Survivors of suicide loss are a unique tribe. Our membership in this tribe is by chance; not choice. In many ways, our experience of suicide grief sets us apart from others.
Suicide grief is unique. The stigma associated with suicide makes suicide bereavement a non-normative bereavement that is completely different from other kinds of bereavement. Living beings have an inherent tendency for self-preservation. Suicide, however, seems to go against this tenet. Why do some of our loved ones kill themselves? This unsolved and unsolvable puzzle unfortunately, shapes the trajectory of suicide grief.
Jeffry Jackson, a survivor of suicide loss, eloquently sums this dilemma in A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide Loss, “Someone you love has ended their own life—and yours is forever changed. our survival—your emotional survival—will depend on how well you learn to cope with your tragedy. The bad news: surviving this will be the second worst experience of your life. The good news: the worst is already over.”
However, most survivors of suicide are entrapped in guilt, anger, self-blame and self-reproach following the suicide of our loved one. As a survivor of suicide loss, I too had to struggle with these toxic emotions in moving through the maze of suicide grief. As someone who has healed through the trauma, through what I term “resilient grieving” here are a few pointers that helped me in my healing journey.
The fact that there seems to be an apparent element of “choice” in suicide, makes suicide bereavement complex and complicated. While people who mourn non-suicidal bereavement receive considerable compassion, empathy and support, in suicide bereavement there is a significant empathy deficit. On the other hand, survivors of suicide loss experience blame, isolation, judgment and social isolation. Either overtly or covertly, we are blamed for driving our loved one to suicide or having failed to prevent it.
In addition to the emotions of any other bereavement, survivors of suicide loss experience an emotional tsunami of toxic emotions such as guilt, anger, stigma, shame and disconnection from the deceased. Most survivors of suicide loss have an over exaggerated or inflated sense of responsibility for the suicide. In most deaths, those who survive the deceased, rarely, if ever, feel accountable or responsible for the deaths. They know that it is due to circumstances over which they have no control. There is a sense of acceptance of inevitability. However, in suicide deaths, survivors of suicide loss are overwhelmed by guilt—survivor guilt. They feel morally and personally responsible for having failed to prevent the death.
At this point it is important to distinguish between responsibility and blame. Blame is accusatory and judgmental. It is disempowering and is evidence of a victim mindset. Responsibility, on the other hand, is a simple acknowledgement of fact. It is empowering and comes from a space of authenticity, self-awareness and conscious choice.
Journalist and author Carla Fine, a survivor of suicide loss, talks poignantly about the impact of suicide loss in her book No time to say goodbye, “Even though suicide Is not our decision, our lives are irreversibly altered by its consequences. Harry [my late husband] did not ask either for my permission or my blessing. In order to forgive not only him but also myself, I had to accept that, ultimately, it was Harry’s own choice to kill himself. All I can do is disagree with his decision,” writes Fine.
The only person who is responsible for the suicide is the victim. Jeffry Jackson memorably summed up this when he said, “Attempting to decipher precisely the thoughts of the suicide victim is much like trying to under- stand a foreign language by eavesdropping on a conversation. You can analyze the sounds and syllables all day long, but it’s not likely you’re going to understand much of what was said.”
We neither seek to glorify suicide nor condemn it. It is a global public health crisis that needs to be addressed with sensitive, informed and compassionate strategies.
Dr Nandini Murali is a communications, gender, and diversity professional. In April 2017, she established SPEAK, an initiative of the MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, Madurai, to change conversations on suicide and promote mental health; and Bounce Forward, an initiative to help people heal and transform through loss.