The following post is a chapter in an upcoming book I have been writing. This information is the result of countless interviews, surveys, and conversations with other survivors. This is not the finished product by any stretch, but I would like your input as a fellow survivor. Would you please read it and respond to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share what you like, what you hate, what you would add, etc. The book is intended for anyone impacted by suicide and this chapter simply serves to normalize what you may be feeling and experiencing when we, otherwise, feel all alone. Your insight and constructive criticism will help make this book the best it can be and help other survivors in their journey as well. Thank you in advance!
Suicide is devastating for those left behind regardless of their relation to the one who died. The guilt, shock, and grief are universal and even overwhelming at times. After talking with and interviewing countless survivors for The Gift of Second though, I began to notice some common beliefs, emotions, feelings, and experiences within specific loss groups. I created subgroups (parents, children, spouses, siblings, and friends) and then began surveying folks in order to get a better understanding for the commonalities within these subgroups. I share this research with you now in hopes of normalizing your own feelings and also allow for you to hear from fellow survivors who have expressed similar experiences.
Of course all the information shared below is not absolute, but these are the most common responses received and hopefully you will be able to find common ground with others and recognize again that you are not alone.
Losing a child:
The resounding emotion for parents who have lost a child is the intense and profound feeling of guilt. Parents expressed this sentiment more than all other survivors in all of the other subgroups combined. Parents articulated time and time again feeling guilt as it pertains to not being able to save their own child. Approximately 95% of parents interviewed and surveyed explained they feel guilt for not seeing their child’s pain and the impending suicide, not being able to save their child, and for not doing more to get them the help they needed. Several parents interviewed also expressed a level of second-guessing themselves in the way they parented. “Was I too hard on him?” “Where did I fail as a parent that my own child could not come talk to me about how he/she was feeling?” “Did I not convey how much I loved them?”
Most parents also shared the common fear for the safety of the remaining living children. “Will they also kill themselves?” is a common question for which parents find themselves ruminating. The fear of a repeat suicide within the home caused parents a tremendous amount of anxiety and pain. Some parents; however, used this fear to become more protective of their children and also more involved in their lives. They became more proactive in talking with their children as they were, this time, more in tune with the symptoms of depression and the benefits of open dialogue.
I asked each survivor if they had wisdom or advice to share with other survivors within their specific subgroup and the following is for parents who have lost a child.
“You are not alone. You did nothing wrong. It is not your fault. It is horrible. It sucks. There are days you don’t know how you will live on, but you do. You have to. Take your experience and use it to educate and raise awareness. One day at a time. It’s okay to not be okay.”
“Keep moving forward, keep talking about it. Don’t let the way they died be a secret. Keep your face toward hope. If we keep talking about it openly we can help save others.”
“This is the hardest thing you will ever deal with in your life. Nothing hurts and breaks you like losing a child, especially to suicide. Don’t let anyone tell you when to do things or tell you how you should feel.”
“Grief counseling is very important. You never get over it; you work your way through it. It helps to talk with others who have suffered a similar bereavement as others (who have not) don’t understand how we feel.”
Losing a parent:
This subgroup had several common themes dependent on the age of the child at the time of their parent’s suicide. All participants in this study were adults at the time of this interview, but the age of the individual at the time of their parent’s suicide varies greatly. Small children, for example, expressed an intense development of anxiety and fear. They conveyed that after their parent died they constantly feared the other parent would also die, leaving them to become an orphan. Several expressed a continuing struggle with anxiety in adulthood as well.
A similar belief in several children, regardless of age at the time of their parent’s death, is the feeling of not being valued enough by their parent to want to stay alive. Several children expressed not feeling loveable, worthy, valuable, or enough in the eyes of their parents. Almost all of the participants expressed the suicide impacting their ability to trust others, explaining, “if my own parent could abandon me like this, how can I ever trust others to stick around for me?” These doubts of self-worth and the inability to trust others have continued throughout life.
Children also expressed intense levels of anger toward their parent for leaving and abandoning them. Some children, who were adults themselves at the time of their parent’s suicide, expressed great sadness for their parent missing out on major milestones in the child’s life such as getting married, having kids (the first would-be grandchildren), and job placements.
Some wisdom from others who have lost a parent to suicide:
“The pain does eventually become less intense. I would encourage you to seek out a support group for survivors of suicide loss. Connecting with others who “get it” can be just the help you need.”
“Write them a letter or do some journaling and tell them that you love them and in time you will forgive them for leaving you.”
“Your parent’s choice to take their own life speaks nothing to your value or worth. It merely speaks to their own mental state.”
“Let yourself be angry and not okay. Let yourself feel all of it. Focus on all the good memories but also accept the bad ones, too. Work on it. It’s going to be a long journey but don’t do it alone. The worst thing you could do is not talk about it.”
Losing a Spouse:
Many spouses expressed intense grief at the loss of their future together with their spouse. Several survivors conveyed a deep sadness and could remember feeling an overwhelming desire of wanting to join their spouse in death in the aftermath of the suicide because the grief was simply too much. Each survivor expressed feeling lonely. One woman shared, “It’s a couple’s world. I never noticed it before. It’s really lonely to all of a sudden be single.”
