Surviving suicide

When a person commits suicide, families are faced with a devastating shock and are often left with many questions about what was going on in the person’s mind that was so terrible to make them want to end their own life.

While the family’s focus is understandably placed on the individual who has died, it is important for surviving family members not to neglect their own conflicted feelings after such a trauma.

Very often, survivors are left experiencing guilt, anger, confusion, depression and their own suicidal thoughts after a loved one commits suicide.

Sometimes, the deceased will leave a note or make comments before taking his or her life that lead survivors to feel responsible and guilty about the death. When this happens it will likely be helpful to get another perspective from someone who was not personally involved.

Shock is usually the first reaction to a suicide. Family members often describe feeling disoriented and numb. Of course, grief and symptoms of depression such as disrupted sleep, loss of appetite and intense sadness are usually present in the wake of the death of any loved one.

There may be anger toward the deceased or directed at self, another family member, therapist or other previously trusted individual.

There may also be relief after a loved one’s suicide. This occurs particularly in cases where the family was aware of long and difficult mental health problems. Often everyone has done what they could to help the individual, but without success.

Relief is very often accompanied by guilt. Sometimes loved ones feel guilty for their initial relief and they can often feel some sense of responsibility for the suicidal act itself while thinking “if only I had …”

Almost all survivors struggle to understand their loved one’s decision and the reasons behind it – especially if they did not see any signs leading to such an act. It is very important to understand that the vast majority of people who commit suicide are experiencing a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.

Unfortunately, when left untreated or when stability is not found, mental illness can result in death just like other serious health conditions. Unlike other conditions, however, no one wants to talk about mental illness or suicide. People are all too quick to cast blame and make ill founded conclusions based on prejudice.

Very rarely does a person simply commit suicide out of the blue with no underlying psychiatric illness or long and painful suffering – although it can appear this way to family members if such symptoms were hidden.

If you are dealing with the loss of a loved one due to suicide, decide what you would like to tell other people about the death. Although it is hard to accept, many survivors have found it best to simply acknowledge that their loved one did commit suicide.

Even though it is difficult, maintain contact with your friends and family during this time, if they are likely to be supportive. Share your feelings and ask for help if you need it.

Grief is inevitable. It is important not to bury or avoid your feelings. Avoidance of these feelings usually just leads to a prolonged grief reaction.

Memorable dates such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays can be difficult after losing a loved one. Getting through these is part of the grieving process.

Children experience many of the same grief feelings as adults and are particularly likely to feel abandoned and guilty. It is important that they know the death was not their fault. After a suicide, a child will likely have a lot of questions – try to give honest and age-appropriate answers.

Speak to someone if you need to. Many people find comfort in community, religious or spiritual activities. Don’t be afraid to speak with a trusted therapist, clergy member or friend if you need to. Use this opportunity to air any feelings of guilt or anger that may be lingering.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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