Those who remember:
Surviving suicide in the family
In 2007, I was really starting to figure out my life. I had a good job. I had the support of my family. My sister and I bought a home together – our first house. After some years of instability and ups and downs with jobs and romantic relationships, things felt good – almost too good. And then, the unthinkable happened … three months later, my grandfather died by suicide.
To say that this was “earth shattering” doesn’t quite capture it. To say that this was a monumental event in my life is a gross understatement. It took my middle-class, nothing-really-significant-going-on family and shook it to the core.
Things that I remember from that day: knowing something was really wrong with my mom as she, who can talk for hours on the phone, couldn’t speak. I followed her, asking what had happened again and again, while she tried to escape notice, walking from the back of our house to the front, as if she could just leave the situation in the other room. Then, when she told me, a guttural, animal-like scream rose up from my chest as I fell to the floor, staring up at the ceiling while my younger sister comforted my mom, saying the words I’d wished I could conjure up.
This was NOT how my story was supposed to go, and yet it happened – without my permission. Like a big middle finger raised amidst the reconstruction of my life, it seemed to loudly proclaim, “YOU are not normal,” and this was proof.
Things won’t feel normal for a while; that’s normal
When I consider those of us who survive a death by suicide, I think about it as two separate issues or recovery trajectories – from trauma, and also from grief. In other words, it’s a lot! So, it’s normal that you’re feeling a lot.
First is our trauma response to the event which has occurred. My reaction demonstrates a freeze response. This is the instinctual response that we have – fight, flight, freeze or fawn in the face of a threat. For many of us, this occurs when we find out that a loved one has died suddenly by suicide. For others, this may include discovering our loved one or receiving a message from them prior to their death, or even witnessing this event, which is to say there are varying levels of trauma and accordingly varying reactions.
It can feel like the memory of what has happened is tattooed on our brains and flashbacks, sleeplessness, intrusive thoughts of the traumatic event are common. Often, we experience feelings of numbness, as we’re feeling too much after this loss and will need to feel safe and have time to be with each feeling individually. This is normal.
Tip: Let time take time. For most of us, we’ll need 4-6 weeks for the shock of the loss to be absorbed in order to participate in therapy. Keep it simple, focusing on your needs. Eat the casserole; take that walk.
Grief may be delayed ... until it's safe
Since death by suicide is by definition is a traumatic loss, it may take a while for us to experience feelings of grief. This does not mean that we didn’t love the person who died or miss them. It just means that we may not yet feel safe to be with feelings of grief or we haven’t had the space or intention needed to process them. So, in the meantime we feel a bit numb. This can really be tough for people attending funeral services, as there is often an expectation that we demonstrate feelings of grief, and what if we don’t feel this? It can be really frightening for a person if their response to a loss is unfamiliar and can be hard to ground oneself.
Most of us are aware of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Fewer of us are aware that these stages do not play by any sort of rules. They are often out of order We can feel multiple feelings at the same time and it can be awfully challenging to tell the difference between numbness from trauma and feelings of denial.
Grief can accumulate. Consider this situation: one day I lose a family member by suicide. I have little reaction .A few months go by and an elderly neighbor dies. I handle it in stride. Then, a few weeks later, my dog dies and I’m devastated. I can’t get out of bed, feed myself, brush my hair. It’s all too much. This too is normal.
Tip: When we start to experience a lot of feelings, or conversely, a significant time (>3 months) without much feeling, it’s a good sign that it’s time to start therapy. Practicing mindfulness can also help you build a sense of bodily safety.
Suicide is an ambiguous loss
One of the most difficult things to consider, not only that a loved one left us, but that they did so by choice and at the same time, it’s not about us. It’s about the unimaginable pain that a loved one experienced and the idea that they’ve felt “stuck” and without options, whether for a moment or a long period of time. This is really difficult for most of us to imagine – and that’s a good thing. However, it can cause us to go to great lengths and efforts to attempt to cognitively and emotionally understand what may have happened in their final moments, especially those who have died by suicide. And the reality is, we’ll never know. Just like we may never know what it’s like to be an astronaut or to dive to the deepest parts of the ocean.
When I think of this, I believe that most people have a reason for wanting to solve why a person died by suicide. They may feel responsible, believing that they could have prevented their loved one’s death. Like me, you could desire to understand if there is some part lying dormant in you that could behave in a similar way. Or maybe you wonder if you “weren’t enough” for someone to continue their life? In a world that values certainty, it can be tough to be with the ambiguous, especially when it comes to the loss of a person we hold dear, and yet it’s such an important skill. It teaches us to hold space for the parts of life that are truly unimaginable.
Tip: This is deep therapy work and can serve as a mirror for us. What would we want in a time of crisis? What is our role in our family? How can we feel as if we’re enough?
Ann Netzer, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist working with individuals and couples, specializing in trauma and recovering from childhood hurts in order to live a life in accordance with ones’ desires and values. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-669-6446.
Some crisis resources
• If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 immediately.
• If you are uncomfortable talking on the phone, you can chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988lifeline.org.
• You can also text NAMI to 741-741 to be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line.
• Know the Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Suicide
• Being Prepared for a Crisis
• Read our guide, "Navigating a Mental Health Crisis"
• What You Need to Know About Youth Suicide