Loss survivors – the close family and friends left behind after a suicide – number six to 32 for each death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning that in 2017 alone, as many as 1.5 million people unwillingly became part of this group.
They are forced to cope with the loss of a loved one and navigate uncertain futures, often caring for confused children as they struggle to accept they may never know “why.”
Suicide can affect a wider community of individuals, including members of a person’s church or school. One study estimates roughly 425 people are exposed to each suicide in this way.
After a loved one’s death, those left behind face an increased risk of suicide themselves. According to a report in 2015 from the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:
- Losing any first-degree relative to suicide increased the mourner’s chance of suicide by about threefold.
- Young people appear to be particularly vulnerable after the suicide of a peer, which can lead to a phenomenon sometimes referred to as suicide clusters or contagion.
- Men who have a spouse die by suicide have a 46-fold increase in their chances of dying by suicide. Women have a 16-fold increase.
Kim Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, died by suicide in 2005, said she never seriously considered killing herself, but she often wondered how she would make it through each day.
SUICIDE PREVENTION: Self-care tips, true stories on how survivors cope
“After his death, I cannot say that I was suicidal, but I can remember being in so much emotional pain that I would think, ‘I really don’t want to wake up,'” Ruocco said. “Because you can’t figure out how to live your life with this kind of grief.”
‘My whole world turned upside down’
When Ruocco’s husband died, she said, she lost her sense of reality.
“My whole world was turned upside down,” she said. “What I thought I knew to be true may not have been true. … It made me question everything in my life, from my spirituality, to my instincts, to my decision-making, to my marriage, to my family relationships.”
Grief, she learned, was not linear. Some days were terrible. Some were OK, even good. She had to learn, she said, to embrace it all.
“It’s not one feeling, it’s a whole bunch of feelings, and I think the advice for anybody who’s experiencing grief is that whatever you are feeling, it’s OK, it’s normal, and it’s going to come,” she said. “I let it come, I look at it, I feel it, I express it, and then I try to let it go.”
Stories of hope:
- Stepping back from the ledge
- Suicide never entered his mind. Then 9/11 happened.
- Young, transgender and fighting a years-long battle against suicidal thoughts
- She worked in suicide prevention. Then one day she had to save herself.
When Debbie Baird lost her 29-year-old son, Matthew, to suicide in 2009, she didn’t think she would ever let go of her grief.
“If you had told me in the early days that I would feel better again, I would never have believed you,” she said.
She went to counseling, found a support group and journaled for years, which the Suicide Prevention Lifeline recommends as a way to process things you weren’t able to say before your loved one’s death. Slowly, Baird said, she began to heal. She could see it in the pages.
“I kept thinking if I could write a letter to him, maybe he’d write back to me. Maybe he’d let me know the reason why this happened. I felt like I needed to find a way to connect with him,” she said. “It went from wanting to know why, and how hurt and sad I felt and how my heart was broken and all my physical pain that I was going through and my depression and how I was feeling to, ‘Hey, Jen’s going to have another baby.’ I could see my life changing.”
Baird is now a community educator and support specialist for loss survivors at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The American Psychological Association said that after a suicide, it’s important for survivors to:
- Accept your emotions.
- Not worry about what you “should” feel or do. There’s no standard timeline for grieving and no single right way to cope.
- Care for yourself. Do your best to get enough sleep and eat regular, healthy meals. Taking care of your physical self can improve your mood and give you the strength to cope.
- Draw on support systems.
- Talk to someone. There is often stigma around suicide, and many loss survivors suffer in silence. Speaking about your feelings can help.
- Join a group.
- Talk to a professional.
How to help
The bereaved can heal, suicide prevention experts said, but their pain is often underestimated. The stigma around suicide creates an additional burden. Loss survivors commonly experience a range of emotions as they grieve, including shock, fear, shame and anger. As they work to cope with these feelings, many simultaneously deal with the pressure to keep their loved one’s suicide a secret or with the mistaken belief that they did something to cause their loved one’s death.
Thomas Joiner, who lost his father to suicide and went on to become a leading suicide researcher, wrote in his book “Why People Die by Suicide” that some people’s inability to intellectually make sense of suicide kept them from showing sympathy after his dad’s death.
“To some people … understanding didn’t matter and wasn’t a barrier to acting with real generosity of spirit,” he wrote. “To others, the lack of understanding seemed an insurmountable barrier, so that instincts toward compassion were short-circuited.”
- Listening without judgment
- Using the lost loved one’s name to show that person is not forgotten
- Accepting the loss survivor’s feelings, which can include shock, shame and abandonment
- Avoiding phrases such as “I know how you feel,” unless you, too, are a loss survivor
- Avoiding telling them how they should act or feel
- Being sensitive during holidays and anniversaries
“People need the education to understand that it is OK to talk about their loved one,” Baird said. “It is OK to mention their name. It is OK to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ “
Loss survivors should be encouraged to get help for themselves. Grief counselors, faith leaders, social workers and doctors may be trained in how to respond to suicide.
Ruocco became vice president of suicide prevention and postvention at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) after her husband’s death. “Postvention” describes efforts to prevent suicide among loss survivors and help them heal. Ruocco said postvention doesn’t just decrease risk, it can help survivors find new purpose.
“They can really have post-traumatic growth and make meaning out of this kind of loss,” Ruocco said.
It’s impossible for survivors to return to the way things were before their loved one’s death. Ruocco said she misses her husband every day, but she’s managed to build a life for herself that, although not what she imagined, is full of joy.
“You look at the world in a different way,” she said. “Not only did I have meaning in my life because of his death, but I also cherished the world in a different way. My relationships with my children were more intense, more purposeful. I was more present and connected to the outside world, whether that’s nature or other people. I found joy in little things and appreciated little things and moments with people that I may not have discovered prior to my husband’s death, and I was able to honor his life lived by telling other people about him and preventing suicide in honor of him.”
Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.
Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
If you have lost a loved one to suicide, visit Alliance of Hope to find support resources.
If you are grieving the death of a loved one who served, you can contact the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) at 800-959-8277.
You may also be interested in:
- To connect with suicide survivors and others, join USA TODAY’s Facebook group I Survived It
- What actually happens when you call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- How to help someone who’s suicidal
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