Category

Loss from Suicide

Suicide Loss Survivors: Your Grief Matters

By Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

No matter the type of loss, grief is hard. But in many ways, losing a loved one to suicide has its own added difficulties. You aren’t sure if you should talk about it. In fact, a family member may have asked you not to talk about it. You don’t know what to say when others ask about it or it comes up in conversation. In many ways, you just want the situation to go away, as if it never happened. But then, you feel bad because wishing it never happened is like wishing your loved one away. Why does it have to be so complicated? Does your grief even matter?

Yes, it absolutely does. Your grief matters. No matter the manner of death, take the time you need to mourn and remember your loved one.

Noted grief educator and counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt attests to the reality of the deep pain that accompanies suicide loss. He says, “The death of someone from suicide feels unlike any other loss you may have experienced. The traumatic nature of the death may leave you feeling turned inside out and upside down. When suicide impacts our lives, we all need to grieve and to mourn. But our grief journeys are never exactly the same. Despite what you may hear, you will do the work of mourning in your own unique way.

Sadly, the society we live in is not always as compassionate and understanding, particularly in relation to suicide. There are certain types of losses that go largely unacknowledged by society or are not given public expression. These losses are mourned in secret and are often not spoken of. We even have a name for this type of grief – disenfranchised grief. Dr. Ken Doka, who coined the phrase, describes it as, “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

To the many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, friends, and colleagues who have lost someone to suicide, society may not acknowledge the gravity of your loss, but your loss is significant and worth grieving. Your grief is not something that should be swept under the rug or spoken of in whispers. It is real, and it is important.

So, as you move forward in your grief journey, as you mourn the loss of someone you loved, remember these things:

You have the right to grieve your loss

Despite what society may say, you have the right to grieve. You have lost someone special to you in a traumatic way. Any hopes and dreams you may have had for them are gone. You are left with a hollowness in your heart and a burning question – “why?” Even though you may never have the answers you seek, remember this – your loved one was one-of-a-kind, and you have a right to mourn them.

You have the right to talk about what you’ve been through

Particularly when we lose someone in a traumatic way, our feelings are all over the place. Maybe that’s you today. Find people you trust or others who have experienced a similar loss and talk with them. Share the weight of your grief. You don’t have to walk through this journey alone – you can invite others in. By talking about your loss, you help us all move toward being a society that acknowledges the depth of pain associated with suicide.

You have the right to feel whatever it is you feel

Grief expresses itself in many different ways. You may feel shock, denial, confusion, anger, guilt, sadness, or shame, to name a few. None of these are wrong. They are all normal. In fact, there’s no “right” way to grieve. For every one of us, the experience is different. So, embrace whatever it is that you feel – don’t push it away. We must go through the pain to move toward healing and reconciliation.

You have the right to be physically and emotionally weary

Grief is hard work. All of the emotions swirling inside, often not finding expression, sap your energy. You may find it hard to sleep, and as a result, feel tired and overwhelmed. In some cases, people may even experience physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, and weight loss or gain. Please know – this is a natural reaction. The body is in distress, the same as the mind and heart. Be kind to yourself as you grieve so that you have the energy needed to move toward healing.

You have the right to find freedom from negative emotions

Particularly with suicide loss, certain negative emotions rise to the surface. You may feel guilty that you didn’t see something sooner. Anger at your loved one may grip you. Shame and its terrible baggage may try to tell you that you shouldn’t talk about your loss. Or, blame may be turning your family against each other. All of these negative emotions swirl around, but you have the right to be free from them. If you do the work of grief, you can find peace.

You have the right to be unashamed of your loss

Despite what society or insensitive people around you may say, your loss is not shameful. You have every right to feel deep emotions. Your loved one fought a fierce internal battle and that struggle is real and should not be demeaned. Don’t feel like you need to hide. Openly express what your loved one’s loss has meant to you. If others don’t understand, that doesn’t mean you should try to conceal your grief. By no means do you need their permission to grieve.

You have the right to have your loss acknowledged

You do have the right to have your loss acknowledged, though you shouldn’t go around demanding that people do so. Forcing people into something is never truly successful. Instead, find comfort in the knowledge that your loss is worth acknowledgment, and because it is, awareness groups all over the country are working to bring it out of the shadows and into the light.

You have the right to experience grief bursts

In times of grief, you may experience grief bursts. When this happens, a surge of grief is triggered by something innocuous or unexpected. The trigger could be anything – a photo, an anniversary, a quote, a movie, an article of clothing. These bursts are a normal and natural part of the grieving process. Don’t be surprised or frightened when you experience them. Instead, find someone who knows your struggle to talk with when they occur.

