One of the hardest situations I have walked through with clients has been the loss of a loved one from suicide. It’s a situation no one imagines they will have to experience, which makes it even more difficult to know how to move forward through it. Many unique layers of grief are experienced, and many different questions are left open to be answered. Well meaning support systems will also struggle to know what to say or how to respond, which can also cause more pain and trauma to an already traumatic journey towards healing. Here's a few tips on how to navigate the aftermath:
First and foremost, your loved one’s suicide is not your fault and there is nothing that you could have done to change that. Guilt is the most common struggle I have seen loved ones face as they grieve. The “what if” questions start to begin, and they wonder if they had just reached out sooner, checked in more, or followed them home their loved one might still be alive. It’s important to recognize what is outside of our control. God knows all of our days, from the moment we are born to when we take our last breath, and nothing we can do can stop any of that. “You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed” (Psalm 139.16).
When a sudden death happens, such as by suicide, there will be floods of questions that will be asked. This is incredibly hard to navigate when you are trying to process everything for yourself. It’s important to have safe spaces to talk through your emotions as you work through them. You should also never feel pressured to open up in spaces that don’t feel safe just because someone is asking questions or is curious. Remind yourself it’s ok to have boundaries about the information you wish to share with others. It is a way of protecting yourself from those you aren’t able to fully trust to say the right thing or have the right intentions in asking. “A gossip goes around telling secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence” (Proverbs 11:13).
A counselor can be a beneficial place to process through your thoughts and emotions of your loved one's suicide. A counselor will keep everything you say confidential, so you never have to worry that whatever you need to say will ever leave the room. The only time this confidentiality would need to be broken is if you were a threat to yourself, others, or if there was child or elder abuse.
Another helpful aspect of having a counselor while coping with a death by suicide is that you can say whatever you need to say, exactly how you want to say it, without having to be sensitive towards the feelings of others directly involved. It can be so exhausting to feel like you have to hold back what you want to say because of others around you who might be negatively affected by your words. It can be beneficial to have a space where you don’t need to worry about it and can say things exactly as you feel them.
When you are going through a powerful and unusual situation such as a death by suicide, it’s helpful to surround yourself with others who have walked this path before you. “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ'' (Galatians 6:2). The Bible commands us to share each others burdens, and when you find someone who has also journeyed through the heartache of a suicide, they will be able to see your experience in a way others won’t. Those in your life who haven't experienced death by suicide will still be able to provide support, but someone who has been directly affected will have an understanding of the specific things you are facing in a way no one else in your life will. Reach out to others in your life who have faced suicide, find a local support group, or do whatever you can to have someone who truly knows what you are facing as part of your support system.
As a counselor, when I am walking through grief with someone, I often hear a client ask “shouldn’t I be over this by now?” or, on the opposite spectrum, “is it too soon to do x, y, or z?” Honestly, grief is unique for every situation someone is in, and what will be too fast for some will be perfect timing for others. Don’t pressure yourself to feel or be at a certain place. Well meaning people may try to advise you on where they feel you should be at, and these ill-informed expectations can cause shame, guilt, and frustration. Try to remember that all you can do is be honest with yourself about where you are at in the grief journey, pray to God for direction in the steps forward you might take, and make changes as needed.
As you journey through your grief, give yourself time, grace, and allow others to support you. Remember that you are not alone in this darkness, but God sees you, empathizes, comforts, and loves you more than you can imagine. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:18). God isn’t afraid of your frustrations, anger, questions, and doubts. God created every part of you, and desires you to be honest with him about every part of you. He already knows your deepest thoughts, so you may as well pour them all out to him. Allow God to overwhelm you with his comfort and presence as you lean into his love in these most broken times.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Dr. Robert Ritzema