Losing a Loved One to Suicide
Part 1 in the Disenfranchised Loss Series
What is a disenfranchised loss?
Have you ever experienced loss but the world made you feel like it wasn’t something you were supposed to grieve? Or society was telling you grieve a certain way? Or a loss that was so shocking no one was comfortable talking about it with you? That’s disenfranchised grief. It’s a $5 word that includes any losses that don’t fit into what and how society “expects” us to grieve. It is grief that is not validated by society. It could be because of the way we lost someone or how we were connected to the person. Disenfranchised losses include suicide, loss of a pet, loss of health or ability, drug overdoses, or ambiguous losses to dementia or other cognitive declines. Whatever the reason, disenfranchisement prevents us from getting the support we need. This is part one of a series.
(Throughout this article, I’m going to refer to anyone in that has lost someone to suicide as ‘suicide survivors’ or just ‘survivors’ because that’s exactly what you are. You have survived and you will continue to survive.)
Heartbreak. Anger. Confusion. Betrayal. Sadness. These feelings, and more, are so common (and valid) when we lose someone we love to suicide. And remember, there’s no timeline on grief, so you may have these feelings hours, days, months, or years after a loss, and there’s nothing wrong with you.
You aren’t alone in these feelings either: Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States and the world. In Alaska, the rate of suicide has been increasing over the last ten years and in 2019, 209 people died by suicide leaving behind up to 147 family, friends, and peers to grieve each loss.
This means that over 250,000 Alaskans (a third of the state!!) may be grieving the loss of someone to suicide over the last decade.
It hurts my heart to know so many people are grieving such painful losses and likely without enough support. How can something this common be a disenfranchised loss??
I’ve got one word for you: stigma. Stigma means that we feel awkward talking about something, we make assumptions that are often untrue, and we’re a whole lot more judgmental than we should be. The experience of stigma is a lot more common for people grieving a loss to suicide (or other losses to violence) than for those grieving natural deaths. Most survivors end up feeling disappointed in how their support network responded to their needs and realize that a lot of people are just really uncomfortable talking about suicide.
When our friends and family feel awkward talking about something, it’s really easy to start to feel shameful for WANTING or NEEDING to talk about it.
Also, when we feel stigmatized and rejected by the people around us, we tend to turn it inward and feel more guilt and shame about the loss and about our own feelings. Then we start to feel responsible for the loved one’s suicide (or more responsible, because let’s be honest that thought probably already entered our mind).
Let me reassure you right now, though: feelings of responsibility are incredibly common but also incredibly likely to be false. I know it may seem really hard to believe that right now, but it’s important and worthy of acknowledging. Our brains like to try to make sense of things that are senseless – when we can’t figure out to explain something bad that happened, blaming ourselves is the low-hanging fruit. Part of the healing process is making peace with the fact that awful things happen in life and unfortunately, we can’t prevent them all.
A Lack of Support is Dangerous
If we are grieving a loss to suicide and we don’t have a safe and comfortable bubble of people supporting us, we are at major risk for a lot of mental health problems. It’s all too common for survivors of suicide loss to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated grief, and/or depression. The risk of suicide for someone grieving a loss to suicide is between two and ten times greater than the rest of the population! Survivors are also a lot more likely to quit their jobs or drop out of school following the loss. Clearly, a lack of support in the grieving process is a serious problem with serious consequences.
Physical health takes a hit too: survivors have trouble sleeping, managing their weight, have high blood pressure, heart palpitations, and trouble breathing. And let’s be clear, these risks are almost totally related to NOT having enough support during the grieving process.
What do I do?
Okay, first, take a deep breath (or ten)! Yes, it’s very scary to see the risks to those of left behind after a suicide, but all hope is not lost, and these risks are not guarantees. First, I want you to recognize that the initial places you looked for support may not have been structured to meet your needs. If it wasn’t a great experience or you didn’t get what you needed, it’s not your fault. First responders like police, paramedics, or EMTs are often wonderful at their jobs, but their job training probably didn’t cover how to meet the mental and emotional needs of the people left behind. We may look to them for support and guidance, but we end up feeling brushed aside (at best) or ashamed (at worst).
This can make us really hesitant to keep trying to get support, but I encourage you to try again and I have some suggestions that may be a better fit. Ultimately, the entire grieving process comes down to finding meaning. Meaning in the loss, meaning in the why’s of life, and meaning for your future. But you don’t have to (or need to) do that alone. Here are some ways to connect:
Connect with your spirituality
Spirituality is a MAJOR source of support for people grieving, and as a suicide survivor, you’re no different. However, spirituality does not necessarily mean organized religion. Whatever you believe in can be a source of support and a way to honor your continued bond with the person you’ve lost. I, personally, love to draw inspiration from all different cultures and spiritual practices (Look for a future blog post on that soon!).