You have the right to cherish your memories

Even though you lost your loved one prematurely and in a devastating way, you have the right to cherish their memory. You can do this in a variety of ways. Collect keepsakes – photos, your loved one’s favorite things, clothing, etc. – and create a memory box or scrapbook. Write your thoughts and feelings down in a grief journal or write letters to your loved one. Have a piece of jewelry made with your loved one’s initials or start a tradition that brings you comfort.

You have the right to move toward your grief and heal

Like any grief – recognized or not – you have the right to grieve and to heal. You may not feel like you have the right to move forward. You may feel a crushing sense of guilt or shame at the moment. That’s okay. That’s where you are right now, and it’s not bad. But learn to embrace the truth – you have the right to move toward your grief and heal. You can find new meaning.

Dr. Wolfelt tells us that we never get over a death; instead, we learn to reconcile ourselves to the loss. He states, “Your feelings of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent. Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future…. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an ‘old normal’ but the discovery of a ‘new normal.’”

If you take nothing else away, know that your loss is significant, and it is heartbreaking. You have the right to mourn the loss of your loved one – gone much too soon. Grieve in whatever way you need so that you can find healing, peace, and reconciliation.

Navigating the Emotions of Suicide or Overdose Loss

By Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

It seems like it’s all over the news. The opioid crisis is ravaging communities. Another celebrity dies of an overdose. Another teenager takes his own life. Grief is always hard no matter how a loved one has died, but for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one to overdose or suicide, there is an added dimension to grief. For one, it seems like the death could have been somehow avoided. For another, the death leaves those left behind with many questions; none of them easy to answer.

As a society, we tend to avoid things that make us uncomfortable or that don’t fit into neat categories. Typically, the death of a loved one fits into a category that is easily understood: chronic illness, accident, injury, heart disease, cancer, old age, etc. But death brought on by addiction or suicide can leave us at a loss as to how to react. Because of this, those grieving the loss of a loved one to overdose or suicide have added hurdles in the grief journey. However, just because the grief looks different doesn’t mean that what you are feeling isn’t completely normal.

Let’s discuss some of the common feelings associated with losing a loved one to overdose or suicide.

The Death Feels Avoidable

In the cases of overdose and suicide, the death feels like it was preventable. You may be plagued by considering all the “what ifs” and “if onlys.” If only I had known. If only I had gone to see them that day. What if I had shown them how much I cared? What if I had done more? There is a sense that somehow, in some way, what happened is your fault. You feel that you could have done something to prevent the death of your loved one. While the death may have been preventable to a degree, it is not your fault. In most cases, it is a culmination of many things, not the actions or inactions of one person.

Guilt Sets In

For many families and friends dealing with suicide or overdose loss, guilt is an unwanted companion to grief. While the feeling is the same, the expression looks different for every person.

  • Guilt sets in because you feel that you could have done more to help.
  • You feel that it is somehow your fault that the person who has died developed an addiction or decided that suicide was the only option.
  • You feel guilty because you feel relieved. It’s hard to deal with an addiction that impacts family and friends for years on end, so when the person is gone, there is a sense of relief, which is then accompanied by a sense of guilt.

All of these are natural reactions, depending on you and your circumstances. These emotions do not mean you did not love the person who died. They are simply what you feel, and it’s okay.

Anger Shows Up

Oftentimes, when a loved one dies due to suicide or overdose, we become angry because it feels like the one who died had a choice in the matter. They didn’t have to die. You might feel angry that the person didn’t try harder. Or, you might be angry at the drug dealer who enabled the addiction or the bullies who made your loved one feel that there was no other way. You may even feel anger toward any medical staff or first responders involved because they couldn’t do more to save your loved one. If you are feeling angry, you’re not alone. For many people, anger is a normal and natural response to loss.

Shame Sneaks In

Shame sneaks into our grief and tries to make us feel like our loss is less than or not worth mentioning. This adds a new level of emotional distress. Both suicide and overdose deaths fall into a type of grief called disenfranchised grief. Losses of this kind are largely unacknowledged by society and are often mourned in secret. Ken Doka, who coined the phrase, says that disenfranchised grief is “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

Because we may not want to publicly talk about a loved one who committed suicide or was an addict, negative emotions may take hold inside, and a sense of shame may develop. We feel that our loved one’s death is something we should not talk about – something that we should hide.

A person may feel shame because:

  • A family member suffered from an addiction or committed suicide.
  • They feel that they enabled the person who died.
  • They feel that they didn’t do enough to help.
  • Other people think that the person who has died is less worthy of mourning due to the circumstances of their death.
  • They feel judged by others because of their lost loved one’s struggles.

