AFTER A SUICIDE DEATH
When people lose a loved one to suicide, they often feel, as suicide bereavement pioneer Frank Campbell once said, that they have “fallen into a canyon of ‘why’?” A canyon they can never get out because the only person who can answer their question is no longer here. The pain and trauma of suicide are unlike any other, and the isolation and shame that often surrounds the loss compounds its effects. Physical health problems, work and school performance problems, mental health challenges (e.g., nightmares, panic attacks, depression), substance abuse, and even suicidal thoughts are common experiences for people in the aftermath of suicide.
When people get stuck in the “canyon of why” for extended periods of time, sometimes additional collateral damage occurs such as financial problems, divorce, loss of a job, failing out of school, and more. To prevent families from experiencing these additional hardships, external support is often needed.
When moving through phases of grief survivors of suicide loss often need to work through various processes (Worden, 1991):
1) Accepting the reality of the loss. In order to do this, survivors of suicide loss often need to tell their story again and again. Finding others who can hold this pain with them and listen without judgment can be difficult. For these reasons, finding peer support from other people bereaved by suicide can be helpful.
2) Processing the pain of the loss. The pain left behind after suicide can be intense and prolonged. Attempts to escape the pain through self-medication and avoidance often just extend and complicate the bereavement. Support groups, rituals, faith communities, and therapy can all help.[SS2]
3) Developing a new normal and positive identity. In the aftermath of loss as devastating as suicide, many of life’s patterns and future plans are forced on different trajectories. Developing new traditions and a new affirmative view of oneself are essential in the journey of getting unstuck from the intensity of the grief.
4) Remembering without reliving. Over time, the bereaved will begin to be able to hold memories of the death and loss at a healthy distance. While they never go away, with support, healthy mourning practices, and new life experiences, the trauma of suicide becomes integrated into the fabric of the story of our lives.