Lisa Haberbusch, LISW-S, Regional Director of Encompass Central & West, speaks to the complicated grief surrounding the loss of a loved one to suicide.
Regardless of how far we have come in fighting the stigma our society places on mental health disorders, it is often unmentionable. So, when a loved one dies by suicide, this, too, is unmentionable. Therefore, it only follows, that those who grieve a loved one who dies by suicide – their grief is also unmentionable. How, then, does one grieve the loss of someone close when suicide was the cause? It is not the same as losing someone to cancer, old-age, or even a car accident.
Don’t get me wrong. Loss is loss and it never feels good. But when you lose a loved one to suicide there is an added veil of secrecy and shame. You can’t talk about the battle your loved one fought like cancer patients do (although there definitely was one!). You can’t talk about how your sadness at losing your loved one is complicated by the fact it was not an “accident” but rather, “on purpose,” and you certainly can’t talk about the pain you feel because you wish you could turn back time and influence your loved one to make a different decision.
What you must know is that regardless of the veil, you need to grieve. You need to grieve privately, but you also need to find a place to grieve with others who are grieving similarly because they understand what you are going through when you believe no one else can. I strongly recommend attending a support group or finding a counselor to assist you as you walk through the grieving process. And it IS a process. Give yourself the time and space to not be “ok” for quite a while.
Wayne and Holmes County support groups for those who have lost a loved one to suicide occur at Lifecare Hospice (330.264.4899) and at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Wayne Holmes where they hold the group “PALS” ( People Affected by a Loved One’s Suicide) meet on the 4th Tuesday of every month at the NAMI Wayne Holmes office from 5:30 – 7:00 PM. Call 330-264-1590 for more information.
If you don’t live in Wayne or Holmes county, you can contact your local NAMI or hospice as they typically have a suicide loss support group or will know who is hosting one.
Author and Grief Educator, Alan Wolfet, suggests the following “bill of rights” for those grieving a loss due to suicide and I hope it can give you some guidance if you are dealing with loss due to suicide.
You have the right to experience your own unique grief
You have the right to talk about your grief
You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions
You have the right to work through any feelings of guilt and relinquish responsibility
You have the right to know what can be known about what happened
You have the right to embrace the mystery
You have the right to embrace your spirituality including being angry at God and questioning all you’ve ever known because your world has gone upside down
You have the right to treasure your memories
You have the right to hope
You have the right move toward your grief and heal.
If you are a friend of someone who lost a loved one to suicide, your role can be extremely significant. As mentioned above, your friend may not feel they have permission to grieve openly. Therefore, the most important thing you can do to help is listen. Avoid simplistic explanations and cliché’s such as “think of what you still have to be thankful for” or “time will heal all wounds” as they tend to minimize the loss. Rather, be compassionate allowing your friend to express themselves in any way they need. Your physical presence and non-judgmental listening help create the foundation on which your friend can begin to heal. Therefore, if the unmentionable can be spoken, healing can occur.
For more information on this topic, I highly recommend reading the entire book by Alan Wolfelt entitled “Understanding Your Suicide Grief.”
If you or a friend are struggling with feelings of hopelessness or depression you can reach out via text or phone call to 988. The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a free 24/7 confidential line manned by trained crisis workers who can help you navigate your feelings and circumstances. And point you toward the resources you may need.