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Coping After the Loss of a Friend or Family Member to Suicide

Trying to deal with the death of a loved one to suicide can bring feelings of loss, shock, pain and anger that can be very hard to process. Attempting to process the grief that follows is an individual process that is unique to all of us. We grief at our own pace and in our own way. For some, this might be the first contact with grief and loss; others in our community may have had multiple losses by the time they come to UVa.

Grief Specific to Suicide:

Death by suicide tends to create significant ripples in our community with many experiencing shock, anger and pain. Grief related to any loss often does not follow a linear path. There is no timeframe for grief. Those left behind by suicide often struggle in the short run to have their lives return to a normal path. The nature of suicide often presents unanswered questions as well as guilt which can make the grieving process more challenging.

Common Emotional Reactions:

In any community, we can expect a very wide range of emotional reactions, including but not limited to shock, guilt, stress, confusion, anger, denial, pain, shame, numbness, abandonment and helplessness.

All of these feelings are normal and are related to some aspect of grieving. There can be an intense questioning of “why” and a feeling by some in the community that they should have done more. This can lead to guilt and feelings of blame and, at times, a feeling that the death could’ve been prevented if more had been done. We may find answers to some of our questions, but there may be things that we can never quite make sense of or understand. For many, accepting that there are some things that no one can know is both a challenging but important aspect of the process of grief.

Stigma around suicide continues to be significant issue in our society. Many are unsure what to say to those left behind or how to behave around peers who have had a significant loss. This can wind up reinforcing feelings of shame and embarrassment by those impacted. Ongoing support to those who have experienced this type of loss is key, however. The best guide may be to ask those impacted what they need in terms of social support. Similarly, if you are the one impacted by loss, consider telling friends and family what you need from them emotionally and behaviorally which may shift over time.

Some may hide their feelings of grief or worry the grief may burden friends. Denial is perhaps the most common barrier to the expression of grief; denial helps us feel that everything is still OK and can give us time initially to brace ourselves for the grief to come later. Longer-term denial tends to complicate grieving.

Increased Risk for Survivors and Those Most Fragile in our Community:

Following a suicide in a community, it is expected that some close to the individual may begin to experience suicidal thoughts. Also, individuals already at significant risk may edge closer to suicide even if they did not know the person who died. The vast majority of those having suicidal thoughts do not act on them. Still, it is important to recognize that suicidal thoughts are a significant warning sign that the individual should ideally seek help at once.

Seeking Support in Loss:

Below is a partial list of positive coping behaviors:

-Seek social support from friends and family. Open up even if it’s not normally your style.

-be patient with yourself and what you are feeling. Give yourself time to feel and heal; don’t push it away.

-Challenge yourself to stay in the moment. Challenge yourself to stop racing ahead or looking back. Take it one moment at a time. This might also make it easier to identify your feelings and your needs and take action take care of yourself or ask someone for support.

-Have fun. Laughter is truly a powerful medicine. It is ok to both miss the person, and to find moments of joy and enjoyment.

-Return to your routines as soon as you can. Most of us need some days off to take care of ourselves after a loss and we might to need practice patience and self-compassion as we learn to ease back into our everyday lives. Even though it may feel hard to do, reengaging in our routines assists in stabilizing our lives.

-Take care of yourself. What does self-care look like for you? Going to the gym? Getting enough sleep? Eating better? Less alcohol/drugs? Doing things that are soothing to you are important during this time. Make a list of five healthy things that are soothing and try to do as many as you can.

Seeking Help:

Consider talking to a mental health professional for support, even if it’s only to learn about resources or to get some guidance through the process of grief for yourself or for someone you know. While some students may seek help earlier, it is not unusual for students to try it “on their own” for a period of time and then seek help later when they feel readier to talk and process. CAPS is available to students at any point in this process. We are here to help.

Resources:

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). You can call us at 434-243-5150 or use our walk-in services if you have an emergency and need to talk to someone right away during business hours, M-F. You can also reach us on evenings and weekend on our afterhours emergency number: 434-297-4261. Ask for CAPS. CAPS is located at UVa Student Health on Brandon/Jefferson Park Ave.

Office of the Dean of Students - Professional staff is available to assist you in navigating many academic or personal concerns and can help connect you to on-grounds resources. You can stop in at their main office located on the second floor in Peabody Hall or call 434-924-7133 to schedule an appointment.

Hospice of the Piedmont - Provides bereavement services including individual counseling and support groups:
http://www.hopva.org/grieving-a-loss/

Bibliography

American Association of Suicidology. Survivors of Suicide Loss Fact Sheet (2014). From http://www.suicidology.org/Portals/14/docs/Resources/FactSheets/SurvivorsSuicideLoss2014.pdf

University of Texas. Helping a Student Who Has Lost a Friend or Family Member to Suicide (2015). From http://cmhc.utexas.edu/bethatone/studentscopingsuicide.html