Chapter 1

A Loss Like No Other

Chapter One: A Loss Like No Other

Losing a loved one or friend to suicide is one of the most devastating losses anyone can experience. Never again can we be the same. It’s the kind of event that divides our lives into “before” and “after” as we find ourselves experiencing a whirlwind of physiological changes, confusing emotions, and haunting questions.

Counselors describe suicide loss as a “complicated grief” or “complicated bereavement” because two things take place simultaneously. On one level we experience the grief that naturally arises from losing a loved one in any circumstances. But on top of that, we also experience trauma. Trauma is an additional blow that can overwhelm our nervous systems and psyches. It’s similar to the experience of soldiers in combat or survivors of a school shooting.

The toll of trauma lingers long after our loved one’s suicide, compromising our capacity to rest, heal, and adapt. After the initial shock wears off, some survivors relive the moments they first learned the horrible news. This may occur in their waking hours or in their dreams at night. Anxiety, panic, anger, and difficulty concentrating are also common responses. Some experience chronic pain or digestive problems. Most of us feel stuck in a state of fear and readiness, sensing that something awful is about to happen again, while at the same time feeling utterly helpless to do anything about it.

Sometimes we respond in the opposite direction by shutting down. We check out, stop caring, and feel nothing until something innocuous—some sound, sight, smell, or other physical sensation—brings the emotional upheaval rushing back. Even though there is no real threat in the present, unresolved trauma will trigger visceral fear, pain, and grief as if the original trauma is happening again.

The effects of utter helplessness in the face of grave danger can become so embedded in the brain and body’s instinctive reactions to perceived threat that some suicide survivors slip back and forth between states of high alert and shutdown or even experience both at the same time.

God equipped our brains and bodies to react decisively with fight or flight responses when we’re threatened or when we face extreme stress. At such times we don’t have to think about taking action. The instinct involuntarily rises up in our nervous system. But when we lose a loved one to suicide, overwhelming helplessness engulfs us. Such is the nature of trauma. Something horrendous happens, and we sense the instinct to take action, but there is nothing we can do. No opportunity to protect our loved one from harm. No way to run from the pain tearing through us. No way to push what happened out of our minds.

So suicide survivors experience two devastating realities. We grieve over the death of our loved one, but we also have the additional trauma of the suicide itself. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) complicates the grieving process, intensifying our grief experience to traumatic levels of pain, distress, and helplessness. It’s a one-two punch. The grief itself is difficult enough; trauma can make it seem unbearable.

We may find ourselves battered by other strong emotions. Anger is common after a suicide, as survivors feel betrayed and abandoned. If our loved one had been murdered, we could grieve the victim and rage against the murderer. But in this case, the victim was is also an agent in their own death. And so we cry out, “How could you do this to yourself? How could you leave us in this way?” We rage against them even as we grieve their absence.

A relentless guilt gnaws at us. We think, “Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I do something to prevent it? I should have stopped this from happening.” My mother is a nurse, and she was acting as my father’s caregiver after his stroke. She saw the warning signs of depression, and she did all the right things in response; she removed weapons from the house, and she took him to the hospital for observation. Even so, she wasn’t able to prevent the suicide. And yet she experienced profound guilt. She felt like she had failed as a spouse and caregiver.

Feelings of shame also tend to haunt survivors. In many communities and cultures, there is still a sense of stigma or taboo in talking about suicide, depression, or mental illness. Indeed, sometimes shame is both a precipitating factor for the suicide and also a further result of the suicide. If we are in communities that find depression or mental illness shameful, such attitudes have prevented our loved ones from getting the mental health support they needed. They may have even thought that their death would somehow be better for the family. And after tragedy strikes, the lingering sense of shame felt by their surviving loved ones can also prevent them from seeking support.

Some survivors are at risk of responding by falling into their own despair or self-destructive behavior. Now that death has struck so close to home, it becomes more present, more immediate. We might struggle to understand our loved one’s thinking and try to retrace their steps, even replicate their actions. Some survivors have described looking in the mirror while holding the gun that their loved one used, or standing on a balcony ledge and imagine how she jumped. Some survivors may also fall into alcoholism or drug use to numb their pain.

We need to take concrete action to protect ourselves from this kind of response. If you are feeling despair, open up to friends and tell them how deeply you are struggling. Seek help from your community or church. Find safe people who can support you and keep an eye on you to guard you against self-destructive behavior. While you might not have been able to take action before, you can now. Don’t compound your loved one’s loss with additional grief.

Ultimately, you need to know that you are not alone. Losing a loved one to suicide can feel isolating, as if nobody else can ever understand what you have gone through. It’s true that suicide is a loss unlike more “ordinary” deaths like old age, cancer, or car accidents. But many others have also experienced the trauma of suicide. You are not alone.

For me, attending a suicide survivors support group was vital to my healing. These are local gatherings where people who have lost someone to suicide can share their stories with each other. It can feel odd at first to talk with strangers about such painful, personal experiences, but I learned to appreciate how these groups are safe spaces where fellow survivors get each other in ways that our other friends might not. I needed to know that I wasn’t the only person who had experienced this devastating kind of loss. Others had gone through the trauma and survived, and I could too. So can you.