How Are You Feeling?
I interact with suicide loss survivors at least on a weekly basis. Through my coaching clients who are bereaved by suicide, and through the Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SoBs) charity helpline that I volunteer for. I am also personally bereaved by suicide, and a PhD researcher in posttraumatic growth and suicide bereavement, so I can safely say that I spend a lot of time interacting with survivors and researching this space. Being bereaved by suicide is often different from other forms of bereavement. Suicide loss survivors struggle to make sense of their loss, and this can have a devastating impact on their lives leading to feelings of disbelief, shame, guilt and anger, often putting them at a high risk of adverse health outcomes. A client of mine described it well the other day – losing my son to suicide is grief but with the volume is turned up so high, I just can’t really make any sense of it. I agree with him, suicide loss definitely amplifies the normal responses to loss.
Although asked with the best of intentions, one of the most common questions suicide loss survivors often get asked are –‘how are you feeling?’ I think this is a question almost impossible to answer as the survivor is left with a disarray of feelings after their loss, which can be confusing and overwhelming. There are multiple times I am asked on the helpline or by clients – ‘what should I feel?’ And my response often is - anything, everything and nothing is valid. Common feelings are shame, guilt, sadness, feeling rejected, stigmatised, numbness, fear relief, defensiveness and more. Today I want to share three of the common feelings, suicide loss survivors feel. This comes with a caveat though, if you are bereaved by suicide, please remember that there are no real rules or stages of grief or no right or wrong way to feel or be. Anything and everything are valid.
Anger: Suicide loss survivors often feel anger, anger with the person for taking their lives the way they did, or for leaving you behind with their matters for you to deal with. Anger for letting you down, anger for not sharing their pain with you, and even sometimes angry with God. Anger can feel overwhelming, it can last for a really long time, also go away and return when triggered.
Guilt: This is a very common feeling, guilty often for saying something or not saying something to the person you lost. Guilty feeling responsible for taking or not taking any action. Guilty for feeling like you failed your loved one. Guilt is such a powerful emotion and probably one of the main reasons bereavement by suicide is so devastating.
Sadness: One of the most common feelings after losing a loved one to suicide is profound and deep sadness. This feeling can co-exist with other emotions and can last for a very, very long time. Other feelings you project like anger, shock or rejection can also be a manifestation of sadness.
People who are bereaved by suicide say that the following can help:
Talking and expressing your feelings and thoughts. There are a number of postventions available to facilitate recovery, including therapy, counselling, suicide bereavement support groups, helplines and so on.
Writing down your feelings on paper.
Spending time in nature.
Exercising and moving your body.
The following can be detrimental to your recovery process:
Engaging in addictive behaviours. Overuse of drugs and alcohol.
Bottling up your feelings and keeping it all inside.
Shutting away loved ones, friends and family.
Not seeking help.
Making huge life decisions in a hurry.
Recovery and healing are often a long process with suicide loss survivors. This is subjective, individual driven, and for some survivors, this can take many years. However, there is hope.
I want to talk to you about another stage – wellbeing and growth. An additional trajectory in the aftermath of a trauma like suicide bereavement is Posttraumatic Growth, a term that can be defined as the positive psychological changes experienced as a result of the struggle with traumatic or highly challenging life circumstances. Posttraumatic growth is not simply a return to baseline it is an experience of tremendous improvement and growth, one that is deeply profound. This phenomenon of personal growth, resulting from a struggle with major life crises is universal and reported around the world. There is strong evidence that people and communities can dramatically shift in positive ways post-trauma. People who experience posttraumatic growth often see positive changes in the following dimensions – personal strength, relating to others, new possibilities, appreciation of life, the body, and spiritual and existential changes.
My name is Nima. I am a coaching psychologist, applied positive psychologist and PhD researcher. I specialise in coaching trauma survivors by facilitating growth in their lives, by helping them thrive, and creating change through recognition of their newfound wisdom and strengths. If you are a suicide loss survivor, looking to facilitate your growth and wellbeing pathways, please get in touch with me.