bargaining stage of grief, when you lose a loved one to suicide you might find yourself getting stuck in the anger stage — especially as it seems as if your loved one made their decision voluntarily.
While this is true one one level — they did ‘choose’ to end their life — they almost certainly did not make this decision from a mentally well place. However, this doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to be angry or that you should pressure yourself to forgive them (or the situation) before you are ready. In fact, you have every right to feel exactly how you feel, including frustration and fury. You have every right to scream, shout, cry, vent and rail against the unfairness of it all, for as long as you need to.
Understanding that your loved one wasn’t in their right mind isn’t a reason to bypass, block or avoid your anger — in fact, it’s only when you fully process those feelings that you can free yourself from them. But rather, in realising that their actions were caused by mental ill-health, it can make it easier to move through your rage into acceptance and healing. It can also make it easier to move past any rage that you are feeling towards yourself too.
As we have seen, the loss of a loved one through suicide can make it difficult to move forward in the already very difficult grieving process. At times it can even result in what is known as ‘complicated grief’, where you can become stuck in a state of grieving that doesn’t get any easier with time. Yet whether your loss was recent or many years ago, it can be very valuable to get expert support.
A compassionate therapist can help you to process your feelings, make sense of your loss and help you to identify any shock, grief or trauma reactions that you might be trapped in. In time, they can also help you to find ways to say goodbye to your loved one and make a plan for moving forward with your life at your own pace.
And if you are experiencing trauma or PTSD symptoms — such as feeling ‘triggered’ at reminders of your loss, experiencing nightmares or dealing with mood swings — then both EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can be particularly helpful.
Also, it is worth remembering that your loss doesn’t have to be recent for you to think about accessing therapy. Even if a loved one ended their life decades ago, you could still be dealing with unresolved grief. Sometimes this can even show up in ways that you aren’t obvious, for instance, physical symptoms like pain, fatigue, and migraines, or issues with relationships and trust. And if you lost a close person as a child (for instance, a parent), then therapy can help you to explore how this could have shaped your view of the world.
One of the most difficult aspects of suicide loss is not having the chance to share any final words with your loved one or tell them how much they meant to you. Yet there are still ways to say goodbye when you feel ready.
For instance, you could write your loved one a letter, visit a special place that you both liked or even hold a memorial ceremony on their birthday. Or you could plant a tree, write a poem or simply spend time listening to their favourite songs. There is no right or wrong way to do this, the important thing is to work out what would be best for your healing. And remember, you don’t have to feel restricted to saying goodbye just the one time. In fact, you might want or need to do it many times and in many ways as part of your grieving journey.
The reasons for a loved one ending their life are usually very complicated, which is why dealing with this kind of loss is complicated and confusing. For as well as grief and shock, you might find yourself wrestling with anger, guilt and frustration, as well as feeling socially isolated due to stigmas around suicide. But It is really important to know that everything you are feeling is normal, that none of your reactions are ‘wrong’ and that you have every right to grieve at your own pace. You are also not to blame for what happened, even if it feels that way right now.
And with support like therapy, support after suicide organisations and suicide grief groups, you can find a way through your loss in a safe and supported way. Eventually, with time, care and patience, you can reach a place of greater acceptance and find comfort in the happier memories of your loved one.
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