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Understanding Suicide Bereavement

Suicide often has a lasting impact on those bereaved by the loss of their loved ones, with many embarking on a life-long journey of acknowledging and expressing their grief either by themselves or through support groups, friends, family or medical professionals. Suicide loss survivors often 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. Research has shown that the effects of suicide bereavement on mental health, mortality and social functioning is immense when compared to other forms of bereavement. Studies have also shown that suicide loss survivors exhibit a higher risk to developing mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, substance abuse disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when compared to their peers who were not bereaved by suicide. Although limited research has been conducted on the physical health consequences of suicide bereavement, research has demonstrated that loss from suicide can enhance psychological stress for survivors through their ‘autonomic, neuroendocrine and immune responses’ leading to physical illnesses including heart disease, cancers, hypertension, diabetes and osteoporosis. Suicide bereavement literature also strongly supports the claim that being bereaved by suicide increases the risk of suicidal behaviour amongst survivors, in comparison to other forms of bereavement. These adverse risk factors initiated a crucial need for postvention, a term coined by suicidologist Edwin Shneidman, referring to the support of those left behind after suicide. Postvention denotes ‘the activities developed by, with, or for suicide survivors, in order to facilitate recovery after suicide, and to prevent adverse outcomes, including suicidal behaviour.' These postventions thus far have included trauma-informed therapies, bereavement counselling, peer and social support and community action.

Over the past many years, I have been deeply involved in the suicide bereavement community in one way or the other. Firstly as a person with a lived experience of suicide bereavement having personally lost a loved one bereaved by suicide, and by having to navigate my experiences of loss, grief, recovery and growth in this space. Secondly, my own healing, recovery and experiences of posttraumatic growth placed me in a better position to support other suicide loss survivors through their grief and loss. Every single day, I live and breathe in this space, and I can say that my own lived experience of suicide bereavement allowed me find and live my life purpose. I am a helpline volunteer with the charity Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SoBs) where I assist suicide loss survivors with their grief on a weekly basis. As a coaching psychologist, I work deeply with trauma survivors including suicide loss survivors to navigate them through their loss and facilitate growth. Finally as a PhD researcher in suicide bereavement and posttraumatic growth (transformational growth following adversity) my aim is to create both embodied and cognitive positive postventions to facilitate wellbeing and growth pathways for suicide loss survivors within this community.

Some of questions I often get asked by suicide loss survivors are – “Does this get better? When can I start feeling myself again? Will I be able to live again?” No two journeys of loss and grief are the same, so I can possibly never have the “right” answers to these questions. I often tell them that there is no right or wrong way to face this experience. That every single day is unique, some days are easier than others, and if we are patient, kind to ourselves, allow all emotions, and trust the process, we can in time be alright. I want to share an excerpt here from a book called ‘After’ that I received from SoBs, when I joined them as a helpline volunteer. It articulates some of the stages we can expect after losing a loved one to suicide.

Shock, Disbelief, Numbness, Denial: The sudden nature of suicide can leave you in shock for an extended period of time. It might be a feeling that comes and goes. There is no “typical” pattern for the different emotions you might experience. But many agree that shock is often the first response to a sudden loss.

Anger, Resentment: This emotion can surface in many ways, if at all. If we do experience anger, it might be with oneself, with others, with circumstances, or certain ways of thinking in the community. This can be especially true when it comes to a feeling of stigma.

Recovery, Acceptance, Peace: Depending on where you are on your journey, this feeling may seem light years away. This is natural too. Grief is a journey and recovery is a process that will run its course. However, moments of peace and a new normal will find a way back into our lives.

I want to talk to you about another stage – wellbeing and growth. This is where I come in. 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, and a PhD researcher in posttraumatic growth and suicide bereavement. 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.


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