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Surviving Suicide: Steps to Heal

by | Sep 29, 2023

Surviving. Suicide. These two words juxtapose to each other feel more like an oxymoron than a purposeful, optimistic phrase. Surviving the death of a family member or friend due to natural causes or sudden accident is a daunting task for most. However, when suicide is involved it can add a significant layer on top of all of those emotions leaving us often feeling lost and helpless in the moment to moment and day to day.

Guilt

By far and away the greatest emotion survivors of suicide feel is guilt. “Why didn’t I see this coming?” “Where was I?” “Why didn’t they reach out to me?” “Why didn’t I check in on them?” The questions come hard and fast leaving us wondering what we could have done differently. Our mind travels to the last time we saw or spoke with them. Did they give me a sign that I simply missed? Were they only acting happy and content but really feeling depressed inside? What did I miss?

As I review my own life, I have known about a half dozen people who have committed suicide. Some were friends. Others were just a little more than an acquaintance. But in all cases, I know that I had lost touch with them at some point. Life happens and people come in and out of your life. Still, the news of their suicide hit me and I felt a sense of guilt in that I had not done a better job of staying in touch and checking in on these old friends. Being a therapist shouldn’t I have known better?

Suicide leaves a black hole like a void sucking in all these unanswered questions. The person is gone and there’s nothing that can be done to change that or bring them back.  

Stages of Death and Dying

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross gave us a framework to understand our emotions about death. These stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Theoretically, one might start at the beginning and end up at a level of acceptance. However, in reality, one can experience any of these emotions in any order at any time. What’s really important, and healthy, is to allow yourself to feel whatever your feelings are fully. Let the emotions come as they do and allow yourself to feel them completely. You are allowed to feel however you may feel at any given time. (Say that again to yourself.)

Denial – a most common reaction to hearing the tragic loss, especially to suicide, is through denial. It’s like a defense mechanism in our brains to try to protect us from some really unfortunate news. “Not possible. They must have got it wrong.” “They must be talking about someone else.” “There’s just no way she could have killed herself. It must have been an accident.” After the initial shock of the news settles in on us we start to let go of the denial as the reality of the situation takes hold.

Anger – another common and healthy reaction to the loss of someone to suicide is anger. You may find yourself feeling angry at the person. Angry at them for the impact their suicide has had on others – friends, family, coworkers, etc. You may feel their choice was one of selfishness. These angry feelings can often come with a sense of guilt, guilt for being angry at the person who died, and feel like you are on an emotional rollercoaster. Take solace in the fact that this is natural and normal.

Bargaining – It’s common to find yourself wishing, even asking, if you could trade something to have that person back. You may even find yourself saying you would trade your life to have theirs back. What if I could go back in time and change something I did, something I said?

Depression – Inevitably the periods of sadness find their way to us. This can be different for different people. For many it comes in waves. It can last for hours, days, weeks, months. It can be intense at times and simply dull at others. You can be having a perfectly “normal” day and a song on the radio, a photo, etc. can trigger a memory and with it the intense grief that accompanies these losses.

Acceptance – Coming to terms with the loss of a friend or family member to suicide is the gradual resolution of all of our thoughts and feelings. There is no set timetable or formula as to when one might reach this stage. Moreover, it is possible to revisit some of the previous stages even after we’ve thought we had reached a level of acceptance.

Time is both the constant and the variable when dealing with the suicidal death of a friend or family member. They say, “Time heals all wounds” yet in the moment that feels impossible. This time can mean different things for different people. The one constant is that there is no shortcut. Time will be what it is for you.

Getting Through vs. Getting Over

“I’m never going to get over this” may be something we find ourselves feeling. And that may in fact be true as ‘getting over’ something implies putting it in the past and leaving it there. With that can come a resurgence of those guilty feelings.

A more hopeful way may be to consider ‘getting through’ this. Getting through it allows us to feel all of the emotions we like as we work our way through this loss. Ultimately, we can find ourselves in some form of acceptance but allow room for any of the other emotions to come back from time to time…and be okay with that. 

Steps To Heal

Rest assured you are not alone in this. So you don’t need to go it alone. There are many steps you can take to make it possible to get through this:

  1. Take care of yourself. While it may be hard, eating properly, sleeping, and exercising all will contribute to your physical well-being. In turn, taking care of your physical body will positively impact your mental state. Meditation and yoga can also provide a balance between mind, body, and spirit that can increase your ability to heal. 
  2. Write a script that can help you answer the sometimes painful questions other may ask you about the suicide. Having some key phrases at the ready can help with the well-meaning but sometimes prying questions others can have. Something as simple as, “I’m not ready to talk about this right now” can make a huge difference.
  3. Reconciliation – This again can mean different things for different people. If, after allowing oneself to work through all of the emotions around the suicide, one can come to a point where they can forgive the person. This can provide a sense of resolution and healing. While the suicidal act itself may be the last memory you have of the person instead focusing in on the happy memories can provide solace and balance.
  4. Join a group. There are plenty of support groups available for survivors of suicide whether they be in person or online. Finding a place to express your feelings and hear the experiences of others can be very therapeutic. 
  5. Start individual therapy. Addressing your feelings one on one with an experienced therapist can go a long way to helping you work your way through the gamut of emotions in a healthy way.

Suicide is one of the harshest realities to face. While it may seem impossible at first, even implausible, you can and will get through this. I applaud you in your journey to healing.

In the event you find yourself experiencing thoughts of harming yourself please reach out to the National Suicide Hotline by dialing 988. Someone is there for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide

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About Morgan | View Profile

Morgan is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with clients to triumph over trauma, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, LGBTQI+ issues, couples, and stress. On weekends you can find him in his happy place tuning and racing cars at Road Atlanta.

We offer in-person and virtual services – contact us today to learn more!

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