Field Guide to Families

Nurturing strong relationships—one issue at a time

Grieving a Suicide

Feelings associated with grieving a suicide may be more pronounced.

One memoir that's stayed with me since I read it last June is History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky. In this exceptionally tender memoir, Bialosky shares her twenty year quest to find answers to the questions she's harbored since her sister's death.

It's a tough subject, I know, but it's a topic that needs to be examined, to be brought into the light-for those suffering the kinds of mental health issues that put one at risk to take this desperate action as well as for those left to grief this profound kind of loss. As a culture, we could do a better job to support friends and family who are grieving this type of loss.

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So while it's true that each person's grief is personal, there are certain feelings associated with dealing with a suicide that may be more pronounced.

Understand and be prepared for:

Guilt-The most common feeling loved ones express after losing someone to suicide is remorse. "Was there something I could have done to prevent this?" In Bialosky's memoir, she too grapples with this question. Off and on over the years, she wondered if maybe she'd missed something, a clue. If only she'd known what her sister had planned, or how despondent she was, maybe she could have stopped her.  Professionals call it survivor's guilt and while it's a common response, those who experience it must work through it in their own time in their own way. It's important to come to the conclusion that no one has complete control over another person's actions.  

Shame-How many of us have been party to talking about suicide in hushed whispers fearful of the reactions of those around us? Bialosky writes, "I also became more sensitive to this tendency when anyone spoke of a suicide; even in her death, I wanted to protect Kim from that kind of ridicule or shame." She wondered if her sister's memory would be diminished or tainted by suicide."

Anger-I've shared in an earlier post that when I was in high school my father died of a heart attack at age forty-seven. Irrational as it was, I admit there were times I was angry at him for leaving me. Feelings like these are normal, yet they're especially challenging to contend with if you're grieving a loss related to a loved one's suicide.    

Relief-For many friends and family the weeks and months, and sometimes years, leading up to the death of a loved one through suicide have been a rollercoaster of emotion. In cases where repeated psychiatric hospitalizations, incarcerations, and/or stints in rehab have become part of life, it's normal to feel a sense of relief that the unpredictable nature of life has come to an end. Sadly, these feelings often cycle back to guilt or shame; it feels wrong to be relieved, though it's perfectly normal to grapple with these feelings.

Sadness-Feelings of profound sadness accompany all kinds of grief. Yet a common nuance as it relates to loss through suicide is sadness over lost potential, over the hopes and dreams never realized, and all the what-could've-beens.

I was deeply moved by History of a Suicide. It's a beautiful story about two sisters and a thoughtful exposé about grief and loss and suicide. Above all it's compassionate. A must read for us all.

Lynne Griffin teaches family studies at the graduate level and she's the author of the parenting guide Negotiation Generation, and the family novels Sea Escape and Life Without Summer. You can find her online at www.LynneGriffin.com, at www.Twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and at www.Facebook.com/LynneGriffin.

Lynne Griffin, R.N., M.Ed.researches family life and is a novelist.

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