This subgroup explained the unique struggle of trying to help their children through their grief while grieving themselves and not wanting to show too much pain and emotion for fear of scaring their children. These parents also explained that one of the only things that got them through the pain and devastation initially was the responsibility of continuing to care for children in their home.
Anger was a common theme within this subgroup, but the cause of anger varied. Some were angry with their spouse for leaving them to raise children alone and angry their spouse caused so much pain to their offspring. Many were angry about the financial burden they now carried alone. One sentiment that was repeated endlessly was anger about both being single again and anger toward friends and family for trying to set the survivor up on dates because “it was time to start dating again.” One survivor remembered feeling, “I don’t want to go on a date with another person, all I want is my husband back!”
Many spouses expressed feeling betrayed because they had no idea the depth of pain their spouse was experiencing or they discovered a ‘hidden life’ their spouse was living (such as an addiction or debt) that the survivor can never get answers to, causing the survivor to question how much of their relationship was real.
Some wisdom from other spouses:
“You’re going to be okay. It doesn’t feel like it right now but you are going to be okay.”
“I have been angry at what my wife did to me and our children. I have found that talking with other survivors of suicide loss has been the most helpful.”
“Our loved ones were thinking with a broken brain that was more powerful than their heart, which was still full of love for us.”
Losing a Sibling:
Many of those who have lost a sibling explained they feel looked over and minimalized. They conveyed that their parents received a lot of emotional support as did the spouse and children of the sibling, but the surviving sibling received minimal attention and care. Many expressed feeling as if friends and even family members discounted their loss.
Guilt is a recurring theme within this subgroup as well. Several siblings conveyed being best friends with their sibling and feeling guilty for not doing more to help them or even recognizing the amount of pain they were experiencing. One sibling expressed guilt for not helping her brother more and instead “waited on the sidelines for something to change.” Overwhelming anxiety is commonly shared within this subgroup as well, “I suddenly feel like life is fragile and anyone could die at any moment.” Anger and grief were expressed as well with one person sharing, “I feel grief for happy childhood memories that are now tainted.”
Many siblings expressed the suicide strengthening the relationships with their parents and being able to talk openly with them about their sibling while others conveyed the overwhelming stress and responsibility of having to now care for the grieving parents that seem unable to move forward. One survivor wrote, “I’m now an only child and provide the emotional support to my grieving parents who can’t seek external support on their own.”
Some, not all, siblings have felt the pressure, whether consciously or sub-consciously and whether expected or not, to fill in the gap from their now absent sibling; whether it be personality traits like humor and interests or being readily available to other family members. One sibling expressed, “I feel the pressure to be smarter, healthier, and funnier. I’m always trying to be like my brother to keep my dad happy.”
Some wisdom from other siblings:
“Don’t let your sibling’s life choice affect you to the point where you can’t live your own life.”
“I am not sure there is a right set of words. I would hug them, tell them I understand and let them cry or talk or be quiet or whatever they need to do. I would just be with them.”
“No two people grieve the same way. Your relationship with that person was your own and therefore your grieving might be different than others.”
“Don’t blame yourself and be kind to yourself.”
Losing A Friend:
The overwhelming feelings for friends are feeling alone, isolated, and discounted! Several friends expressed feeling left out and forced to grieve alone because they were not family. One friend shared she wanted to be more involved in planning her best friend’s memorial service as a way to honor her but the family refused to allow her to help. Some friends explained the difficulty in not being known by the surviving family because they lived in separate cities or states but had been extremely close to the one that died. As a result, the family, despite her close relationship to the friend, treated the surviving friend as a stranger. Others explained if there were not mutual friends to grieve with, the surviving friend is isolated in their own pain.
Guilt, again, is a common feeling within this subgroup as these friends shared everything with one another and to not know the enormity of depression and agony their friend felt is overwhelming. Frustration that their friend did not speak of their pain is common. Some expressed anger and confusion as they had made plans with their friend in the coming days and then their friend killed themselves without any clue. Some conveyed sadness that the one who died left a note to the family only and without any mention of the friend.
One survivor expressed not feeling like he fit in at a grief group he attended because he was ‘just’ a friend and felt the family members in the group discounted his grief as minimal because he did not lose a family member.
The themes for this subgroup were alone and lonely. These were mentioned time and time again.
Some wisdom from friends:
“Be gracious with yourself and take care of yourself. Don’t expect things to make sense. Don’t expect forgiveness to come easily. Don’t expect to have it all figured out. It doesn’t make sense. It may take a really long time but be kind to yourself.”
“Don’t let their death shake your love for them. It’s okay to be mad and hurt but when those feeling are gone you will realize that you still love them and miss them.”
“Attend a bereavement group specific to friends such Friends in Grief”
The responses from these subgroups clearly illustrated the fact that each person’s relationship with the one who died is unique in the same way the impact of each loss is equally as unique. Carl Jung once said, “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.” I think the same can be true for grieving and yet there is something freeing and valuable in knowing others who have suffered the same type of loss fully understand the depth of pain. In these subgroups we realize we are really never alone.