After a Suicide in the Family: Coping With Trauma

988, Crisis, Suicide

The death of a loved one is one of the hardest things we can go through in life – and losing someone to suicide is especially painful. After the suicide of a close family member or friend, you may feel lots of different, complicated emotions. You may even be angry with the person you lost. Everyone grieves differently and that’s ok. But when grief turns into trauma, how do you cope?

Coping With Grief After a Suicide in the Family

Losing someone you love is never easy, but grief after a suicide loss can be especially difficult. 

Your grief process might be affected by:

  • Your relationship with the person who died
  • The circumstances surrounding their death
  • Your existing coping strategies
  • Your available support networks

Grief after losing someone to suicide can look different for each person, but some common characteristics include:

  • Feeling shocked, numb or disbelieving
  • Feeling sad, helpless or hopeless
  • Feeling rejected or abandoned by the person who died
  • Feeling shame or guilt or like you should have somehow prevented their death
  • Feeling irritable or being less tolerant of other people 
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Losing interest in the things you used to enjoy
  • Having poor concentration
  • Having a sense of unreality
  • Anger or blame toward the person who died
  • Appetite changes
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Headaches, stomach aches or other physical problems

The Need To Ask Why

When someone dies in a traumatic way, it’s common to feel the need to ask why. This is especially true when someone dies by suicide.

Janet Schnell, an Indiana social worker says:

“It’s human nature to want to identify the reason why people take their lives. But there is no one reason, and it’s unfair to expect answers.”

Schnell, who lost her brother to suicide over 20 years ago, now leads support groups and provides suicide prevention training.

Feelings of Guilt and Self-Blame After a Family Suicide

After a suicide, it’s common to experience feelings of guilt or self-blame. You might think “Is there something I could have done?,” but these kinds of thoughts only make the grieving process harder. 

You might replay the events leading up to those last moments, looking for clues and warnings. You might blame yourself for not noticing or taking potential signs seriously enough, or you might regret past disagreements or arguments.

But the truth is that there are lots of different factors that can contribute to a suicide and many people who die by suicide never show any signs that they’re suffering.

Feelings of Rejection or Abandonment After a Family Suicide

It’s also possible that you feel rejected or abandoned by the person you lost. You might feel that they chose to give up and leave their loved ones behind. You might even wonder why your relationship wasn’t enough to keep them from taking their life. This might be particularly true if you’ve lost someone you shared an intimate relationship with, like a spouse.

Feelings of Anger After a Family Suicide

It’s common to feel anger toward the person who died. You might be angry that they left you behind, especially if the person you lost was a parent or another caregiver figure in your life. 

Feelings of Relief After a Family Suicide

You may even feel relief after a loved one dies by suicide. If they struggled with their mental health for a long time or had a very difficult life, these kinds of feelings make sense. It’s even common to experience a relentless cycle of feelings, like anger, relief, then guilt for feeling that way, then self-blame, and so on. Just know that these complicated feelings are completely normal – and that they won’t last forever.

The Stigma of Suicide Impacts Family Survivors, Too

Unlike other deaths, suicide is still heavily stigmatized, not just for its victims, but their surviving loved ones, as well. A lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about suicide, so it can be hard for survivors to talk to others about their loss. This can leave them feeling isolated and like they have no one to talk to.

Religious beliefs can also sometimes be a barrier to accepting and talking about the death. Some religions include the tenet that suicide is always wrong, no matter the circumstances. So, while you might usually turn to your religion for help coping with a tragedy, if your religion includes this belief, you may find shame instead of comfort, making the grieving process more difficult.  

Sometimes, family survivors aren’t the only ones who blame themselves. Blame assigned by others is another way that the stigma of suicide continues to impact survivors.

Tony Salvatore, Director of Suicide Prevention at Montgomery County Emergency Service, says that those who have lost a loved one to suicide may be reluctant to share their stories because: 

“Doing so is usually met with gross insensitivity – as in ‘Why didn’t you do something?’ or ‘Didn’t you know he was mentally ill?’”

How To Support Family Suicide Survivors

If you’re reading this because someone in your life is a family suicide survivor, you now know what you should not do. But what should you do?

