When someone takes their own life, those who knew them often react with a mixture of shock, disbelief, and guilt. And this is true even when the warning signs were clear. To most people, such an act is the ultimate denial, the clearest possible statement one can make of total and utter despair. Within families, it also unleashes a torrent of emotion, from shame and guilt to anger and fear. And these emotions last a lifetime.
The Impact on Family and Friends
The death of a loved one hurts. Indeed, for the average person it is the most painful experience they ever undergo. But, with time, it is something most accept. Everyone, and everything, is finite. We grieve, and we move on. But suicide is different. Death may be natural, but killing oneself isn’t. And when a member of the family does so, it triggers an enormous sense of guilt. Parents, for example, will often say things like “this happened on my watch,” or “I failed to save him,” and may even feel that they have no right to go on. Indeed, many will say that were it not for their responsibility towards their own ageing parents, grieving partner, or surviving children, they really would join their dead child.
But parents are not the only ones to feel such guilt. Siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, even family friends, may all agonize over their failure. Following the death, they analyze every conversation, every act that seemed out of character, all the time searching for some moment, some odd phrase the deceased used, that hinted at their plans. Surely there was something they missed? If only I had noticed X or Y, they think, I could have saved them! And people not only experience feelings of guilt towards the deceased; they also feel guilty on behalf of the children they have left behind. Such guilt can be intensified by religious and cultural taboos as well.
Closely related to guilt, there is simple anger. People feel outraged and wonder how their loved one could have been so selfish. Or they are furious on behalf of his children – how could he or she do this to them? Of course, they then feel guilty about their anger and become trapped in a vicious circle of anger at the dead, guilt for feeling that way, more anger that their loved one has caused these emotions, and then guilt at their selfishness. Others will think back to every cruel or spiteful remark they ever made, every argument they ever had, every time they let him down. Again, this is natural when someone dies. But when it was by suicide, these feelings are only intensified.
Fear is another common reaction. Most obviously, people wonder if this self-destructive urge has been inherited. Someone whose brother takes his own life, for example, may fear that one of her children will repeat the pattern. Suicide shatters a basic taboo. Life is very hard, and most people, at some point, fantasize about how lovely it would be to just disappear, cease to exist, never wake up, and so on (think of poor old Hamlet yearning for his “too, too solid flesh” to “melt, thaw, resolve itself into a dew”). For the vast majority, however, it remains just that – a fantasy. Things change and improve and the fantasies are forgotten. Indeed, for many, the thought of suicide acts as a sort of pressure release. When someone really carries it through, however, it disturbs us and makes those private fantasies and daydreams suddenly seem all too real.
Survivors often feel hurt and offended by what this person has done – especially children. A child is supposed to make his or her parents happy, they reason, and yet one of mine was so unhappy that they destroyed themselves. Some children will even conclude that they were personally responsible. A 12-year-old has no real understanding of what drives an adult to do such a thing (many adults never really understand) and so concludes that they must have played a part – that they were a letdown or disappointment. And most children will wonder why they were not enough, why their mother or father did not want to live for them at least. Other members of the family must explain all this to the surviving children and do everything in their power to save them from such torment. If they do not, the child may be haunted for the rest of his or her life by a sense of worthlessness and failure.
But children are not the only ones to feel this way. The parents of a suicide will not only feel a sense of guilt and failure, they are also likely to feel rejected and hurt – that they were not fun or life-affirming enough to convince their child to stay in the world. Even a brother or sister may feel like this, especially if the deceased was young and both were living in the family home.
Suicide and the Grieving Process
When someone is bereaved they undergo a grieving process. This phrase “grieving process” can be slightly misleading, by the way, since it implies that there are distinct stages, experienced by everyone at the same pace and in the same order. In fact, that is not so. People grieve in their own time and in their own way. Nevertheless, most begin with a sense of shock (all the greater when it is suicide of course), followed by denial. As the denial wears off, there is usually a feeling of guilt followed by sadness and even depression. Then, as the depression eases, there is eventual acceptance.
When someone takes their own life, however, this process can be slightly different. First, there is the sense of stigma and shame. The bereaved worry about other people’s reactions: are they gossiping about the dead? Do they think he/she was weak or unhinged? Do they think we failed them? The guilt also tends to be more acute, making it much harder to move on. Indeed, counsellors and therapists often say that no one fully recovers from a death until they can let go of this guilt, which is why suicide is especially difficult.
How to Cope
If someone close to you has taken their life, you must maintain your physical health. This is too often overlooked during a trauma. Remember, mind and body are one. Keep your body in excellent shape and you will find the emotional pain easier to withstand. So eat regular, healthy meals, keep exercising (preferably out of doors and with a friend) and resist the temptation to escape into alcohol and drugs.
Next, realize that your anger, pain, guilt, and so on, are perfectly natural. And so is the longing to join them – even the feeling that you ought to join them. You must be patient and allow such feelings to wash over you as and when they arise. Mindfulness can help. This technique, so popular today that virtually every celebrity and politician seems to be a fan, keeps you fully grounded in the present. You do not resist thoughts or emotions, neither do you allow them to sweep you away. Instead, you detach yourself, observing them as they arise and fall, arise and fall.
It is also important to reach out to others. This is true during any bereavement. Unfortunately, suicide can make this difficult. Even in the most secular and rational cultures, a sense of shame still attaches to the act, and many people worry what their friends really think, behind the smiles and hugs. The family may feel ashamed at their failure to save him or her, and suspect that others also think them a failure. And suicide frightens people. Indeed, it can even stir up a primitive fear of contagion – that this self-destructiveness might somehow be passed on if they spend too much time with you.
Many feel they have no right to seek such comfort, that they do not deserve it. But this is absurd. In a small number of cases, it may be true that the family could have done more, or maybe even that they drove the dead person to take such action. In the vast majority of cases, however, the family probably had nothing to do with it. And this needs to be emphasized. Yes, this person was your mother, or son, or brother, or whatever the relationship may have been; they were also an independent human being with their own inner life, their own problems, and their own way of experiencing the world. And, hard as this may be to accept, they had the right to end their life. It is also important to remember that the kind of agony and despair some people find themselves in is totally irrational and has nothing to do with their actual life. When someone is in that state their perception of the world changes.
Finally, try to see this pain and tragedy in a broader context. Look up at the stars and meditate on the vastness of space. This planet is like a grain of sand in a desert. Allow the scale and age of the Universe to dwarf and shrink you and your pain. Immerse yourself in nature as well: hike in the mountains, swim in the sea, open yourself to what the French philosopher Albert Camus called “the sublime indifference of nature.” Over 99% of species ever to have existed are now extinct; one day human beings will go the same way.
Your grief is itself finite. During a Church of England funeral service, these beautiful, strangely consoling words from the Book of Common Prayer used to be read aloud: “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower…In the midst of life we are in death.” Whether intended or not, the other mourners were reminded that their own grief and pain would not last. You too will soon be gone. And in a sense it is your duty to live the life the deceased cannot: to take pleasure in food, conversation, and sunshine on his or behalf.
Losing a loved one to suicide is an especially painful experience. It brings its own distinct agonies and must be faced in its own way. Finally, bear in mind that just because they gave up on life, it does not mean they’d want you to do the same. Live the life they cannot – and do it for them.