September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Suicide is a choice, and for many who decide to take their lives, it’s a way for them to escape a profound level of pain that they may or may not have revealed to their loved ones. However, for those left behind, perhaps an even deeper pain lies in wondering what could have been done to avoid such a permanent solution to what might have been a temporary problem.
While the recent media has focused the spotlight on celebrities who’ve taken their own lives, such as Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Robin Williams, there are many others who don’t make it into the spotlight, but, of course, they also leave their loved ones with many unanswered questions.
As with other losses, the loved ones left behind experience all or some of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving. These include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Loss of a loved one due to suicide often leaves people with feelings of guilt for not having noticed or done something to prevent this act. Many people will never “get over” losing a loved one to suicide, but it’s important to “get through” it.
Survivor’s guilt is often associated with those left behind after a traumatic situation, such as witnessing a horrific event, or surviving a war or some other type of disaster or calamity. However, this type of guilt is also a very common feeling for those left behind after a suicide, who might be racked with grief and guilt over what they could have done to prevent this final act. The extent of the guilt will have to do with the person’s mental health status.
If you had a friend or loved one who committed suicide, whether you feel the agony of guilt or not, there’s no doubt that you’ll need certain tools to help you heal from this type of loss.
How are some that might give you comfort:
- Try to live in the present moment. Accept what happened, and trust that with time, everything will fall into place. Do mindful meditation and relaxation exercises, which include deep breathing. This is especially important in the early-morning hours and before going to bed at night.
- Seek support. Speak to friends, family members, therapists, or spiritual advisers. The more you reach out for help, the easier it will be to heal. Many people use social media as a support system, as it helps them feel encircled by the thoughts of caring individuals. Be in the company of those who make your feel better rather than those who bring you down.
- Write down your thoughts. There’s nothing like journaling to allow your feelings to flow. You might also consider writing a letter to the deceased loved one, expressing what you feel.
- Engage in fun or relaxing activities. Consider doing whatever distracts you, whether it’s being in nature, going to a movie, getting a spa treatment, reading your favorite book, writing letters, or journaling. Follow your heart.
- Practice self-care. This means being mindful of what makes you feel good, but it’s also about eating balanced meals and making sure you get enough exercise.
- Be patient with yourself and others. Healing from grief takes time. It’s important to cry when you feel like crying, and sitting and contemplating when you feel like contemplating. As time goes on, you will a greater sense of peace and acceptance.
Remember, no one is an island. When we’re experiencing deep emotional pain, we must reach out and seek the help of those who are able to be our guiding lights.
Kübler-Ross, E., and Kessler, D. (2014). On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. New York, NY: Scribner.
Leonard, J. (2019). “What is Survivor’s Guilt?” Medical News Today. June 27.