Grief After Suicide: A Personal and Professional Perspective

Despite the suicide of my best friend many years ago,  I sometimes still reel from the loss and experience profound grief. This is especially so on anniversaries, birthdays, and when suicide is in the news.

My initial reaction to my friend’s sudden death was shock. I was unprepared for her death. In the months following her suicide, I experienced a myriad of intense emotions: Of course, I was sad to lose my best friend. I had a bit of guilt, but primarily feelings of helplessness that there was nothing I could have done to prevent her self-destruction. I also felt a sense of shame, and was afraid people would condemn me somehow for allowing a friend to take her own life, despite the fact that I knew I had no control over her death. Perhaps the most intense feeling I experienced was anger. My feelings of anger would hit unpredictably, often when I was driving. I would smash my hand against the steering wheel and wail in anger and anguish — How dare she leave me without saying goodbye? I hope no one saw me – they would surely have tried to have me committed!!

And yet, despite the seeming insanity of my profound grief, I knew, as a grief counselor, that my reactions were normal and that in fact my anger was healthy — better to extend my feelings of anger outward rather than turn my negative energy inward in a way that can fester in negative self-thoughts and depression.

All these years later, my grief can hit unpredictably — while listening to a piece of music that I associate with my friend, when I have accomplished a goal she would have been happy to share in with me or other times. I have learned, both personally and through my professional work, to prepare for the more predictable moments of grief, such as my friend’s birthday or the anniversary of her death. I have always told my bereavement clients that those anniversaries and important days stay in our bodies — sometimes our bodies know it before we do. In fact, I found myself walking around feeling particularly irritable and out of sorts about two years after my friend’s death, only to realize later that it was in fact her birthday! My body knew it before my mind did. So, I practice what I preach and prepare for those important days and create rituals around those days. For example, I light a candle on the anniversary of my friend’s death each year.  Nonetheless, my grief is still unpredictable, and can be triggered by events in the news, especially other suicides.

As I discussed in another blog post, suicide can be a form of “disenfranchised grief”, i.e., a grief that is not accepted by society, in this case, because of the nature of the death — Thus my feelings of shame. It was difficult for me to share my grief, other than with those who knew my friend or had experienced a similar loss, out of fear of judgment or invalidation. As a result, I was often left feeling isolated and alone in my grief.

As a grief counselor, I tell my clients that we do not “get over” the death of someone close to us. Rather, we need to go through the pain of our grief. That process can be profoundly healing and transformative. We can find a place for our loved one in our life and in our heart. I know that my friend is still there for me as a guardian angel, and I still ask her for guidance and support.

Suicide grief is understandably difficult, and it is important for those left behind to get support — whether through friends, family, spiritual community or a professional grief counselor, psychotherapist or grief/suicide support group. It is important to take care of ourselves — eat well, get exercise, sleep — because grief is exhausting and stressful. Journaling and other forms of expression can be immensely helpful for getting out the myriad of swirling emotions and thoughts. As someone who not only “talks the talk” but has “walked the walk,” I know how important it is to allow ourselves to go through the pain of our sudden loss and get support in the process in order to heal and grow.

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