Suicide and grief

Suicide is known as the silent killer, not only often taking us by surprise in terms of ‘who’ but also for the difficulty of reporting on the actual numbers of people lost to and affected by suicide.

Losing someone close through suicide can lead to a whole range of emotions including shock, sorrow, confusion, guilt and depression and even relief. The question ‘Why did they take their life?‘ is often complex and may never be resolved. There is no easy answer – the most honest answer is we don’t know.

The factors that can result in a person suiciding are varied and may include:

  • current stresses and social pressures
  • long-term problems associated with early abuse or trauma
  • chronic pain
  • physical disability
  • mental illness, although signs of the illness may not have seemed evident before the suicide. The most common condition is depression. Others include schizophrenia, alcohol and other substance abuse, and severe personality problems. There also is increasing evidence that those who suicide may have an imbalance in their brain chemicals, usually associated with mental illness

Overall, predicting who will take their life is extremely difficult, even for experienced professionals. What is known is that those affected by or bereaved through suicide – family, friends and work colleagues – need immediate care and support to reduce their own risk of suicide.

Feelings Of Guilt

Many people who are bereaved through suicide have feelings of guilt. They may feel they should have ‘seen the suicide coming’ or ‘missed the signs’. ‘If only I had done this’ or ‘If only I had not done that’ are common thoughts.

  • parents may feel there was something wrong with their parenting
  • brothers, sisters and partners may feel responsible particularly when there has been family stress or conflict

It is important for bereaved people to remember that they acted with the information they had at the time. With hindsight it is often easy to see the signs of the person’s distress and to criticise what was or was not done.

Some people feel others blame them for the suicide, and some are blamed in a suicide note. These notes are usually written when the mind is disturbed and are unlikely to be a true expression of a person’s thoughts and feelings about their family and friends.

Other Feelings

People can experience a very wide range of feelings following the suicide of someone close:

  • anger is a common reaction to suicide, even towards the person who took their life for the pain they caused others. It may be difficult to understand how the person who suicided was so intent on getting relief from their distress that they could not think of the hurt it would give others
  • it is common to experience feelings of inadequacy and loss of self esteem. Sometimes people doubt their own values and judgement and find it difficult to make decisions and carry on with normal day to day tasks
  • some bereaved people may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress particularly if they discovered the body
  • symptoms of depression may also be experienced. At times there may seem little meaning or purpose in life. These thoughts pass but if they are strong, prolonged, or of significant concern, it is important to seek help from a professional
  • many people feel deserted, rejected, or even betrayed by the person who suicided and may be afraid to begin new relationships. For many reasons, friends may not be able to give the support that is needed. It can be a very lonely experience and a support group may help

In some families a suicide occurs without any warning, whereas in others it is obvious the person who later suicides was suffering from a mental illness, and the death may not be unexpected. When this is the case, feelings of guilt and rejection may be less strong or even absent:

  • after the suicide there may be feelings of relief that the person is released from their mental suffering
  • in situations where there were repeated threats or attempts at suicide, or in which the relationship with the deceased person was difficult, the family may experience relief that the suicide is over
  • the death may ease the tension and resolve the family problems so that life can settle down again

Bereaved people may feel there were many things they would have liked to have said to the person they lost, but were unable to because of the suddenness of the death. They may yearn to tell them they were loved, or to settle misunderstandings.

It is common to feel sadness about the waste of a life, but it may help to recognise the person’s contributions and influences during their life and to remember the time spent together.

Please note that this page is currently being re-developed with the support of a South Australian Suicide Prevention Community Grant to provide more information for anyone affected by suicide.