The Austin Center for Grief & Loss recently presented information on the unique, devastating nature of suicide loss at the TAPS Texas Survivor Seminar. TAPS is the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, based out of Virginia, that cares for the families of America’s fallen heroes.
Grief often isolates survivors in its intensity and suicide loss compounds this isolation. Grieving loved ones often wish others could acknowledge the depth and impact of their loss with more understanding and sensitivity, and suicide loss especially requires this tender care.
All loss is difficult and traumatic, but suicide loss survivors frequently navigate major roadblocks to healing and moving through their loss. If you are assisting a suicide loss survivor, or are experiencing suicide loss, here are five major roadblocks to consider: CHOICE, GUILT, STIGMA, ANGER, DISCONNECTION.
Choice is a loaded term. Suicide loss is hard to comprehend because a choice was made to end one’s life. The suicidal person has a distorted view of their world and is often experiencing severe mental and emotional distress. Most people who aren’t in crisis or extreme distress can select from various options to manage their pain. People who are in crisis see only one choice: suicide. Instead of a last resort, it becomes the only option to end pain, and suicide then becomes a “permanent ‘solution’ to a temporary problem.” Understanding the flawed reasoning behind the choice to complete suicide often helps survivors move through their loss.
Guilt can sometimes manifest in other types of loss as guilt over not spending enough time with a loved one before their death, or not being able to find a cure for their illness, but rarely does a survivor of other types of loss truly believe they can control and prevent disease, accidents, and old age. A suicide survivor often replays the last moments of their loved ones’ life looking for something - anything - they could have done or said to prevent the suicide. This mental editing of the past is part of self-blame, which is part of human nature’s subconscious rejection of the inability to control all aspects of our lives. Survivors tend instead towards self-blame, and direct their anger towards themselves instead of accepting the lack of control over their loved ones’ lives. Moving towards that acceptance and away from self-recrimination supports healing, and reduces the intense, intrusive feelings of guilt.
Societal views on grief and loss impact healing, and both the death-phobic nature of our culture and the Stigma attached to suicide compounds the loss for survivors. Mourners often experience blame, judgment, or exclusion, whether intentional or unintentional. The topic of death is a difficult one for most people to discuss in ways that comfort a survivor of suicide loss, and those survivors may find themselves self-censoring or attending to the listener’s distress and discomfort around the topic of suicide, rather than experiencing direct sympathy and support as they tell their whole story. This disenfranchised grief – where the type of grief is one not generally acknowledged by society – can further isolate a survivor in their pain. Survivors are not responsible for other people’s feelings, and need to tell their story to heal and receive help.
Anyone experiencing a loss often experiences Anger about the loss, towards a loved one, or towards themselves, and suicide loss increases the intensity of this anger. Survivors mourn a loved one who was also the cause of his or her death. When survivors can move from blame, which is accusatory and harmful, to assigning responsibility, which is an acknowledgement of the facts of the situation, healing can begin. Anger often rides on the surface of grief and processing the anger allows a survivor to move through the loss, rather than trying to move around it.
The last, sometimes unexpected roadblock is disconnection. When grieving loved ones, mourners often sift through happy memories of them as well as recall treasured moments with them. The act of suicide results in many complicated emotions and intense pain so that the happy memories often recede, and people feel disconnected and unattached to their loved ones. Because of the nature of suicide loss, survivors often first focus on the cause of the death before feeling and exploring anything else. Once survivors also begin to explore the secondary, or additional, resulting losses involved in suicide, they can reconnect to their loved ones to carry them forward in healthy ways as they live and heal through their loss.
If you are a survivor of suicide loss, please know Austin Grief has support and therapy groups, individual counseling, and other resources that can help you in your grief experience. Moving through the five roadblocks to healing from suicide loss requires tender, educated support and the space to fully tell your story. You are never alone in your journey.
The American Association of Suicidology. (2003). SOS Handbook (Survivors of Suicide Handbook). Retrieved from http://www.suicidology.org/suicide-survivors
Archibald, L. (2003). To the Newly Bereaved after Suicide. Retrieved from http://heartbeatsurvivorsaftersuicide.org/materials/to_the_newly_bereaved_after_suicide.htm