I have seen and read many articles about the two very recent high profile suicides that have unfortunately occurred. Due to the celebrity status of the people involved, the cases were given much publicity and debate as to how and why. If anything at all positive can come from this coverage, it is that the spotlight is once again thrown on the issue of mental health and depression especially. We know very little about suicide as a concept. How it must be to make that decision, how the mind works in those final moments. I once read an analysis of suicide notes that suggested that many people who committed suicide felt the world closing in on them towards the end and it seemed the only viable option. The study also revealed a moment of “clarity”, once the decision was made. In these cases, we often center on the survivors, the ones left behind to cope with the aftermath. Many of these survivors are not given the support they need and are often subjected to views such as anyone who commits suicide is “selfish”. A further note from the analysis above was that many people who decided to leave a note thought their loved ones would be better off without them.
Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, “There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved.” Unfortunately, many survivors of suicide suffer alone and in silence. The silence that surrounds them often complicates the healing that comes from being encouraged to mourn.
Because of the social stigma surrounding suicide, survivors feel the pain of the loss, yet may not know how, or where, or if, they should express it. Yet, the only way to heal is to mourn. Just like other bereaved persons grieving the loss of someone loved, suicide survivors need to talk, to cry, sometimes to scream, in order to heal.
As a result of fear and misunderstanding, survivors of suicide deaths are often left with a feeling of abandonment at a time when they desperately need unconditional support and understanding. Without a doubt, suicide survivors suffer in a variety of ways: one, because they need to mourn the loss of someone who has died; two, because they have experienced a sudden, typically unexpected traumatic death; and three, because they are often shunned by a society unwilling to enter into the pain of their grief
As a therapist, it can always be the case that I can be confronted with a situation where a patient is suicidal. While some are obvious cases, I always need to be aware of the more subtle clues that might lead me to believe that it could happen. It is a difficult one. Given the legal obligations that therapists work under in that these cases must be reported if a feeling is there that an attempt is imminent, some patients who would plan such a step would go to great lengths in order to avoid the therapist getting any kind of clue of intention. I have been through this a number of times and it doesn’t get easier. The whole idea of someone taking their own life is a mystery to most. Often loved ones left behind are racked with guilt and pain, torturing themselves about what they could have done to stop it. In the end, the answer might be not much but that doesn’t stop the living hell that goes with the pain of loss. The waves of emotions that flow through the minds of suicide survivors can be so devastating that they cause the person to no longer be able to function. Life just seems to stop for them, now that their loved one has died by suicide. These emotions may occur singly, or in clusters, come fleetingly or stay for lengthy periods of time. They all need to be dealt with in order for healing to begin.
• Shock – Most survivors of suicide feel shock as an immediate reaction, along with physical and emotional numbness. This reaction is the temporary way for the person to screen out the pain of what just happened, to allow time to comprehend the facts, and take things in smaller and more manageable steps.
• Anger – Loved ones and family members often express anger, or suppress it, at the waste of human life. Anger is another grief response, and may be directed toward the person who died by suicide, to themselves, another family member, or a therapist.
• Guilt – Following death by suicide, surviving family members rack their brains trying to think of what clues they missed, how they may have been able to prevent the suicide. This self-blame includes things they said (or didn’t say), their failure to express love or concern, things they planned to do (but never got around to) – anything and everything in a never-ending kaleidoscope.
• Fear – If one family member committed suicide, perhaps another will make an attempt. The surviving family member may even fear he or she is in jeopardy.
• Relief – When the deceased died by suicide after a protracted illness filled with intense physical pain, long decline into self-destructive behavior, or ongoing mental anguish, surviving family members may feel a sense of relief. Finally, the loved one’s suffering is over.
• Depression – Nothing seems worth an effort anymore to many suicide survivors. This manifests itself in sleeplessness or disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, fatigue, and loss of joy in life.
Grief experts say that most of these intense feelings will diminish over time, although there may be some residual feelings that may never truly go away. In addition, some questions may forever remain unanswered.