Grief and Loss

The death of someone important can cause great grief and sadness whatever the cause of death. However, families bereaved through suicide also have to face additional pressures and pain. If you have been bereaved though suicide, you will probably go through the shock, deep sadness and occasional anger felt by people bereaved in other ways. At the same time, you may also have to cope with extra emotions such as guilt, shame and self-blame. You may find yourself plagued by thoughts of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’.

The feelings and emotions can be more painful and seem to last longer than with other causes of death. Because a death through suicide is one of the most painful and complicated types of bereavement families can experience, families are left asking many unanswerable questions.

Feelings and Thoughts

  • Numbness, shock & disbelief

By its very nature, suicide is often untimely, unexpected and may be violent.  Sometimes a death through suicide comes out of a clear blue sky to those close to the person who has died by suicide. Even if someone has said they plan to end their life or has attempted to do so before, the death will still come as a shock and it can be a long time before you can believe it is really true. However, the numbness at the beginning can protect you from feelings which may seem overpowering and may help you get through the early days when there is too much to cope with.

  • Guilt, anger and even relief

Guilt and anger are common reactions in bereaved people but tend to be felt more intensely and for longer by relatives and friends of people who died by suicide. You may feel guilt that you are alive and that you didn’t or, indeed, couldn’t prevent the suicide. You may be angry for being hurt like this and being left behind to cope. Some people may even feel a sense of relief, especially if there have been frequent suicide attempts or violence or if your family life has been dominated by one emotional crisis after another.

  • Rejection and betrayal

Family members often feel rejected by someone who has ended their life.

  • Shame and blame

Suicide is no longer a crime but there still seems to be a stigma associated with it. The legal framework that goes with the investigation and inquest can make families feel like they are on trial.

  • Trying to make sense of it

Suicide can seem like a totally meaningless act and those left behind are often desperate to understand more about why it happened. For some people, the list of questions is endless and the search for answers can become a big part of your life. Everyone connected to the person who has died will have their own beliefs about ‘why’. But all they have is their part of the picture; the person who died is the only one who knew how all the pieces of ‘why’ added up to a situation they found intolerable.

  • Searching for clues and answers

Only the person who dies knows how all the ‘whys’ joined with all the feelings and thoughts and all their own emotional history to make suicide seem the only choice. This search for clues and the need to make sense of the answers is probably one of the biggest challenges to face. In the end, it may be a case of accepting that there are things that will never be known. Some people find that it helps to settle on an answer they can live with, others find they can live with not knowing. Whichever way you choose, it is important at some time to end the search so that you can look forward. Although a catalyst may appear to be obvious, suicide is never the result of a single factor or event and is likely to have several inter related causes.

Suggestions for those bereaved by suicide

  • You can survive

Know you can survive. You may not think so, but you can.

  • Deal with ‘why’

Struggle with ‘why’ it happened until you no longer need to know ‘why’ or until you are satisfied with partial answers.

  • Overwhelming feelings are normal

Know that you may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your feelings but remember that all your feelings are normal.

  • You may feel anger or guilt

Be aware you might feel angry with the person who has taken their life, with the world, with God, with yourself. It’s OK to express your anger in a safe way. It is normal to have feelings of guilt but it is important not to blame yourself for the actions of your loved one.

  • Find help if you have suicidal thoughts

Having suicidal thoughts is common. It does not mean that you will act on these thoughts. However, get help if these thoughts are frequent or if you are thinking of acting on them.

  • Tears are healing

Let yourself cry if you want to. Find a good listener and call someone if you need to talk. Give yourself time to heal. Remember to take one moment or one day at a time.

  • Expect setbacks

Strong emotions can return from time to time. This is normal but it’s a good idea not to make any major decisions when you’re struggling with strong emotions. Don’t be afraid to get professional help.

  • Support

There is help available individual bereavement support or support groups can be helpful. If you are a person who holds a personal faith, this might help you to cope with the difficult times. Work through questions and emotions – wear out your questions, your anger, guilt or other feelings until you can let them go. Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. You know that you will never be the same again but you can survive and even.

