Losing Someone to Suicide

Please note that this article originally published in early 2012.

It is hard enough to lose a loved one as a child or a teen but to add the extra stigma of suicide almost seems unbearable.

On June 25, 2011 Comfort Zone Camp, in partnership with the Samaritans and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, provided a specialized one-day program for kids and teens who had suffered the loss of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver to suicide. Twenty-five brave campers showed up bright and early at the Shore Country Day School in Beverly not knowing exactly what to expect. Many did not want to be there, and most were apprehensive.

Grief after a suicide is very complicated and messy. After any loss, adults and children need to be in a safe and gentle environment to feel and to express the tough emotions. Healing requires the permission to tell your story and for the ability to integrate the loss into your life. Suicide makes it almost impossible to find a kind, supportive place. The story often seems too horrific to tell and it is difficult to make any sense of what happened. I often think it would seem just as logical to a family if you told them that their loved one moved to Mars; suicide goes against how we are wired. It is not something we can comprehend.

When a person dies by suicide, there is no chance to anticipate or prepare. Many times people had no clue that their loved one was even struggling. It often blindsides them, leaving them completely off balance. After someone dies by suicide, I see a huge rock fall from the sky destroying the home and community of all the people touched by this death, and not only do these people need to rebuild but first they need to chip away the rock before they can even start to recover.

Suicide deaths are traumatic and are many times violent making it hard to tell others. Survivors do not want others to judge their loved ones or question their relationship with the person. They can become very protective. Also often not everyone knows that the person died by suicide, so it can all be very secretive and confusing.

After a suicide, the survivors are left with many unanswered questions, important pieces of the puzzle missing. They desperately to create a narrative that will explain why the person took her life. They become private investigators leaving no stone unturned, studying phone bills and their loved one’s behaviors, and interviewing anyone who had contact with their loved one to no avail. There is never a satisfying answer that solves the unknowing.  Survivors relive events leading up to the death. The “what if’s” haunt them. They live with the “would haves, should haves, and could haves” causing much anxiety and guilt.

Survivors begin to doubt themselves. If this person could take his life without me knowing, who else do I know who is suicidal? Why didn’t she think she could come and talk to me and let me know what was going on, wasn’t I a good friend? Parent? Daughter? Brother? This can bring on feelings of anger. Didn’t this person know how loved she was?

There is also can be a great deal of shame when someone you love dies by suicide. People in the community hear rumors, make assumptions and judge not only the person who died but the people who loved that person. Suicide deaths are often very public and most people do not understand most people who take their own lives suffer from diagnosable mental illness. People do not take their lives because they had one bad day or because they had a weak moment. It does not happen because someone breaks up with them or they lost a job. People who die by suicide don’t want to die they just need the pain to stop.

For both adults and children who have lost a loved one to suicide, it is important they find a space where they feel safe and supported. They need room to investigate and ask the hard questions, slowly at their own pace, realizing that the answers they stumble upon will never be enough. Survivors of suicide need to learn more about mental illness and unlearn the myths that surround suicide. It can help tremendously if they know that this grief holds some different responses and feelings than other losses. To hear, that they are not the only ones reliving the events that lead up to their loved ones death, questioning what they did and what they did not do, and slowly come to a place of acceptance. An acceptance that allows them to trust they did the very best they could and that love is not part of the equation. The person they lost was loved and loved them, the disease just won.

Adults and children who lost someone to suicide need to find ways to remember the whole person. The way someone dies should not define his or her life. It is a part of their story but it is far from the whole story. And the thing that most survivors say is the most helpful in their healing is to be around other survivors. This community of support allows them to remember their loved one, talk about the complex emotions, be in a safe environment where they can ask the tough questions, and see that they are not alone.

Days like Saturday, June 25, 2011 are so vital and so incredibly powerful. For children and teens to be at a one day camp, in the same room with other children who also lost someone to suicide, was an amazing gift. The ripple effects will continue allowing each camper new opportunities to trust and to heal. No one was judging them, caring adults and peers were not afraid to ask them about their feelings and experiences, and they were allow to celebrate the life of the loved one, not get stuck in how that person died.  It normalized the death and it gave them a voice, and sense of community and hope. One camper’s evaluation says it best, “This is the best I’ve felt since my father’s death – Thank You.”

The one day camp was so powerful and so effective that a second camp has been scheduled for March 2012.  As long as children and teens face suicide losses, they will need this kind of safe place to share, heal, and grow.

If you ever feel that you are in danger of harming yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255). The hotline is staffed with caring individuals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Special thanks to Kim Kates, Director of Grief Support Services for Samaritans. Samaritans’ goal is to reduce the risk of  suicide and increase awareness about suicide prevention throughout the Greater Boston and MetroWest areas.  For more information, please visit www.samaritanshope.org or call one of their 24 hour helplines at (617) 247-0220 or (508) 875-4500.

