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How Suicide Loss Is Different

by | Oct 19, 2021 | Facing Death

Suicide Eviscerates You

Anyone who’s been through it already knows this: Death by suicide hits you like no other kind of loss. It’s sudden, shocking, and brutal. And it takes an entire lifetime to heal from it.

When my son Jacob, just twenty-one, killed himself by drowning in the Pacific Ocean, our family had never seen death before at all. Even my elderly parents had not yet passed. Their dementia cushioned the blow for them to some degree, in perhaps the only way that a decayed brain can bring anyone any sort of advantage. However, for the rest of us, Jacob’s death hit like nothing else before or since.


Preaching and Shunning

Suicide seems to impact people on a limbic level, bringing out our basest instincts. A few well-meaning folks preached to me about how God would forgive Jacob or how he was “no longer in pain” and “resting in the arms of the Lord.”

Others just crossed the street to avoid me or looked away in the grocery store, as if suicide were a contagious disease and I was coughing it into the air all around me.

Why should I have to bear either type of reaction? All I wanted was for friends and family to show up, sit with me, and cry. To this day, I crave their memories of Jacob; the kindest gift you can give to a suicide survivor is your story of how their loved one mattered to the world.

“No one brings you a casserole when your son kills himself,” I lamented to my sister. Unlike a death by car accident or cancer, when neighbors or church communities would band together to keep the family fed and assist with funeral arrangements, we faced a wall of silence and isolation. I realized it was because they, too, were in shock and didn’t know what to say or do. But for the record, silence hurts.


Guilt and Blame

When your child dies from leukemia, or your spouse succumbs to heart disease, you feel helpless–but not responsible. You may even take a shred of comfort from being able to blame the disease … But at least thus far in this society, the despair and anguish that lead a person to take their life bear a strong stigma of blame, both on them and on us.

Not only must you make arrangements for their memorial, but you may also have to cope with interrogations from the police, their caregiver, friends, and relatives.

Every person I’ve met who’s endured a suicide loss does, in one or many ways, blame themselves. Same here. If only I had watched over him more closely, been a stronger advocate for his mental health care, seen the signs that he was thinking of leaving us, called 9-1-1 the night before he disappeared … The list goes on. And we spend years in therapy or support groups, striving to forgive ourselves. But that’s not all.

In most cases I’ve encountered, someone else blames us, too. Family members say you did them wrong, or you failed to care adequately; that you were either directly or indirectly the cause of their death. Do people point fingers like that when someone dies of “natural” causes?


Risk Factors

Unfortunately, 85 percent of us already do or will know a person who died by suicide. When that person was very close with you, you have a far higher risk of taking your own life, developing depression and post-traumatic stress, and getting stuck in complicated grief (CG) with an unresolved relationship that remains frozen in time.


The Psychological Impact

Psychologist John Jordan sums up* forty years’ counseling survivors of suicide loss with these six key ways in which suicide grief differs:

  1. There is a greater need to seek an explanation for the death and to make sense of the death.
  2. Survivors experience greater levels of guilt and felt responsibility for the death (or at a minimum, for a failure to somehow foresee and prevent the suicide).
  3. There is a greater level of stigmatization and shame about this mode of death, and a greater need to conceal the fact that the death was a suicide.
  4. Survivors receive more avoidance by, and isolation from, social support from their regular social networks.
  5. Exposure to the loss of a loved one to suicide increases the chances of suicidal thinking and behavior in the person exposed.
  6. Like other sudden, unexpected, and often violent deaths (such as homicides, motor vehicle crashes, and natural disasters), suicide also seems to produce higher levels of PTSD-type symptoms.


What Now?

Some days require intense focus just to keep taking a breath, and then another. Eventually, you may find yourself sharing pictures, stories, and memories with another person who loved them, and you may even cry with a startled sense of joy at being able to honor them like that.

What I can tell you for certain, is that it will get better. If I had read these words in the initial period of grief, I’d have slammed my device hard against the wall; but I promise, it will. Because it has to. You have been to the depths, to hell. It’s only up from there, and there are far too many of us who understand and want to lend you a hand up.


*I recommend this article in Frontiers in Psychology, from which I have included his list of six ways suicide loss diverges from other types of grief.

Another informative article from Harvard Medical School delves into ways suicide grief differs and how to get help.


Cover photograph courtesy of @evablue for Unsplash.