Grief is a natural process of reaction and adjustment to loss and change. When we lose someone or something that is important to us, we grieve. There are many types of losses – loss of health, loss of employment, marital breakdown, divorce and death – and the reactions we have after a loss may be very different. Every significant loss challenges us to find ways of coping with the changes that absence brings.

This does not mean that we put the loss behind us, but we now have to adjust to life without that person or thing that meant so much to us. For most of us the death of someone close will be the biggest loss we face. Your grieving process is to try to make sense of what has happened while learning to live your life without that person.

What to expect

We are all amateurs when it comes to grief and there is no right way to grieve. No two people’s reactions will be the same, but these are some you might have:

  • Feelings

You may feel sad, numb, irritable, angry, relieved, guilty, lonely, depressed, frightened or helpless. These feelings can come and go and do not follow any particular sequence.

  • Physical Symptoms

You may feel more tired than usual, yet find it hard to sleep. It is not unusual to have very vivid dreams. Your appetite may change and energy levels may be low. Your concentration may be low so that you are absent-minded or have difficulty absorbing new information.

  • Thoughts

You might find you spend a lot of time thinking about the loss and the events leading up to it. It is normal to spend time thinking about ‘if onlys’ and how things might have been different. Many people find they think a lot about why it happened. Although you know the person has died, you may ‘forget’ it briefly, particularly when you wake up. You may imagine you see or have contact with the person who died. These thoughts can be overwhelming or frightening at times. The emotions and physical symptoms of grief can lead you to wonder if you are grieving the ‘right’ way or even if you are going mad.

  • Social Changes

You may find you need time alone or you may feel a need to tell the story of your loss many times over. You may find you seek out people who can understand your need to talk and distance yourself from people who are uncomfortable with this. You may be disappointed and surprised at who can support you and who cannot.

  • Spiritual Struggles

You may struggle with questions about the meaning of life, your relationship with God and your beliefs about what happens after death.
Although it may be difficult to imagine in the early days of grief, as time goes on you will find resources and strength within yourself that you didn’t know you had. Even as we struggle with grief, we can learn and grow with it.

The Grief Process

Many people experience a sense of shock and disbelief when a death occurs. You may appear to be coping well but often feel detached and almost in a dream. This initial reaction is a protective device that allows you to shut down in some ways as you prepare for what lies ahead. You may be surprised that the pain increases when this numbness begins to wear off and the reality of your loss begins to sink in. As the reality comes into focus so too does the pain of your loss. You begin to notice all that you have lost.

Grief does not happen in a set way. It is not like having the flu, where you feel very ill and then begin to feel a bit better until you finally return to being your old self again. The feelings and thoughts of grief come and go in waves. Sometimes you may feel you are coping quite well and then experience a burst of grief as you are reminded of your loss. It can be confusing to suddenly feel angry, for example, if you feel you have already ‘gotten over’ anger. It may help to remember that the thoughts and feelings will come and go as you try to come to terms with grief while also living your day-to-day life.

Grief is a process and it takes time

Everyone's grief is different and unique

There is no correct way to grieve

Strong emotions and thoughts are part of grief

  • How long does grieving take?

There is no set time for grief. Grieving can be a lifetime adjustment, with some feelings coming back many times. You may also find you feel a ‘dip’ around important dates such as anniversaries and birthdays. You will find that your grief is less intense and eases over time. That does not mean that you are over your grief but that you are finding a way to re-engage in life without the person that died.

  • Complicated Grief

Most people find their own way to cope with loss with the support of family and friends. Some people struggle with grief and may need professional help.

  • Bereavement counselling may help you if:

  • The death was unexpected or sudden
  • Your relationship with the person who died was troubled or very dependent
  • You do not feel you have enough support
  • You have a lot of other stress in your life
  • You are finding it hard to adjust to change and loss

  • What may help?