If someone in your life has experienced the suicide of a close family member or friend, it might be difficult to know what to say.

Janet Schnell says that “phrases that may be meant to comfort such as, ‘They’re in a better place now’ or ‘They’re no longer hurting’ can also hurt suicide loss survivors, who might wonder, ‘Wasn’t the place where we are good enough?’” She says that the best response she got from a friend after her brother’s death was “I’m here for you at 3:30 in the morning.” 

After her brother ended his life, Schnell says that people often avoided talking to her and the rest of her family because they didn’t know what to say. She goes on to say that, if it’s hard to find the right words, it’s best to simply say that you’re sorry and “nothing more.”

Traumatic Grief – When Grief Leads to Trauma

Grief after the death of a loved one typically lasts up to a year. After that you might, of course, still occasionally get sad when you think about the person you lost, but most people are able to move on and function normally in their day-to-day lives.

However, some people experience traumatic grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder. Traumatic grief is trauma that stems from grief and is very common after the suicide of a close family member or friend. 

Traumatic grief is long-term and has symptoms similar to those of PTSD, but they are specifically focused on the person who died. Some of these symptoms might include:

  • An intrusive, distressing preoccupation with the person who died
  • Hypervigilant scanning of the environment for signs of the deceased
  • A wish to be reunited with the person who was lost
  • Separation anxiety
  • Feelings of futility about the future
  • Difficulty acknowledging the death
  • A shattered world view 
  • Anger together with impaired social functioning

Suicide Risk in Survivors

If you’ve been through a family suicide, you might experience suicidal thoughts. Mental illness and suicide often runs in families, and it can be hard to cope with the aftermath of a family suicide, especially if you’re experiencing traumatic grief. You might feel like your loved one was able to end their pain through the act or you may even feel that dying by suicide will bring you closer to your lost loved one. 

The pain of a family member’s suicide, along with feelings of shame, rejection or guilt can seem impossible to cope with – despite the fact that you know firsthand the immense pain and suffering that a suicide can cause. But suicide is an act of desperation, done by someone who feels that they have no other option. It’s triggered by intense feelings that feel like they’ll never go away, but are in actuality only temporary.

If you’re thinking about suicide, even if you don’t think you’ll really go through with it, please reach out to someone. You might feel like you don’t have anyone, but someone out there cares about you, even if it’s an acquaintance or stranger who wouldn’t want you to die.

Need to talk about what’s on your mind? 

Call or text 988 anytime 24/7 to talk to someone who cares.

Coping With Trauma After a Close Family Member’s Suicide

Traumatic grief doesn’t have to be your new normal. Mental health counseling, including therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help a lot, as can medications and other treatments.

In the state of Virginia, you can always get help at your local community services board (CSB). The behavioral health professionals who work at CSBs can help you with processing trauma and grief, handling loss, despair, anger, shame and other complex emotions, dealing with substance dependence or abuse, and more.

Virginia CSBs are meant to help our people, especially those who are worried about the high costs of traditional mental health care, so please reach out, even if you think you can’t afford therapy.

Related: 5 Ways To Pay for Mental Health Counseling

If you’re in the Region Five area of Virginia, you can find your local CSB here. If you’re in another part of Virginia, look for your closest CSB here.

You Are Not Alone – You Can Always Talk to Us

A lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about suicide, so it can be hard for survivors to talk to others about their loss. This can leave them feeling isolated and like they have no one to talk to.

If you’re in crisis and need to talk to someone, don’t hesitate to call the Region Five crisis line. The helpline is available 24/7 and is staffed by trained counselors who will listen, talk you through the situation and, if you want, connect you with local resources that can help. We also take your call a step further with personalized follow-up support.

You can always reach the crisis line by dialing or texting 988, but, if you have a local 757 area code, you can reach someone faster by calling 757-656-7755.

The Region Five crisis line is part of the nationwide 988 crisis line system. 988 was created as an alternative to calling police or 911 in a mental health emergency. You can have peace of mind when you call or text 988, or the local Region Five crisis line. Our counselors are there to comfort you and provide real help, not to call the police or stigmatize you.

You are not alone. We’re always here for you.

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