Blame Separates Us From Each Other

A recent survey found a greater incidence of blame between the parents of a child whose death was related to drugs or suicide. The study found that of the blame comments they researched, 64% blamed the child who died while 36% blamed a parent. And nearly 50% of parents who lost a child to overdose or suicide report that their significant other blames them for the death.

Built on similar emotions as guilt or shame, blame works to separate us from each other. When something happens that we can’t control, we automatically look for someone to blame. You may blame the person who first introduced your loved one to drugs. It may be that you blame yourself for not seeing the struggle sooner or doing more. You may even blame the person themselves for not fighting harder or for letting others bring them down.

That is a lot of hurt and blame going around. As you process through your grief, know that blaming others feels like a natural reaction, but isn’t necessarily helpful. Instead, work through your emotions, seek support from your family, and move toward reconciling yourself to the loss. Remember, it’s not about “moving on” or “getting over it.” Instead, reconciliation allows us to find a “new normal” that works for us.

Stigma Isolates

As if blame, shame, and guilt weren’t enough, there is a certain stigma that grievers often feel after losing a loved one to overdose or suicide. Because society at large often views overdose and suicide with negativity rather than compassion, those who are grieving feel the need to suffer in silence, leading to isolation.

This stigma from the outside world may lead mourners to:

  • Not talk about the loss of their loved one.
  • Be reluctant about showing their emotions about the loss.
  • Shy away from counseling or joining support groups.
  • Hesitate to ask friends or family members for support.

As a society, we are becoming more aware of our own biases, but for so many, the stigma remains. But if you are in the midst of grieving, remember that you have the right to mourn. The manner of death does not negate the value of the person who lived or the love you felt for them.

Fear or Anxiety Rises

After a traumatic loss by suicide or overdose, you may feel an increased amount of fear or anxiety. You may fear that a family member will also die in a similar way. Or, you may feel anxious about your relationships and wonder if surviving family members are keeping their internal struggle or habit a secret. This type of fear and anxiety causes some people to try to control others, as a means of protecting them. While it is good to want to protect your loved ones, be careful not to overdo it. If you find that anxiety is interfering with your work life, family life, or the health of your relationships, consider speaking with a counselor who can help you process through these complex emotions.

Depression Takes Hold

Lastly, depression can be triggered by grief, especially by a difficult loss compounded by guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, blame, and isolation. If you feel that you may be in danger of slipping into depression, seek help immediately. A good counselor or psychologist may be able to help you see the situation from a different perspective, provide helpful therapies, and work with you to maintain healthy habits and positive thought patterns.

Consider Compassion

As you work through the complicated emotions of loss due to suicide or overdose, try to replace negative emotions with empathy and compassion. Think of the person who died with compassion for the pain they were experiencing that led them to such extreme measures. Think of yourself and your family members with compassion, trusting that you did the best you could in difficult circumstances. Consider with compassion those who do not understand the pain you are going through. Allow yourself to release blame and embrace forgiveness.

You’re Not Alone

Every single one of these emotions is normal and well documented behavior for those who have lost a loved one to overdose or suicide. If you are experiencing any or all of these, you aren’t alone. Others who have lost a loved one in similar circumstances are feeling something akin to what you are feeling. They do not feel exactly what you feel – no two grief journeys are the same – but they are intimately familiar with the struggle to cope with a difficult loss. Remember – you feel this way right now, but it will not last forever.

Reach out to others who understand, talk to counselors, friends, and family members, surround yourself with people who are willing to listen. If you continue to walk through the journey through grief, sometimes fighting for every step you take, you will eventually find your way through to renewed hope and healing. And who knows? You may one day find yourself on the other side, ready to help another who is going through the pain of grief and loss.

Young boy embracing his military father, American flag draped over father's shoulder

Suicide Prevention and Mental Health: What Can We Do to Help Our Nation’s Veterans?

By Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

Suicide is a rising concern, and one of our nation’s most vulnerable populations are our own veterans and military personnel. Veterans embody qualities such as bravery, sacrifice, and dedication to a greater cause—all qualities we value deeply. Yet even as they fought for our freedom, many military members have found themselves suffering alone, and in silence.

Veterans today are facing one of the worst mental health crises we have ever seen. According to a 2014 Veterans Affairs study, it was discovered that an average of 20 veterans committed suicide every day. That same year, veterans accounted for 18% of ALL suicide deaths but only accounted for 8.5% of the total population. Why are the numbers so high? And practically speaking, what can we do?

