Survivors of Suicide: Moving Through Grief
Written by John Ray, MA
It is estimated that over 40,000 deaths by suicide occur in the United States every year. Suicide leaves in its wake a host of family, friends, and others affected by tremendous and sudden loss. How can these survivors of tragedy move forward with their lives?
First must come the understanding that one will never “get over” such a loss. Rather, the aim is to “get through” it, accepting that life as you have known it is forever altered. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association ranks experiencing loss through suicide as a catastrophic event with the same psychological impact as being a concentration camp survivor. Such an event is never forgotten, nor should it be.
Second, survivors of loss through suicide must realize that their grief is compounded by sociocultural stigmas associated with the act of suicide. This can make it more challenging to move through the recognized phases of grief, which include shock, denial, guilt, anger, and acceptance.
Third, it is natural to ask, “Why did they do it?” Survivors should spend as little or as much time as necessary exploring this question, for it is important to the process of grieving.
Such a question may be addressed by facts provided by The American Association of Suicidology:
1. Up to 70% of suicide victims have suffered from an illness such as bipolar disorder or major depression. Such an illness prevents one from seeing and sensing life rationally and realistically.
2. Often disguised as reckless behavior, suicide victims have often survived a series of prior attempts.
3. Many are preoccupied with morbid thinking of a dark fate which awaits them.
4. Suicidal individuals often have disproportionate emotional reactions to pain, even the pain of others, and will go to great lengths to alleviate it.
Suicide is best understood not as an attempt to end life, but to end pain.
A final, important truth to understand is that the survivor of the suicide is not responsible in any way, shape, or form, for the death of the victim. That is not to say you are placing blame, with its negative connotations, on the victim. Rather, you are rightly placing responsibility. The sole person responsible for the suicide is the victim. By taking this position, you are not devaluing them, your love for them, or their lives. You are simply stating a reality, and your ability to do so will serve as a means of moving forward.
The work of grieving is different for each individual. For some, it takes months; for others, years. The phases of grief named above are best thought of as fluid, rather than static and predictable. The best advice is to allow oneself to grieve naturally, according to one’s own needs, seeking appropriate support from family, friends, and professionals trained to assist in the process. With such support, survivors of suicide can successfully move through the loss and pain, reclaiming life.
Insight Counseling Centers exists to restore lives to wholeness — mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Our therapists are professionally trained to work with you through the pain of grief and loss. Learn more about counseling or schedule an appointment by calling us at 615-383-2115 ext. 100.
Note: If you or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. The number is 1-800-273-8255.
John Ray is Insight Counseling Center’s Mount Juliet Branch Coordinator and a Pastoral Counselor. He is an ordained minister and holds a Masters in Counseling from Trevecca University, as well as a DMA from The University of Alabama. Himself a creative and performing artist, John specializes both in therapy with artistic professionals and in the incorporation of expressive arts in therapy with the general population.