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Losing someone close through suicide

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The loss of someone you've been close to, whatever the cause of their death, can bring intense feelings of grief.

But losing someone through suicide can cause reactions and emotions that are different to those felt after death from illness, an accident or natural causes. The fact that a person's death involved an element of choice raises painful questions.

Shock, social isolation and feelings of guilt can be greater when bereavement is caused by suicide than when it's caused by other types of death.

It's not uncommon to have nightmares or recurring images of the death, even if you didn't see it happen.

"The grieving process is characterised by questioning and a search for an explanation," says Professor Keith Hawton from the Centre for Suicide Research, University of Oxford.

Professor Hawton helped develop a guide for people bereaved by suicide and other sudden, traumatic death, entitled Help is at Hand (PDF).

"Talking to other people is crucial," says Hawton. "Sharing your feelings with other people can be extremely therapeutic. Going through the details of what happened can be helpful.

"Some people get trapped at the stage at which they have recurring images or nightmares for other reasons, perhaps due to guilt. But talking can help them move on."

If the images persist and you find they interfere with your life, ask your GP if they can refer you to a specialist who can help.

Looking for answers

Many newly-bereaved people will ask, "Why?" but there isn't always a straightforward answer.

"People will have different explanations," says Hawton. "There's a tendency to think about a single cause for each death, but that's rarely the case.

"Cases are often complex. There may be a trigger for the event, but studies show there are often several factors. These may be historical, family and genetic, for example."

Hawton says that finding answers isn't easy, because all the information is not always at hand. "Nonetheless, searching for an explanation is useful and essential," he says. "People get to a point where the death makes more sense to them and that's part of the healing process."

Going over what could have been done to save someone from suicide is a natural reaction. Everything can seem painfully obvious with the benefit of hindsight, and the "What ifs?" may seem endless.

Changes in behaviour that lead to suicide can be gradual. Even mental health professionals find it hard to know when a person is particularly at risk.

"Once a person has decided to take their life, they can go to great lengths to cover up their plans," says Hawton.

Self-blame after a suicide

A suicide can cause feelings of intense guilt, self-blame and self-questioning among family and friends.

"There is often a considerable sense of guilt and shame," says Hawton. "Suicide is still a stigmatised topic, although, thankfully, attitudes are changing."

People often avoid talking to someone who has lost a loved one by suicide, because they don't want to cause offence. Hawton says this can reinforce feelings of shame and stigma in the bereaved.

"This reticence makes the bereaved person feel worse and more isolated," says Hawton.

This can lead the bereaved person to cut themselves off from people who could help them, because they feel worthless or fear further rejection.

It may help to talk about your feelings with someone you trust. Talking about your feelings will help you to get a realistic perspective on them. If your feelings of guilt persist, you might find it helpful to discuss them with a support group or talk to a counsellor.

Suicidal fears

People bereaved by suicide sometimes worry that suicidal tendencies are inherited and they may become more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts of their own.

If you have feelings like this, it may help to discuss them with a support group or your doctor.

"Such thoughts usually pass with time, but it's vital to seek professional help if they become very strong," says Hawton.

You may feel isolated and as though you haven't been able to talk about, remember and celebrate all aspects of the life of the person you've lost. Joining a support group for people bereaved by suicide can to help reduce the sense of stigma and isolation. 

Article provided by NHS Choices

See original on NHS Choices