Photo credit.

14 Comments:

  1. Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC said on March 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm ... #

    Thank you for this timely article. I’ve added it as a “Related Article” to my own blog post, “Grief Support for Survivors of Suicide,” http://j.mp/FRpzvQ

  2. Donna Brink said on April 1, 2012 at 9:05 pm ... #

    When is the next event of this kind? I would love my 3 daughters to attend—they are 16 and 17yo twins……..their Dad took his life 6/2/11.

    I am having difficulty getting them to get help or talk about it……..don’t want counseling etc.
    Help!

    thank you-
    Donna Brink

  3. Alicia Lane said on April 25, 2012 at 12:26 pm ... #

    Donna,

    This is an annual camp, but your daughters could also apply for our other camp programs. You can learn more at http://www.comfortzonecamp.org, or email us at info @ comfortzonecamp.org.

    Thanks,
    Alicia

  4. Anonymous said on June 27, 2012 at 9:56 pm ... #

    i was there it was very very helpful… if they have another (they REALLY SHOULD) i would definitely go.

  5. Kayla said on December 2, 2012 at 2:17 am ... #

    Okay. I don’t know what to do, my friend has lost two of his uncles to suicide and also a handful of his friends, I am trying to help him but he gets so angry and upset, he says he is a big boy and he can handle it, that he doesn’t need anyone, but he needs a friend, what can I say without stepping over the boundaries? I wanna try and boosts his spirits, any advice?

  6. Kevin said on March 14, 2013 at 12:05 am ... #

    I just lost a niece to suicide and the article above seems so accurate on how I am feeling.

    there have been attempts in other family members and the bottom line is:
    We must all collectively deal with mental health in a dramatically different way; starting with understanding that mental health is a diastase just like any other. When you break your arm, you se a doctor to set the arm. When you have mental health challenges, see a doctor. We as people need to eliminate the stigma of depression and other Mental issues that too often end up in the should have, could have rear view mirror feelings. We need to help people before it is too late

  7. Pip said on March 24, 2013 at 7:06 pm ... #

    I lost my dad to suicide 20 years ago, when I was 20. My parents were divorced and I lived with my mum.

    Dealing with his death was almost impossible because of how my mum felt about him and how she imposed her feelings on us. In fact, I don’t think I ever did deal with it.

    No-one understands where you’re coming from. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. The loneliness is the worst.

    I wish the help and support that seems to be around now, was around then.

    What you are doing is wonderful. Keep it up.

  8. Charmaine said on May 20, 2013 at 4:44 am ... #

    It really is incredibly hard! My 9 year old son found his dad after he took is own life in May 2011. We just had the 2 year anniversary. I was seperated but in an amicable relationship with my sons father. It was just my son home with 2 younger brothers aged roughly 2 years and not quite 6 months when it happened. It was the worst day of my life getting that phonecall from my son who had to call emergency services aswell. It was horrific and i still have panic attacks when the phone rings sometimes. Very hard to grieve in this situation – lots of emotions (anger, hate – how could he do this knowing his son would find him?!) seems a cruel blow for my son to experience the trauma ontop of tragedy. I live in Christchurch, New Zealand – there is no support here. The district healthboard closed down the facility that used to provide suicide support groups. Stupidest move since Christchurch has the second highest stats in our country. ACC (accident compensation) declined my son for counselling on the basis that he only suffered trauma and not a physical disability. The kid was 9 – how could he not be entitled to some help?! The best help we got was from lovely volunteers at the red cross – literally walking angels! The suicide affected me personally so much but i never have done my own grieving because i put my sons grief first. 2 years later it still churns my tummy up.

  9. bobby sue said on June 5, 2013 at 3:37 pm ... #

    When someone suicides, everyone around them dies a death in a way. Never the same. Husband and I lost our 31 y/o son (my stepson) to suicide 2 1/2 years ago. No one in the family believes it, so I face this on my own. I was the one to get the autopsy and talk with the authorities and investigators b/c no one else was able and I was so “strong” and after all “just the stepmom”.
    This hurts and has destroyed so much that was vibrant “before”.

