What do you think about when you hear the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?” The first thing I think about is the military. We so often hear about our veterans returning home from war with symptoms of PTSD. We are also all aware that this untreated PTSD often leads to suicide. But, what we do not often think about is PTSD experienced by survivors in the aftermath of a suicide. In fact, I believe that PTSD after a suicide is more prevalent than we think.
The National Institute of Mental Health states that, “PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers.” Essentially, PTSD can develop after someone experiences a traumatic event. I think it is important to discuss the trauma associated with suicide in order to identify how PTSD can develop in survivors.
The night my father took his life, my sister was the one to be notified. Around midnight, two policemen and a grief specialist rang her doorbell. Her husband quickly jumped out of bed, bewildered by who could be at the door at such a late hour. My brother-in-law answered the door while my sister stood on the stairs. She quickly ran to the door when the policemen asked, “Does the daughter of Robert L. live here?” She has expressed to me the pain and shock she experienced when the men told her that our father had taken his life. I flew back to Colorado shortly after receiving the call from my sister. I remember sitting up with her those nights following my father’s death. We were both somewhat creeped out and could not figure out why. My sister expressed to me the sickness she felt when she looked at her front door, and the fear she had that more bad news would come to her front door if she fell asleep. She discussed the jumpy feeling she had when someone rang the doorbell. I remember her saying, “It’s like I have PTSD, but how is that possible?” It is possible because my sister and I both just experienced a traumatic event. Something happened in our lives that would forever alter our path. The world as we knew it had changed.
My sister and I played detective after my father’s death. I am ok without knowing the details; in fact, knowing them makes it that much harder for me. My sister, however, needed to know every last detail. Within a week of my father’s death, we knew the gun he used, where and when he purchased it, where he was sitting, the angle of the gun, etc. You name it, we knew it. Talk about trauma! There isn’t a movie out there that could make me feel so ill. Why did we do this to ourselves? Because we wanted answers. As a survivor, you are always searching for answers that often do not exist. This search can expose you to more pain and trauma than the suicide itself. Experiencing this level of trauma can ignite symptoms of PTSD.
I did not speak to the pain and trauma experienced by those who may have witnessed or been the one to find their loved one. I have never been one to pretend to understand something that I simply cannot. I can only speak to my own experiences. What I can say as a licensed therapist is the risk of having symptoms of PTSD is greater for those who were a witness or found their loved ones. I want to also pass along the signs and symptoms of PTSD for those who are unsure if what they are experiencing is PTSD. You can read them by clicking that highlighted link.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please know that you are not alone. Know that what you are experiencing is a normal reaction after you lose a loved one to suicide. I encourage everyone to speak with a licensed professional when they feel ready. And if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Remember you are paying them, they aren’t paying you. So, if you do not feel a connection with the person who is treating you, don’t keep going. There are plenty of great therapists out there!
This piece was originally written for Our Side of Suicide. Jessica is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and the co-creator of Our Side of Suicide. It is a fantastic site and worth checking out to relate to other survivors.