Standing under the mysterious experience of suicide grief provides us with a unique perspective. Maybe only after exhausting an instinctive search for the 'why' of suicide can we discover a newly defined 'why' for our lives.
- Alan Wolfelt, Understanding your Suicide Grief
A death by suicide is a mysterious, puzzling and confusing experience. The violent, sudden death violates every norm of self-preservation. Not surprisingly, surviving the suicide loss of a loved one is a challenging bereavement, for which there is no precedence.
The grief following a death by suicide (as with death by homicide, accident, and death due to natural disasters) is traumatic. As a survivor of suicide loss, the suicide of my spouse was abrupt. Sudden. Shocking. Stunning. I was not only mourning the loss of a partner but also traumatized, even more so, because I discovered the suicide.
Suicide is not an easy topic to talk about. Dominant narratives of suicide are shrouded in stigma and shame which fester silence and secrecy. Suicide is commonly perceived as a private event motivated by dysfunctional individual behaviour and not a public health issue that impacts communities.
Such negative stereotypes about suicide inform, influence and impact the trajectory of suicide grief that makes moving through the 'wilderness of suicide grief' — a lonely, isolating and frightening experience. Suicide death is the only death in which those who survive the loss are compelled to deny, hide or invent a socially acceptable reason for the cause of death. Because suicide is a social, cultural and religious taboo, we are overcome by overwhelming shame and embarrassment as we seek to 'reinvent' the mode of death in a desperate attempt to reclaim a sense of honour, both for deceased, our family and ourselves.
Haunted by survivor guilt, most survivors of suicide loss grapple with a fundamental question: What could I/we have done to anticipate and prevent the death? Driven by our inflated sense of responsibility for the action of the deceased, we tend to own their decision. So, we spend a disproportionate amount of our mourning in ruminating; seeking to comprehend the motivations of the deceased to end their lives.
In addition, we are driven by an intense need to conduct a personal psychological autopsy in our desperate desire to make meaning. We try to make sense of the death and place in perspective our role in the tragedy with the limited pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, even as we desire to complete the big picture. It will take us many agonizing moments of truth to realize that no matter how hard we try or tried, we may never know with certainty why our loved ones died the way they did. Healing for us, survivors of suicide loss, is to confront and accept this inconvenient truth.
“Suicide can shatter many of the things you take for granted about yourself, your relationships and your world,” writes Dr John Jordan in After Suicide Loss: Coping With Your Grief. Among the many things that shatters is our perception of our loved one and the nature of our relationship with them. Our reality is negated and we are confronted with a harsh reality check: Did we really know our loved one at all? Or were we living with a stranger?
Survivors of suicide loss are confronted with several recurring themes following the death of a loved one by suicide. First, we need to make meaning of this mysterious death. We try to decipher the motivations of the deceased, we explore our role and responsibility for the death, and we are swamped by the resulting turbulent emotions of anger, guilt, and blame—all of which are amplified and reinforced by the mainstream societal view of suicide as sin and crime.
“Suicide is a difficult conundrum,” says John Jordan. Unlike other kinds of death, in suicide, the victim is also the perpetrator. Naturally, survivors of suicide loss find ourselves in a Catch-22 situation. I was angry with my husband for having rejected my love. His self-inflicted death felt like an abandonment. I was also angry with myself for not having prevented such a tragedy. Then there is the eternal question of the role of choice in suicide. Is suicide voluntary? An act of free will? Or is it influenced by factors such as stress, psychological conditions and circumstances that drive a person to take his or her life?
Most people who come to condole us ask us about the why of the suicide. When this happened to me, I found myself championing my husband; extolling his wonderful qualities both professionally and personally. Unware then that there is no simple, one sentence explanation for suicide, I found myself trying to absolve both of us for the suicide. Now, in which other bereavement can this happen? There were few heartfelt condolences. The empathy and compassion deficit was palpable. Had my bereavement been due to a 'natural' even sudden death, I am sure the responses would have been more supportive.
Not surprisingly, a death by suicide disrupts social relationships. Most survivors of suicide loss are fearful and uncertain how friends and family will view them. And most people, in turn, are equally uncertain and ignorant of how to respond appropriately with someone bereaved by suicide. The former fear discomfort; the latter, condemnation and rejection. The ambiguity and ambivalence makes bereavement profoundly isolating and alienating.
According to Jordan, a death by suicide also creates information management problems in families. Most families agonize over how transparent they would be about divulging the cause of death. To tell or not to tell thus becomes a contentious divisive issue that splits families. Most families, however, prefer to keep it secret —a decision that has powerful impact on the eventual healing of the members. As families struggle to create a shared narrative in the aftermath of the suicide, loss of family cohesion, and estrangement are secondary losses that a survivor of suicide loss is faced with. These compound and complicate the primary trauma and deprives survivors of suicide loss of valuable support in their transition journey.
Dr Nandini Murali is a communications and gender and diversity professional. A recent survivor of suicide loss, she established SPEAK, an initiative of MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, Madurai, to change conversations on suicide and promote mental health.