  10. Brad said on July 10, 2013 at 11:25 am ... #

    Hello Folks,
    I was 12 when I lost my Mom to suicide. That was back in 1992. Everything in this article is correct as far as I’m concerned.
    I went to many “counselors” etc etc and none of them helped me at all.
    It is now July 10, 2013 and I’m coming up on the 4 yr anniversary of my Dad committing suicide as well. That was in 2009 3 days after my 29 birthday.
    Are there any support groups for kiddos around the Northern Virginia / DMV area? I’d like to be able to chat with the kids. They need more people who have been where they are. Majority or people have not a clue about how tough it is on a kid to lose a parent to suicide. To have it happen to the other parent 17 yrs later was just “icing on the cake”. Not cool.
    But kids need to know they’re not alone and it IS possible to carry on etc.
    Thanks,
    B

  11. Joyce said on July 10, 2013 at 12:38 pm ... #

    Thank you

    My 43 year old son ended his life June 14, 2013. He lived in a different state and did not communicate with me often. I had no idea about his struggles. I still find it impossible to tell people, relatives, people who knew him how he died. These people who “may be well meaning” can ask the most hurtful questions and then more hurtful questions. I do not need the gossip, or sympathy accompanied by “poor you” implying “my children are better than that…”. Answering their intrusive questions hurts. I have lost my best friend as a result of my not “telling” her everything within a couple of days after his death.

    Even my 2nd husband (not my son’s father) doesn’t get it. He immediately told his daughter – one that does not speak to me – within a day of my finding out.

    I feel very alone and you have helped today.
    Joyce

  12. Val said on November 8, 2013 at 10:02 pm ... #

    To all of you and particularly Brad….there are groups in most cities called “survivors after suicide” that meet on a monthly basis. Mine happened to meet in Cincinnati, but I’m sure that if you google wherever you live you will find some kind of support group in your area. Suicide is not as uncommon as some might think (unfortunately) and survivors reaching out to other survivors is one of the most helpful ways I think to deal with the sense of isolation that we feel when dealing with this very sensitive issue. I lost my mother to suicide when I was 15 and she was only 36, then 21 years later when my brother was 33 he took his own life as well. The thing about suicide is that it really bores a hole into the minds of the family and friends that are left behind and shouldn’t, but it does pass that option onto others as a way to escape mental anguish instead of coping with it, but this cycle must be broken! Back when my mother died(1973)there was no support and I received no counseling to deal with my grief, but after my brother’s death I had to reach out as we had lost our other brother to a car accident 10 years prior and I had no other siblings. After going for about 5 months I felt that by listening to others relate their stories and see their raw grief that I knew I was not the only one who had to go through this hell. I think that that is the worst part about dealing with a suicide death is that it was preventable and that it was a self inflicted murder and the reliving of the last moments is sheer torment that we put ourselves through because of the guilt that we feel for not being there.
    I’m glad that people are willing to talk about this and bring awareness to this issue because it shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of……it is a mental health issue. The feelings of being alone…that nobody understands what it feels like is a need that can only be filled by others who have suffered the loss of a loved one through suicide. So reach out in your community for a support group and when you can.. do something to honor your loved one like put a bench in a park or plant a beautiful garden in your yard, plant a tree in their memory or start a scholarship. When you do something positive for yourself and for them in their memory you will begin to feel better with time.

  13. carole said on January 22, 2014 at 4:20 am ... #

    Thank you for this article. IT REALLY HAS HELPED ME UNDERSTAND. My good friend lost his son to suicide when he was only 26. His grief is so all-consuming. My friend cut ties with everyone, moved abroad and contacts no-one apart from his other children here. Friends of 30 years never hear from him. He didn’t attend a funeral of his friends son (same age). I thought he would move through his grief and find a peace and understanding to start picking up his life again. He has a partner and job abroad. He just left his old life behind (perhaps reminders. I miss him. He was a caring man, partner, father and friend.

  14. Cristen said on July 30, 2014 at 9:43 am ... #

    I lost my best friend to suicide on October 18, 2002 at 6:30am. Our daughter was 4 and a half that day and she is now 16. Twelve years later, I still love him. Love never ends and we don’t ever have to stop loving a person just because they have died. This is not something easily received by our society that so generously allows us three days of bereavement to mourn the loss of a loved one. This restriction is for the living and the unaffected. The grieving must find a place to shed the tears without apologies or a person to hear the sadness without judgement of those living or dead.
    We have a grief group here in northwestern Indiana, USA called “wounded healers”. The group divides into subgroups by manner of death of the loved one a person is grieving. By meeting only with those who had lost someone similarly, my feelings, that otherwise isolated me, were validated and I was allowed to heal just a little. A little healing is like planting a seed that grows and grows and grows. Planting that seed and nurturing what grows from it is vital to moving forward.
    If you have lost someone to suicide, please find a similar group. If you love someone who has lost someone to suicide, please allow that person to feel whatever they need to feel. Understand these feelings are uncomfortable, ugly, and downright painful to witness. But to offer unconditional acceptance to a person grieving a suicide is the most caring and helpful thing that can be done, and could tremendously help the ability to heal at all…because some people never do.
    This article is so accurate about the survivors of suicide, and the youth camp is a wonderful thing. I hope it grows and grows. Cristen M.

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