Coping with the loss of a loved one to suicide

Posted on: August 9th, 2012 by Hope And Cope No Comments

We know that death is a universal occurrence that can be openly discussed and shared by others. Unfortunately, suicide is a very common way of dying that is much less talked about in our society. The lack of discussion about suicide is not a reflection of the actual number of people who commit suicide every year, but rather a discomfort in addressing a widespread issue.

Suicide is one of the top causes of death in the United States. It is in the top 10 causes of death for adults, and the top 5 causes for adolescents. While many have focused on the elderly and adolescents as those most likely to commit suicide, the demographics of suicide appear to be changing in recent years. According to data recently analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) those who are 40-49 years old experienced an increase in suicide rates over the past decade (see link This is noteworthy because many individuals who commit suicide in this age group leave behind large numbers of grieving parents, children, siblings, friends, and co-workers. Those in their 40s often have contact with many individuals in different domains in their lives. This is not to say their suicide is any more or less significant than those in other age groups, but provides an important reminder that suicide can occur across the lifespan, and have a tremendous impact on loved ones.

Those who are left behind by people who have committed suicide are often referred to as survivors of suicide, or simply survivors. Survivors can include spouses, children, siblings, peers, parents, extended family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. The impact of suicide is often felt by at least 6 to 10 people who knew, and had a relationship with, the person (according to conservative estimates).

Survivors often have a more complex grieving and bereavement process than those who lose their loved ones due to natural causes or accidents. One of the primary reasons that the bereavement is difficult is because of the shock of the death. Those who commit suicide often do not have a period of illness leading up to their deaths, which would allow loved ones time to prepare for the loss. Getting over the initial shock of suicide can take weeks to months for many. Another reason that grieving can be complex in survivors is because our society attaches some stigma to suicide. This stigma may cause survivors to feel additional guilt, shame, embarrassment, and isolation. These emotions may take more processing over the course of grieving.  Stigma associated with suicide also leads to less support from others. People who are close to the survivors may want to provide support, but feel uncomfortable around them because they do not know what to say or do. Our society does not have a protocol for how to comfort or support someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. Lack of support from others can cause the survivor to feel more alone and depressed in their grief. When social support is available, it can help the survivor access services that will help them adjust to their lives without their loved one.

Some of the normal experiences (in addition to typical grief responses) of someone who has lost a loved one to suicide can include:

  • Feeling rejected by the deceased
  • Feeling betrayed by the deceased
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Questioning why the person committed suicide
  • Wondering if they are to blame for the person’s suicide
  • Feeling wounded by the loss
  • A sense of personal violation (i.e., the deceased did something directly against you)

When grieving a loved one who committed suicide, there are several factors to consider. Think about your relationship to the deceased. If you felt very close to that person it will likely take you additional time and resources to grieve and mourn the loss. Remember that others may want to help you and provide support, but may not know the appropriate words or actions that would be comforting. Other survivors can be helpful resources to you. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide often can relate to your experience, and may provide helpful ways of coping and managing grief. Finally, even though it may be painful, talking about your loss has been shown to help you process your emotions and grieve in a healthy way.

While moving through grief, mourning, and healing these tips may be helpful:

  • Grief groups are wonderful resources for talking about your loss with those who have had similar experiences. You also may be able to find groups specifically for survivors of suicide. Use the internet to search for grief groups in your area.
    • Groups can help survivors break their silence about the loss. They provide a space to grieve openly, and be accepted in your current state of grief.
    • Groups can also help build confidence when speaking with others about the loss. Group members can provide tips about interacting with others that may not be as sensitive to your loss.
    • Support from others is one of the most crucial elements in recovering from a loss. Allow family members, friends, and loved ones to provide support for you at this time.
    • Don’t feel pressure to explain the reasons for your loved one’s death.
    • The entire family unit may become stressed by the loss of a family member. While everyone is suffering it may be difficult to provide support for one another.
    • It may be helpful to pay tribute and continue to love the deceased.
      • Some people choose to write poetry, create a photo album, listen to and create music, create art, meditate, light candles, and write journal entries. These forms of expression allow you to stay connected to your loved one, and engage with your emotional experiences.
      • Create a quiet and comfortable environment to process your loss. This environment could be in your home, at a park, or somewhere else.
      • Exploring and connecting with spirituality can provide comfort and support.


Survivors of suicide say that it is important to let go of the negative impact of the suicide to achieve health and continue to live their lives. This process looks different in different people, and takes time to achieve. In the healing process, one should strive to validate their own reality as separate from the deceased. Work to let go of your sense of responsibility for the suicide. And at some point you must decide to move toward healing.

Many survivors of suicide report that they learned about themselves, and their experiences, when going through the grief and healing process. After healing from their loss, survivors often feel stronger, more independent, and gain a greater sense of their priorities and values. You can learn to integrate the memory of your loved one into your life while adjusting to life changes and moving forward.

Remember, seeing a mental health professional for group and/or individual therapy can be a helpful and healthy way to process your loss.

Some websites that may be helpful:

Some books that may be helpful:




American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text revision ).Washington, D.C, American Psychiatric Association.


Freeman, S.J. (1991). Group Facilitation of the grieving process with those bereaved by suicide. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69, 328-331.


Kalischuk, R.G. & Hayes, V.E. (2004). Grieving, mourning, and healing following youth suicide: a focus on health and well being in families. Omega, 48 (1), 45-67.


Knieper, A.J. (1999). The suicide survivor’s grief and recovery. Suicide and life-threatening behavior, 29 (4), 353-364.


Mauk, G.W. & Weber, C. (1991). Peer survivors of adolescent suicide: perspectives on grieving and postvention. Journal of Adolescent Research, 6 (1), 113-131.


Mitchell, A.M., Kim, Y., Prigerson, H.G., & Mortimer-Stephens, M. (2004). Complicated grief in survivors of suicide. Crisis, 21 (1), 12-18.



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