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For every suicide-almost 32,000 annually in the U.S.-there are an average of six survivors left behind to cope with complex feelings of shock, grief, anger, guilt, and the terrible question "Why?"
In fact, experts rank the trauma of losing a loved one to suicide as "catastrophic," similar to surviving a concentration camp experience.
If you are one of the 5 million Americans who have lost a loved one to suicide, you may ask yourself how you will get over it. The truth is...you won't. But you can get through it in your own time and in your own way. You can begin to live your life again and restore your emotional well-being.
Reaching out to people who can help you is an important first step in the healing process. In fact, often, the longest journey begins with a single step. Don't go through it alone.
Is Suicide a Choice?
Suicide is different from other deaths because the persons we love seem to have chosen death over a wealth of better alternatives. In reality, the goal of suicide is release from pain, not release from life. But this ultimate choice-based on the victim's distorted perspective of the problems-leaves survivors with overwhelming feelings of grief, helplessness, and powerlessness.
What You May Be Feeling
- Guilt. "Shouldn't I have been able to prevent the suicide?" The answer is no, you are not to blame in any way. Repeat this to yourself again and again and write it down. In truth, the victim is the only person responsible for the suicide. Guilt is a barrier to healing.
- Anger. "How could he/she do this without warning or asking for help?"
Rage is the deepest part of the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.) For suicide survivors, it's even more confusing because the person we have lost is also the murderer of the one we have lost.
- Isolation and disconnection. It's easy to retain happy memories when a loved one dies a natural death, but as a suicide survivor, we are often left to deal alone with conflicted feelings. That's why it's important to reach out for help.
- Stigma. Because suicide is so misunderstood, people may make insensitive remarks, judge, blame, or fail to mourn with you, the way they would for other deaths. Ignore them and lean on people who care.
Signs & Symptoms of Suicide
- Mental disorders: particularly depression and other mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and certain personality disorders.
- Alcohol and other substance abuse.
- Impulsive or aggressive tendencies.
- History of trauma or abuse.
- Some major physical illnesses.
- Previous suicide attempt.
- Suicide death of family member/loved one.
- Job or financial loss.
- Divorce or death of spouse.
- Relationship or social loss.
- Access to lethal means.
- Legal trouble/IRS trouble.
- Academic/social failure in school.
- Lack of social support and sense of isolation.
- Stigma associated with help-seeking effort.
- Barriers to accessing health care, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment.
- Certain cultural and religious beliefs.
- Exposure to, including through the media, and influence of other who have died by suicide.
What You Can Do Right Now
- Confront your pain. Let out your feelings. Cry as often as you need to and talk to anyone who is willing to listen with a compassionate ear. Pain grows silently when it is buried, often coming out years later in devastating ways. Work through your pain now.
- Attend a support group. Other suicide survivors know what you are going through. They are compassionate and can help you heal. (The American Association of maintains a list of California support groups by city).
- Accept your "backslides." Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays...even coming across a special photo...can trigger intense feelings. This is normal and expected, but also temporary, so keep backslides in perspective.
- Take care of yourself. Guard your physical and emotional health. Making a commitment to ease your pain and that of those around you is the one way you can still help the person you have lost.
- Find a therapist with grief training. A qualified therapist can travel through your pain with you towards healing; assess whether medication will help with sleep or depression; and connect you to resources for recovery.
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