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15 March 2004

Coping with the loss of a loved one

There are no words to describe the feelings you experience when you learn about the suicide of a loved one. The initial reaction usually is one of total disbelief and then horror. Devastation would be an understatement.

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There are no words to describe the feelings you experience when you learn about the suicide of a loved one. The initial reaction usually is one of total disbelief and then horror. Devastation would be an understatement.

Then comes the stage where you play memories over and over in your head, in some sort of attempt to find a reason behind it all, until the memories seem to haunt you. Often left with no explanation or closure for the devastating grief you feel, you struggle to try to make some shred of sense of it all.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, it is estimated that for every suicide at least six other people are intimately affected and left to survive the terrible loss. These survivors are often left stunned and troubled by the powerful reactions they experience, which include:*

  • Shock is often the immediate reaction to suicide, along with a physical and emotional numbness. These are ways of temporarily screening out the pain so it can be experienced in smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Depression may appear as disturbed sleep, fatigue, inability to concentrate, change in appetite, and the feeling that nothing can make life worth living.
  • Anger may be part of the grief response, whether directed towards the deceased, another family member, a therapist, or oneself.
  • Relief may be part of the reaction when the suicide followed a long decline into self-destructive behaviour and mental anguish.
  • Guilt often surfaces as the feeling: "If only I had done ..., If only I had said or not said..."
  • Why? Many survivors struggle long and hard with this question.

These feelings usually diminish over the years, although some residual feelings may remain unresolved. It is usually crucial for those surviving the suicide of a loved one to get treatment of some kind and to learn coping skills early on, so they can begin to heal.

There are also a number of things that are important to remember. Recognising how best to accommodate and cope with these feelings can help you advance the healing process:

  • Maintaining contact with other people is especially important in the stress-filled months after a loved one’s suicide. Friends and relatives may feel uncomfortable and unable to offer consolation. Take the initiative to talk about the suicide and ask for their help; it will also help them.
  • When you feel ready, share with your family and friends your feelings of loss and pain. Understand that each family member may be grieving in his or her own way.
  • Children experience many of the feelings of adult grief. Remind them that they are still loved by sharing your thoughts and feelings with them and asking them to share theirs with you.
  • Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays may be stressful reminders of the suicide. Plan these days to meet your own emotional needs and those of your family.
  • You may need to feel guilty for a while before you can accept that you are not to blame and that you are only human, with human limitations.
  • It is worth trying to understand the feelings of the deceased, but no-one gains when the struggle to understand becomes the only activity that seems worthwhile.
  • It is important not only to be able to go on with your life, but eventually to enjoy life again, without feeling that enjoyment is disloyal to the deceased.
  • The survivors of any death need comfort, support and trusted listeners with whom they can discuss their grief. The stigma of suicide and the shame, guilt and blame that people feel often isolates suicide survivors in their grief. Many people find relief in support groups where they can voice their feelings and learn from the experience of others.
  • Individual counselling with a mental health professional or clergy member is another option to help survivors through their grief process.

It is very important not to isolate yourself. In his book Connect, psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, tells us that connectedness (emotionally, psychologically, physically) - the feeling that we are part of something that matters, something larger than ourselves that gives life its meaning, direction and purpose - is what sustains us. Maintaining that silver thread between ourselves and people and things that nurture our souls is especially important in times of great loss.

* taken from Survivor at http://www.afsp.org/survivor/home.htm

For more information please contact the Depression and Anxiety Support Group on (011) 78 1474/6 or (011) 884 1797

Katherine Bain, Depression and Anxiety Support Group

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