If you attend a church, maybe ask for some extra time to talk with a leader within the congregation. If you have lost your connection to religion, maybe now is the time to reconnect with that part of yourself. If you describe yourself as spiritual rather than religious, nurture your relationship with the universe and nature and think about what that means for your relationship with the person you’ve lost. Don’t beat yourself if some people don’t understand why you’re talking out loud to someone who has died, or still setting a place at the table for them. These are wonderful ways to honor our bond with our loved one, and you have every right to memorialize your loss in whatever way brings you comfort.
Connect with your peers
Maybe this means your regular support network, but a group specifically for suicide survivors will go a long way toward helping you feel less alone. You can always try out a support group for grief in general, but you may find that the experience doesn’t quite match your needs. The Forgiveness in Loss group offered by Hopeful Path Counseling is designed to meet the unique needs of suicide survivors and those that have lost a loved one to accidental drug overdoses. You can also check out the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention support group finder for local and national offerings. It’s so important that we have people we can talk to openly, without the awkwardness or stigma, and that truly understand just how complicated a suicide loss is.
Connect with a therapist
Even if you are deeply connected to your spirituality and have a wonderful support network, you may still want to work with a therapist. Counseling is a special relationship that is unlike any other relationship in our lives.
Counseling is 100% about you and your needs.
This can be extra important in grief, because so often the people we’d typically lean on for support are ALSO grieving, which means we get put in a position to take care of them. Not true in counseling – it’s a guaranteed space where the only person’s emotions you are responsible for honoring are your own.
A therapist can also help assess your risk for those mental health conditions we talked about earlier, like complicated grief, PTSD, and depression. Not all survivors experience any of these diagnoses, but you are at greater risk and are definitely worth the professional expertise to make sure you get what you need.
If you’re ready to start therapy, or just want to learn more about the process, I’d love to speak with you. Your 15-minute consultation is always at no cost to you because it is incredibly important to me that you find just the right person to share in your journey. Use the link below to schedule your consultation or give me a call. I’m here for you.
Take good care of yourself,
Are you still curious or skeptical and want to check out my information? Please do! Here are some references I used throughout this post:
- Jahn, D. R. & Spencer-Thomas, S. (2018). A qualitative examination of continuing bonds through spiritual experiences in individuals bereaved by suicide. Religions, 9(8), 248. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9080248
- Azorina, V., Morant, N., Nesse, H., Stevenson, F., Osborn, D., King, M., & Pitman, A. (2019). The perceived impact of suicide bereavement on specific interpersonal relationships: A qualitative study of survey data. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(10), 1801. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16101801
- Labestre, G. & Gayoles, L. (2021). Peer survivors of suicide loss: A phenomenological study. Technium social sciences journal, 17, 299-316. https://doi.org/10.47577/tssj.v17i1.2702
- Testoni, I., Francescon, E., De Leo, D., Santini, A., & Zamperini, A. (2019). Forgiveness and blame among suicide survivors: A qualitative analysis on reports of 4-year self-help-group meetings. Community mental health journal, 55, 360-368. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-018-0291-3
- Pitman, A., De Souza, T., Putri, A. K., Stevenson, F., King, M., Osborn, D., & Morant, N. (2018). Support needs and experiences of people bereaved by suicide: Qualitative findings from a cross-sectional British study of bereaved young adults. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(4), 666. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15040666
- Lee, E., won Kim, S., & Enright, R. D. (2019). Beyond grief and survival: Posttraumatic growth through immediate family suicide loss in South Korea. Journal of Death and Dying, 79(4), 414-435. https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222817724700
- Contessa, J. C., Padoan, C. S., da Silva, J. L., & Magalhaes, P. V. S. (2021). A qualitative study on traumatic experiences of suicide survivors. Journal of death and dying. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/00300222921104486
- McKinnon, J. M., & Chonody, J. (2014). Exploring the formal supports used by people bereaved through suicide: A qualitative study. Social work in mental health, 12, 231-248. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332985.2014.899637
- Wainright, V., Cordingley, L., Chew-Graham, C. A., Kapur, N., Shaw, J., Smith, S., McGale, B., & McDonnell, S. (2020). Experiences of support from primary care and perceived needs of parents bereaved by suicide: A qualitative study. British journal of general practice, 70(691), e102-e110. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp20x707849