Seven Steps to Surviving Suicide Loss

by Catherine Greenleaf

Losing someone we love to suicide can be devastating. The combination of sudden loss, shame, and stigma can make the process of grief look like a long and lonely road. But there are things we can do for ourselves that will develop and increase our resilience, and make that road a little easier to travel:

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As school children, we were taught to aspire to rugged individualism. We were urged to become independent. Yet no one taught us how to be vulnerable, how to ask for help, and how to receive that help.

In some families, asking for help is looked upon as a sign of weakness or even outright cowardice. As the great poet, John Donne, once wrote: “No man is an island.” Know that asking for help is a sign of true strength. Our ability to ask for, and receive, help is a strong indicator of how likely we are to survive crushing setbacks. The more we practice asking for help, the easier the process becomes.

It’s important to know your limitations and to take action to protect yourself. Without limits, it is easy to feel more vulnerable to the ups and downs of the grief process. We can easily become overwhelmed or emotionally triggered when we surpass what we can handle.

For example, if you know you cannot function on less than eight hours of sleep a day, then you will know automatically to get eight hours of sleep or more a day during a crisis.

If a friend invites you to the movies, you may want to limit yourself to just pleasant dramas or comedies so that scary or horrific scenes don’t re-traumatize you. The same holds true for the TV shows you watch at home or the books you read before going to sleep.

Pushing your limits weakens your resilience and makes you more prone to anxiety, depression, compulsions, and addiction. You can think of some of these limits as temporary measures designed to shield you until you get to a place in your grief process where you feel stronger. When we keep in mind that we are in a tender and fragile place emotionally, it makes it easier to be kinder and gentler to ourselves.

Create a comfort zone for yourself. Make that zone a safe place you can go any time you are feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. You can place a cozy chair with an ottoman to rest your feet in a quiet corner of the house. Surround yourself with everything that soothes and relaxes you – your favorite books, photos, plants, knickknacks, your favorite fuzzy blanket. Drink a hot cup of tea while your dog sits on your lap. Play soothing classical music or New Age composers. You can place the chair near a window so that you can watch the birds outside. The choice is yours. In time, that space will become your refuge.

Give yourself the precious gift of stability. The emotional aftermath of losing a loved one to suicide can feel like an all-out assault on your sensibilities. Getting into a routine and staying with it can provide the structure you need to begin your recovery process. Getting up at the same time each morning, walking the dog at the same time, eating and sleeping on schedule – all of these actions contribute to keeping you and your emotions on an even keel by limiting the number of surprises, upheavals, and disappointments in your day.

Again, you can think of these measures as temporary until you begin to feel more balance in your life. The stability of a routine when everything else around you feels like it has imploded can become your lifeline. And you will know you are beginning to heal when the routine starts to feel boring.

As you make your way through the confusing maze of shame and stigma that accompanies suicide loss, you may find that journaling proves your saving grace. You can buy a notebook at the local drugstore and keep it handy for writing down your thoughts. A journal can become your trusted confidante. Anything goes! You can write about feeling sad, angry, embarrassed, disappointed, lost – it’s all okay.

Words you wouldn’t dare speak to someone else can safely find expression on paper. There’s a certain magic in the visceral act of writing your thoughts down on paper — wonderful freedom that comes from being able to be completely honest. And that honesty allows you to process your feelings and heal.

With a loss like suicide, it’s easy to feel God (or whomever you pray to) has abandoned us or is punishing us. Many of us, angry and hurt, turn our backs on our religion. During the initial phases of our healing process, it can prove too difficult to hold onto the paradox of a horrible loss allowed by a loving God. But as time goes on and we start to heal, many of us begin to yearn for a revival of our spiritual connection. We come back to it on our own terms, and in our own timing. We may leave our religion, change faiths, or embrace nature as our spirituality. This very private and sacred choice is ours and ours alone.

The more you educate yourself about suicide and its after-effects on family and friends, the better able you will be to protect yourself and those you love. Suicide loss is often put into the category of “complicated grief.” Therapists and counselors will tell you loss by suicide is considered complicated because of the suddenness and self-inflicted violence involved, and its propensity for causing post-traumatic stress disorder in surviving loved ones. But there is more. The bewildering effects of suicide can reverberate throughout your entire life history, forcing unresolved grief (due to childhood incest, battering, bullying, homicide or other losses) to rise to the surface. This is why so many people bereaved by suicide speak of a prolonged and protracted grief process. They are forced to confront every unresolved loss in order to heal and move on. Know what’s coming, and equip yourself and those you care for by keeping an open dialogue. Get help from qualified professionals if you need it, and encourage others to do the same.

About the Author: Catherine Greenleaf is a suicide loss survivor having lost three people to suicide. She is the author of the book, Healing The Hurt Spirit: Daily Affirmations For People Who Have Lost A Loved One To Suicide. She travels nationwide to spread her message: that you can live a happy and meaningful life despite suicide loss.

You can follow Catherine Greenleaf on Twitter,  read her blog, Healing From Suicide Grief,  or visit her website, Healing The Hurt Spirit. She is also a non-denominational spiritual director and a longtime member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC)

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