We can support our veterans by actively seeking to understand the challenges they face and become part of the solution. Here are a few things we can do to help our nation’s veterans and active duty military:

Woman comforting male solider, who looks distraught and has a hand to his face

1. Be Aware of the Signs of Depression

If you are a veteran, or if you have a loved one who is a veteran or active duty military personnel, be aware of the signs of depression. Depression is a very serious illness, leading to feelings of sadness and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. In some cases, depression causes mental and emotional problems. If these problems occur, it can lead to an inability to function in the home or the workplace.

For veterans and active duty military members, depression may have a variety of causes, such as the death of a friend or fellow service member, traumatic events like combat or injury, preparing for deployment, or transitioning to civilian life, to name a few. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, one in every ten older veterans (ages 65+) are currently battling depression, which is more than twice the percentage found in the general population of the same age.

What you can do: There are many ways that the friends and family can help a loved one who is battling depression. Working with a professional counselor or psychologist can help. In addition, new activities such as exercise, dietary changes, and getting enough direct sunlight can relieve symptoms.

American military uniform with American flag patch lying on wooden surface. Stethoscope lying beside it.

2. Educate Yourself about Traumatic Brain Injury and Its Effects

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is becoming increasingly more common among our military personnel as the methods of warfare evolve. In simple terms, TBI is a blow to the head that causes a disruption in brain function. For veterans and military members, this may occur during drills or as the result of a bomb blast.

Some cases register as a mild concussion, but in severe cases, TBI leads to changes in behavior and memory recall. The severity of a case is determined by how long consciousness is lost, how long memory loss or disorientation may last, and how responsive the person was after the initial injury. According to an article by PBS, “Those who go untreated may find their symptoms worsening over time, with some patients at risk for depression, substance abuse, severe anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, Alzheimer’s and suicide.”

What you can do: Be supportive and encourage TBI sufferers to seek professional support. In the meantime, remember that there are many others out there who are supporting a loved one living with TBI, and you can learn from their journeys.

Older man, fingers to lips, staring toward camera, looking sad

3. Recognize Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Its Symptoms

More than anything, it’s important to remember that PTSD is common and affects more than just military personnel. Absolutely anyone can suffer from PTSD. However, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, the percentage of persons suffering from PTSD is higher in the military than in the general population. For those in military service, PTSD has many root causes. Most commonly, it is connected to combat exposure, terrorist attacks, and sometimes physical assault. There are four major types of symptoms: 1) reliving the event, 2) avoiding situations that are a reminder of the past, 3) negative changes in beliefs or feelings, and 4) feeling wired all the time.

What you can do: When you see your loved one struggle, it’s hard to stand by and do nothing. Two practical actions you can take are: 1) offer to go to doctor’s visits with them so you can be familiar with medications and the doctor’s advice in addition to offering support and 2) encourage contact with friends and family to help create a support system. Additionally, as you try to encourage your veteran, seek out the resources available to bring them back to good mental health.

Young male soldier, sitting in a field, helmet in lap, knees drawn up, face pressed to helmet

4. Understand the Threat of Suicide

There has been a significant spike in veteran suicides since 2005, and according to recent research, the most common reason given for contemplating suicide is a desire to end intense emotional distress. Research continues to explore the link between PTSD cases and suicides. As noted above, veteran suicides make up 18% of ALL suicides, even though veterans constitute only 8.5% of the population. The numbers are staggering. A recent study from the Public Health Department revealed that veterans who were deployed have a 41% higher suicide risk than the general population while non-deployed veterans have a 61% higher risk!

What you can do: The best things you can do are to educate yourself on the signs of suicide risk, familiarize yourself with available resources, and encourage your loved one to seek the help and support they need. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, remember that everyone deals with grief differently. For helpful suggestions for processing grief, find resources online, join a support group and/or set up an appointment with a grief counselor.

African American soldier staring solemnly toward the camera

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About It

Active military members are less likely to seek out mental health services and support. This is mainly because they fear for their jobs or don’t want to be viewed differently because they are struggling. A stigma still remains regarding mental health issues, though the Defense Department has taken deliberate actions to reverse this viewpoint. Veterans, though not in active service, also struggle with this very real stigma. Move forward with actively educating yourself on these mental health challenges. Don’t be afraid to talk to loved ones about their mental health or to express your loving concern. They need your support and understanding.

6. Draw Encouragement from the Success Stories of Others

The Department of Veterans Affairs has created a helpful website called Making the Connection. This website is filled with excellent resources and information regarding symptoms, support groups, and treatment. But most of all, real veterans share personal struggles of their fight for good mental health. Find encouragement and inspiration in their stories of struggle and victory.