  • Seek out accurate information about grief and loss
  • Be patient and gentle with yourself as you grieve
  • Recognise the extent of your loss
  • Allow yourself to cope and to grieve in a way that suits you
  • Try to sleep well, eat well and take gentle exercise
  • Try not to make major or rash decisions while you grieve
  • Accept emotional and practical support from friends and family
  • Please talk to your GP if you feel you need further support

Explaining to a child or teenager that someone has died by suicide is one of the most difficult situations that a parent might ever face. It is a natural reaction with any death to want to hide away from the outside world, but with a death from suicide you are much more likely to have to deal with outsiders e.g. Gardaí, Coroner or media. As the story of what has happened can quickly become public knowledge it is best to be open and honest from the start, difficult and all as that may seem. It is normal to want to protect our children and it is important to let them know they can trust you. It is important to be aware of the following:

  • A child is never too young to know the truth.
  • Avoid keeping secrets or telling lies.
  • Avoid unnecessary details – there is no need to be graphic at this point.
  • If at all possible a parent is the best person to tell their children this difficult news. If this is not possible it is important to try and have a parent present when someone else they know and trust
    tells them.
  • If you have already given your child a different explanation for the death than suicide, it is possible to go back and explain things again.

Finding the right words

Research and experience shows that there may be five stages involved in telling a child or teenager that someone has died by suicide – these could happen in the space of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or even years. This will depend on the age and developmental understanding of the child, their relationship to the deceased, experience of other deaths.

The 5 stages may be:

  1. Explaining that the person has died.
  2. Giving simple details about how they died.
  3. Saying that the person ended their own life.
  4. Providing a more detailed explanation of how the person died.
  5. Explaining possible reasons why the person took their own life, while bearing in mind that there may be things that will never be known.

There is no set way to tell a child or teenager something as difficult as the fact that someone they know died by suicide. Breaking it into the 5 steps mentioned above may make it more manageable for you and you can pace it to suit your child or teenager.

  • Encourage children to ask questions – this will inform you about what they are thinking and how they’re dealing with the death. It is okay not to have answers to all questions. It is okay to say “I don’t know“.
  • You can explain and discuss the changes the death brings to the family unit.
  • In the case of a parental death, a very important thing to stress is that the parent did not die because they no longer loved their child or teenager.
  • It is important to be aware that it is normal that children and teenagers may worry about their other parent/relatives/siblings doing the same thing.
  • Reassure the child or teenager that there was nothing s/he had done or said – or not done or not said – that made this happen.
  • Listening to and encouraging children or teenagers to express all of their emotions will help them come to terms with their loss in time.

Key points in talking to children about a traumatic death

  • Trust yourself and your instincts – you know your child best.
  • It is best for the child or teenager to be told by a person
    they know and trust.
  • Use simple, clear language and avoid phrases like “gone to sleep“, “passed on” or “committed” suicide.
  • Allow space for the child or teenager to ask questions.
  • Try and answer truthfully in a way that is appropriate to their age.
  • Let them know it is okay to talk about the person who has died.
  • Continue with normal routines, let them know they can play and do normal things (have fun & laugh) and reassure them about the future e.g. planned holidays, birthday parties.
  • Show the child how you are feeling; it helps them to know that it’s okay to have different feelings.
  • Accept that some things cannot be made better in a short space of time.
  • Talk to children using words they understand and ask questions to check they understand you.
  • Be honest and consistent.
  • Be aware that children and teenagers have different needs and their ability to understand what is going on will vary. Bear this in mind when talking with them about what has happened, as a result you may decide to talk with them separately.

Feelings and thoughts

There are a wide variety of feelings and thoughts that adults, children and teenagers can experience when bereaved by suicide e.g. numbness, shock, disbelief, guilt, anger, relief, rejection & betrayal, shame & blame. Please refer to the handouts on The Grieving Process and Bereaved by Suicide for further explanation on these.

Grieving a suicide is very public and we may be very sensitive to people’s reactions to us. We also have a need to make sense of the death, asking why, remembering the last times spent together and last conversations. Children and teenagers have similar needs and may have many questions and adults need to ensure we respond to their needs as they arise at different stages.

Death is a part of life. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for. Given TIME & SUPPORT most people come to terms with very difficult situations. Trust yourself and your instincts, you haven’t forgotten how to be a parent and you know your child better than anyone.

Extended family, friends and teachers are all very important sources of support for children and teenagers. There are also specific supports available for them e.g. HSE Psychology, Barnardos, Winston’s Wish. Please refer to the handout on ‘Supports and Services’ for further details.