Remembering Loved Ones Lost to Suicide: Give Yourself Permission to Heal
My sister, Amber, died by suicide on New Year’s Eve 2013. I’d last seen her just a few days prior at Christmas. She seemed “off” — depressed and over-apologetic — but certainly no one expected that she was suicidal.
She’d been struggling with depression and substance use, but had also gotten help and was working to get her life back together. In fact, she’d been a patient in my facility just six months prior. As a counselor and as her brother, I had so many questions. How could I have missed the signs? Did I fail her? Did I let her down? In the immediate aftermath, I felt anguish, hurt, anger and a sense of guilt, all at the same time.
According to the CDC, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages, and the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34. Anyone who’s lost someone they love knows that dealing with grief is extremely difficult. But for survivors of suicide, that grief is compounded by the stigma and shame that often accompanies these tragic situations.
As a result, our emotional expression gets thwarted — we’re unsure how or when we can express our feelings. If you say, “I lost my mom to cancer,” everyone understands and empathizes with that grief. But, “I lost my sister to suicide,” could evoke an entirely different reaction, and even just saying that out loud can feel almost like an admission of guilt. Many survivors feel partly responsible when a loved one commits suicide, just as I did. How did we not know? How did we not see the signs? You certainly wouldn’t feel that way about a loved one who died from cancer.
Because of these feelings of guilt and responsibility, many of us fear we won’t receive the same empathy for our grief if we speak about it openly. That means many of us never fully give ourselves an opportunity to heal. Since we struggle with how to talk about or honor the memory of our loved ones, we keep those feelings bottled up, sending us down our own dark path of depression and despair.
Remembering our loved ones lost to suicide is critically important in the healing process. It’s important to know that you deserve to heal, to feel grief and communicate the sense of loss that comes with the passing of anyone you love, no matter what the circumstances.
In honor of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, here are some healthy strategies you can use to begin or continue your journey to healing.
- Find a safe space to communicate your feelings. In order to accept it and process the grief, you must be able to communicate your feelings with others who understand what you’re going through. It can be tough to do this with family members who may also be feeling the same sense of guilt or responsibility, but that makes it even more important for you all to acknowledge that feeling. Simply talking about how you feel in a safe environment can help put you on the road to healing.
- Know that there’s no formula for grieving. When dealing with any loss, certainly there are feelings many of us all have in common, and even in the case of suicide, we may experience similar emotions. But how and when we experience them is entirely individual. There is no workflow, no timeline, no prescribed method or formula. It’s important to give yourself permission to feel how you feel in the moment. There is no “right way” to grieve a suicide.
- Find a community of suicide loss survivors. When you’re ready, seek out a therapist, a survivor’s group or some other organization that can help you to navigate the grief process. I attended an Out of the Darkness community walk after my sister died, and I clearly remember someone on stage saying, “it’s not your fault.” Those four little words hit me like a sword! I’d been feeling and thinking that to myself, but no one had ever said it to me out loud. I finally heard the message, and it became a pivotal point in my healing and in my journey to helping other survivors — if I hadn’t heard it, maybe they hadn’t either. I’ve since made it a point to say those exact words to any survivors I meet.
- Celebrate milestone days. Again, because of the shame and stigma associated with suicide, many of us are afraid to celebrate the life of a loved one openly. But keeping their memory alive — especially of how they were in happier times — is so important for healing. For me, the holiday season is particularly tough because of the timing of my sister’s death, but I’ve learned to instead focus on the good stories, to talk about good times and remember her as the fun, loving sister, mother and friend that she was. Look at old photos, play your loved one’s favorite songs, or do something they loved to do. We always joked that my sister was a terrible dancer, but she loved to dance. So, on her birthday, my niece and I play Amber’s favorite songs and we dance, act silly and laugh at how she used to be such a terrible dancer. I also sometimes turn to social media to post a tribute, photo or funny story on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter in remembrance of Amber on special days. If you know someone who’s a suicide loss survivor, I encourage you to ask them about their loved one. Many of us think asking them to share memories will dredge up grief, but in reality, it brings the one you’ve lost back to life in your memories even for just a moment.
- Educate yourself on depression, mental health and addiction. If you don’t suffer with these issues, it’s hard to understand how these diseases can force someone’s mind to think that they’re hopeless or a burden and that suicide is the answer. It’s natural to feel anger toward the person you’ve lost — “how could you leave us like this?” — but it’s better to direct that anger where it should be aimed: at the disease that drove them to that end, or at the failure of our healthcare system or interventions to provide the help they needed. Understanding the disease can not only help you grieve, but also help to chisel away at the stigma associated with it.
If you know someone who’s struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, or perhaps you are yourself, please know that you are not alone. There are people who care and resources that can help.