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Coping with suicide: a guide for survivors

Grief is grief, right? Death is death. No matter how our loved one died, we all cope with death pretty much the same way, right?

No, this isn't correct. It's true that there is one thing we all have in common – we are going to lose loved ones in death, and we ourselves are going to die. No death is the same, and no one's grief is the same. It helps us not at all to say, "My grief is worse than yours" or "My loved one's death was harder than your loved one's death."

Bereavement is not a competition, although it is different for each person who experiences it. We know that death will come for us all, but it seems especially traumatic to cope with a loved one's death by suicide. Many people have spiritual or religious beliefs about when and how a Higher Power will take us "home." Matters of life and death are left to God; murder is forbidden, even if the victim is us.

The suicide of a loved one is different from "natural" death in some ways, and we will cope in different ways. Not better. Not worse. Just different. Things to consider include:

  • Suicide involves a conscious choice to die when, where, and how we wish.
  • Suicide can be prevented; natural death cannot.
  • Suicide can either be a well thought-out plan or self-harm carried out on on impulse.
  • To survivors, the suicide of a loved one can seem like a personal rejection, although this is not the intention.
  • People commit suicide because the physical and/or emotional pain of living is unbearable.
  • Sadly, many people have strong religious feelings that suicide is an unforgivable sin and those who take their own lives are condemned to Hell.
  • Suicide is often considered shameful; it is discussed in whispers, or not discussed at all.
  • Suicide survivors need not be traumatized for life; it is possible to cope with this kind of loss.
Suicide is a personal choice, and no one's fault

Perhaps the most important thing for suicide survivors to keep in mind in the midst of their grief is that suicide is a personal choice, and no one's fault. Survivors tend to dwell on what they should have known, should have done, or should have said.

"I think there was a part of me that knew he was not only thinking of suicide, but he was actually planning it. And I did nothing. I never asked him about it because I didn't want to know. If I knew, I'd have to make the choice of letting him do it, or stopping him. Either choice felt wrong. In many ways I'm relieved that he is no longer in pain and that I don't have to cope with his lingering death. I feel terribly guilty for feeling relieved." ~ Siobhan B. (suicide survivor)

"He actually told me several times when I was growing up that 'You'll be the death of me.' Now that he's dead, maybe I was the death of him. I didn't do anything in life that he wanted me to do. I did what I wanted to do, and didn't let him intimidate me or bully me out of living my life as I choose. When I told him I was gay, he said I would go straight to Hell. I think he knew it all along; he just didn't want me to 'come out.' He would love for me to feel guilty about his suicide for the rest of my life but I'm not going to do that."
~ Jack T. (suicide survivor)

Various ways to help you cope with a suicide

Below are some suggestions for helping you cope with the suicide of your loved one:

  1. If someone you love intends to commit suicide, you can't stop him or her. Perhaps you can stop them for the time being. However, if a person decides suicide is their best option, he or she will eventually succeed. 

  2. No matter what anyone tells you, you are not to blame for your loved one's suicide. We all have the power of choice. You may not agree with your loved one's choice to die, but it was not your decision to make. 

  3. Don't try to imagine what your loved one was thinking or feeling in the final moment of his/her life. This is beyond the scope of human understanding. Many religious faiths believe that this final moment is solely between our Higher Power and us.

  4. Don't consider suicide to be cowardly. In the Hindu faith, Buddhism, and many Native American tribes, suicide is considered to be an honorable way to end life. 

  5. Consider the possibility that your loved one chose his/her own death to try to make your life easier and less complicated. Coping with a loved one's terminal illness, for example, can be acutely painful for you. Your loved one chose not to put you through that pain out of love for you.

  6. Many of us value our dignity more than our existence. When your loved one foresaw only indignity in his/her manner of natural death, a choice was made about the last days of life. 

  7. Prepare yourself for those who make well-meaning but thoughtless comments to you about your loved one's suicide. "Well, sometimes dead is better." "I will pray that God won't keep her in Hell for all eternity." "What he did was selfish."

  8. Most of all, remember. Your loved one had so many moments of joy, excitement, and the pleasure of living. Remembering him/her as a healthy, vibrant and loving person is the greatest tribute you can provide for your loved one.
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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Suicide: dealing with the aftermath section helpful too.

Visit our Amazon store to find books on how to cope after a suicide.

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