What Do I Do If Someone I Love Dies By Suicide?
Someone you love chose to end their life; the pain you’re experiencing feels unbearable and unending.
Maybe they left a note. Maybe you knew they were in agony, struggling with inner demons or with harsh realities of severe physical or mental illness. Or maybe you had no idea.
Sometimes you’re utterly lost; sometimes you are angry or so sad you can barely move. You may wish there had been another way for them to cope with their struggles. Or maybe you can’t understand why they made the choice that they did. Or maybe you do.
If you found their body, that trauma can bring nightmares or flashbacks of that moment and the ones that came in its wake. Therapy is often necessary, because you need to talk about exactly what happened – what you saw, what you heard, what you experienced. Yet you still have to put one foot in front of the other as you learn to live without them.
Even people whose loved ones die unexpectedly often have to deal with anger. If their death seems to have been an accident, such as a seemingly easy choice to get high and unknowingly taking Fentanyl instead, your feelings are complicated.Yet suicide itself is complicated; there’an overwhelming sadness plus a tremendous burden to deal with feelings that other deaths don’t evoke. “Was I not important enough to them?” “Did they not feel that we could face things together?” “Could I have done anything else?” “Did I fail them somehow?” “Am I to blame?”
If you had children together, the helplessness you feel may be even more potent. You struggle with how to help the children cope. They’ll often have the same questions that you did, wondering if they weren’t important enough for the parent to keep living. They may also harbor deep fears about themselves, concerned that they might “inherit” the propensity for suicide or the mental health issues that lead up to it. And their awareness of potential death can lead them to be much more clingy to you and even afraid of uncertainty.
It’s vital to work through those feelings as you try to answer those questions. You were important. He or she could not face whatever plagued them. It’s not your fault. You are not responsible for their actions.
Some answers you can only find with time…
So what do you do? The answer is certainly not simple.
Dr. Alex Lickerman gives us reasons why people attempt suicide, citing six reasons for suicide: depression, psychosis (hearing voices that tell you to kill yourself), crying for help, impulsivity, a philosophic decision to die, and making a “mistake,” such as not realizing what taking a bottle of Tylenol will do to your body. I would add to his list that there are secrets that might have been kept. Maybe those secrets have come to light, as has been the case with suicides from the Ashley Madison list of a few years ago, or they have become too hard to bear, as in sexual addictions or financial fraud. But the last is one that perfectionism researchers have been warning for several years and is becoming more recognized in our culture and others; that the perfect-looking life can disguise tremendous loneliness and despair.
So where do you find peace? How can you find compassion, when your loved one’s choice has changed your life unalterably. How do you tolerate the guilt that you inevitably feel?
It takes time to grieve – to work through each and every one of these emotions as one minute rolls into the next. Feelings will come in waves, receding and then washing over you again, dragging you into blackness. Then, recede once more.
Your emotions will be mixed. Fear. Anger. Despair. Bewilderment. Loneliness. Compassion. All are normal and will likely come and go. You can get stuck in one of those emotions, however, and that’s when you might need help.
Nan’s story about her confusion after her sister’s suicide…
Nan’s sister killed herself. They’d grown up in an abusive and chaotic home; Nan became a rule follower; her sister was an alcoholic and fought many other addictions in addition. And yet, they’d always shared a deep bond. So, when Nan came into my office, she very eloquently described her confusion. “I always knew my sister was there, as if she and I were holding an invisible rope. I would tug. She would tug back. We could get through anything. Now it’s like she dropped her end. I tug on it and no one is there. No one tugs back. I don’t know how to go on living. Do I keep holding my end? Do I drop it? Do I put it away?”
Questions very difficult to answer, and her answers came only with time.
If you have thoughts of hurting or killing yourself, or know someone who does, please don’t discount them. There are many people who never have those thoughts. Never.
Tell someone who will listen and help – your doctor, your pastor, a therapist, your partner or a friend. There are crisis hotlines all over our country and in many countries, community mental health clinics whose job it is to respond to emergencies, and free health clinics available for those in need. You can also speak with someone right now by calling 988, the new Suicide & Crisis Lifeline which is a toll-free hotline available twenty-four hours per day for anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on October 10, 2015; revised and republished on October 21, 2022.