With the trauma associated with military service, it is no surprise that our veterans are struggling. Educate yourself on the symptoms and look for ways to support veterans physically and emotionally. In closing, a reminder. The men and women of the military safeguard our freedom every day. Let’s work together to safeguard their mental health by becoming knowledgeable, capable, and ready to act. Our veterans deserve to live full and meaningful lives after their years of service to our country.

Dealing with Grief in the Aftermath of Suicide

By AfterCare, Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

The 21st century has seen a significant rise in suicide rates. Nearly 45,000 American lives are lost to suicide every year, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Even in the last few years and months, we’ve seen a number of well-known and well-loved people take their own lives: Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Chris Cornell, to name a few. For those left to mourn the death, suicide is a devastating act that can cause severe emotional distress. If you have recently lost a loved one to suicide, consider the following tips to help you through this difficult time.

Don’t give guilt or anger a foothold

In the aftermath of suicide, it is common for family members to feel a range of emotions from guilt to depression to anger at the person who has died. Loved ones may ask themselves what they could have been done to prevent the tragedy and become overwhelmed by guilt. If you have lost a family member or friend to suicide, the most important thing to realize is that the death was not your fault. Oftentimes, suicide is a direct result of mental illness and severe depression, which cloud a person’s ability to see the world accurately.

Realizing these fundamental truths – that your loved one was suffering from a mental illness and that their death was not your fault – can allow you to understand and sympathize with your loved one. Free yourself from guilt and anger and embrace compassion. After a loss, it is often helpful to participate in healing actions. For example, tell the story of your loved one’s life, find ways to honor their memory, and cultivate compassion for others who suffer from mental illness.

Find a good therapist

Grief therapy can be helpful for anyone experiencing the pain of loss, but for those who have lost loved ones to suicide, it is particularly beneficial. The traumatic nature of suicide makes loved ones more susceptible to intense psychological distress, and professional help is required in many of these cases. The counseling helps suicide loss survivors see the situation more clearly, and a trained therapist can help you to understand the psychiatric problems your loved one faced. He or she may also be able to help you recognize unhealthy patterns of thinking that will help you to grieve in a healthy manner.

Surround yourself with people you love

Stay connected with the people in your life who matter to you. Isolation breeds unhappiness, especially after a traumatic event. If you are a person of faith, visit with people in your spiritual community. Invite friends over or go out to social events. Talk to family members often, and look for opportunities to socialize with others. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide often struggle with depression in the months after the loss, and studies indicate that social interaction is a great way to decrease depression. Friends and family members can keep you anchored in a routine, and their love will provide you with a sense of safety, security, and familiarity.

Join a support community

In addition to staying in contact with close friends and family (or especially if you don’t have close friends or family), you may want to consider finding a support community. After a loss, you may feel totally alone. Joining a support group will help you realize that you aren’t alone and will allow you to form new connections that will give you strength and encouragement as you travel down the road to healing.

Groups such as Survivors of Suicide Loss (SOSL) allow you to hear the experiences of others who have lost loved ones to suicide. They also give you the opportunity to share your thoughts (if you wish to). You might find that expressing your feelings in a welcoming and sympathetic environment helps you work through the loss and provides the encouragement you need to continue your journey.

Be patient with yourself

Don’t give yourself a grief schedule. There is no rush, and there is no time frame for grief. You have experienced a loss that is enormously painful, and it is normal to find yourself experiencing periods of deep sadness long after the loss. Allow yourself to cry or express frustration when you need to.

You will never stop missing your loved one. But over the course of time, you can find ways to enjoy life again. Remind yourself that time will make your situation more manageable. In the meantime, accept every emotion you feel, and understand that it is okay to be upset. Accept yourself in every situation, and strive not to compare your grief feelings to the grief feelings of others or set unrealistic expectations regarding how you feel. The grief journey is not linear, and even after you feel much better, you may experience occasional grief bursts. By allowing yourself to feel your emotions without judgment, you can make a great deal of progress on your grief journey.

Establish the legacy of your loved one

In the aftermath of suicide, find ways to remember the positive impact your loved one had on the lives of others. You may want to participate in certain rituals to honor their memory, such as attending a prayer vigil or gathering with loved ones to share your thoughts about the person you’ve lost. Through stories and memories, remind others of the meaningful life your loved one lived.

Do you remember your loved one helping others in a time of need? Or a time when he or she accomplished something extraordinary? Search for funny or happy memories with this person and share their story with others. If you feel comfortable, you may even start a blog, or find another way to write about what your loved one meant to you and those around you. The fact that the death hurts indicates that the one who has died brought joy to other people. Sharing the story of his or her life can be an important healing step on your grief journey.