print header

Suicide Survivors - Those Left Behind 

Credit: Mayo Clinic Mental Health

It's estimated that on average every suicide leaves at least six people deeply affected by the death. That amounts to nearly 200,000 people a year suffering one of the most painful forms of grief that exists. Family, friends and co-workers left in the aftermath of suicide are commonly referred to as suicide survivors.

When an individual commits suicide — or tries to — that person's family and close friends often are devastated and experience intense and persistent pain. Suicide survivors may suffer through repeated nightmares and flashbacks of the suicide scene, and they may avoid people and places that remind them of the suicide. Some survivors lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and grow emotionally numb — feeling incapable of caring. Beyond bereavement, suicide survivors may themselves become depressed or develop another mental illness due to severe stress.

Common emotions

If you're a suicide survivor, you may have experienced one or more of the following reactions. These emotions usually subside with time, but the process can take weeks to months. The emotions may also recur from time to time, particularly during a special holiday, such as a birthday or an anniversary that reminds you of your loved one.

Shock. Shock is typically your first reaction, along with emotional numbness. You can't believe what has happened. It may feel like you're watching someone else's nightmare. Confusion. Only about one-third of those who commit suicide leave behind notes. But even notes may provide only partial answers as to why your loved one felt the need to take his or her life. Realizing that you may never know the answer is part of the healing process. Grief. You may cry often and easily. Tears are an honest expression of how you feel about losing someone you love. Despair. Feelings of sadness and loss can erode your appetite, sleep, energy level and relationships. This can lead to depression. Anger. You might become furious at a doctor, a family member, a friend or yourself for not seeing the suicide coming. You may feel angry toward your loved one who committed suicide for hurting so many people. Feeling and expressing this anger also is part of the healing process. Guilt. The "if onlys" come back to haunt you. If only you had noticed the warning signs, contacted a doctor or insisted on your loved one getting help. In time you'll realize that it wasn't your fault.

Seek help

It's fairly common for suicide survivors to develop a mental illness, especially depression. You may also experience intense reactions that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. This can produce terrifying nightmares, make you afraid of expressing tender emotions, and keep you away from people and places you once enjoyed because they remind you of your loved one.

If you're having trouble dealing with the loss, don't hesitate to seek help from your doctor or a mental health professional. Otherwise you may not improve, and other problems may develop. Counseling or psychotherapy can help you cope with the crisis you're facing. Support groups made up of other suicide survivors also can help you find your way through the maze of emotions and physical changes you may be experiencing. Counseling or support groups led by trained professionals are especially important if you don't have adequate support from family and friends.

Many suicide survivors refuse to seek help because they think it's a sign of weakness. But it's just the opposite. Seeking help when you need it is a sign of strength. It's a sign that you're taking charge of the problem because you want your life back.

Learning to cope

You may never fully recover from the suicide of a loved one and may always feel the loss. With time and help from others, however, the pain of the loss will begin to diminish. To nurture the healing, consider these suggestions:

On days when you're feeling blue or just need to get your feelings out, talk with a family member or a friend who's a good listener. Stay in touch with your family and friends. It's tempting to withdraw from those close to you, but you need to maintain your social connections. Friends and family also can help divert your attention to other things. On special occasions, such as birthdays and holidays that you celebrated with the person who committed suicide, let yourself grieve. Don't hold back your feelings. If it would help you to feel better, change some family traditions that you now find too painful. Finally, remember this important fact: It's OK to begin laughing and enjoying life again. You don't have to prove that you loved the person by lingering with your grief. Your sorrow and tears are one way of honoring your loved one. Picking up and carrying on with your life is another.