Those Who Remain: Navigating Life Following Suicide Loss

By Sarah D. Afromowitz, MA, Suicide Prevention Program Development Practicum Student at OHSU/Portland VA 

Note: Talking about suicide can be an emotional topic, and if you’re reading this and not feeling up for it, that’s okay! If you are seeking support, please contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255.

“Survivor of suicide loss,” “suicide loss survivor,” or “suicide survivor” are interchangeable terms that individuals may use if they have been impacted by the suicide death of a friend or family member. Losing someone to suicide is often traumatic and deeply painful. This blog post will discuss different pathways you or someone you care about may take after losing someone to suicide.

First, the grieving process can be messy, complicated, and is often not linear. Various emotions may arise across the spectrum, including denial, guilt, anger, shame, loneliness, helplessness, sadness, and even relief. Each person will experience grief differently, but all reactive feelings and expressions of grief are normal. For some, grief might be most intense during the first few days, weeks, or months; while others may not feel the weight of the loss until a few months down the road. The “year of firsts” is often difficult while friends and family navigate holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and ordinary days without their loved one. For some, time may begin to ease the acute pain of losing someone to suicide, but because grief and healing do not take a linear path, intense feelings may return years down the road, sometimes unexpectedly. Even though this may be frustrating at times, try to honor your emotions, focus on your needs, and approach yourself with self-compassion.

Many suicide loss survivors experience guilt and shame due to the stigma that can be associated with suicide, or they may feel others are blaming them for the death. Stigma associated with suicide can hinder the support and connection with others that is necessary for healing. There is no need to suffer in silence. Talking to trusted friends and family about the individual who died and about your feelings can foster a stronger support system and community. Some people may feel more comfortable and less alone when seeking support from peers who have also lost someone to suicide. There are options to find survivors of suicide loss support groups (resources listed below), which can provide support through a lens of understanding and compassion. If groups are not appealing, obtaining support from a mental health professional or religious/spiritual leader is another option. Grief is tricky to navigate and the added layers of trauma and guilt that are often related to a suicide death deserve a safe place to be processed and better understood.

As mentioned, talking about the loved one who died by suicide is encouraged; however, be sure to use safe messaging when discussing the suicide loss. Safe messaging helps reduce the likelihood that at-risk individuals will consider or attempt suicide themselves. For example, use words such as, “died by suicide” is preferred to “committed suicide,” which has criminal associations; and avoid phrases referring to the deceased as “no longer suffering” or “in a better place,” which might encourage an at-risk individual to want to end their emotional (and sometimes physical) distress through suicide (sometimes referred to as a “copy-cat suicide”). When talking about the loved one who died by suicide, it is best to avoid details about the method they used, the location of their suicide, and graphic descriptions of their death. Instead, share stories about the person when they were living and discuss positive aspects of the person’s life. Inviting friends and family into the conversation allows them to decide if now is a good time emotionally and mentally for them to discuss grief and loss in the context of a suicide. Don’t feel offended if they’re not ready to talk, as they may not be to that part of their journey yet. As always, share resources with each other as the person you talk to may be struggling with their own thoughts of suicide or know someone who could benefit from the resources.

Some survivors of suicide loss may search for purpose and comfort after their loss. One way this can be achieved is by turning towards a cause or project that honors the loved one who died by suicide. This could mean getting involved with an organization that was meaningful to that person during their life or it could be an organization related to suicide prevention and mental health. If you work within a larger system (e.g., a school, healthcare organization, company), inquire about suicide postvention plans/toolkits, which can be used as a foundation or guideline in the event of a suicide within that community.

Suicide postvention plans provide crisis intervention, support, and actionable steps for responding to the immediate, short-term, and long-term needs of the bereaved community. Additionally, suicide postvention plans can be preventative due to the concrete support that it can provide and because it may assist in recognizing the suicide loss survivors who may be vulnerable to suicidal behavior themselves and may develop complicated grief reactions. Resources for various suicide postvention toolkits are listed below; however, if you work in a healthcare setting and are interested in a deeper exploration of suicide postvention plans and the lived experience of a medical resident who is a survivor of suicide loss, please visit OHSU’s Psychiatry Grand Rounds presentation from April 20th, 2021 titled Postvention is Prevention: Suicide Postvention in Medical Settings, which can be watched here.

Below are additional resources that may be helpful if you or a loved one are survivors of suicide loss:

Suicide Postvention Toolkits

Portland Grief Groups/Communities

Suicide Loss Resources