Navigating the Unthinkable: How to Support Families After Suicide

Losing a loved one is always painful. When the cause is suicide, there is an extra layer of pain, confusion, and grief. We spoke with grief and trauma experts about the guilt, remorse, and regret that follow a loved one’s suicide — and suggest ways to manage your grief. 

When a loved one dies by suicide, family members and friends are left grief-stricken, bewildered, and often guilt-ridden. They struggle to make sense of an unexpected and often violent death. The stark reality of suicide is a painful truth that affects countless families. The statistics are staggering: in 2022, more Americans — 49,449 people — died from suicide in the United States than in any other year on record. 

Surviving Family Members Are Often Isolated

As gut-wrenching as it is to say goodbye to a life interrupted too soon, families who lose someone to suicide might not receive the same care and compassion in their grief. Stigma and shame can isolate surviving family members. And many religions officially condemn the act as a sin. Feeling ignored by others in your faith can feel like an unforgivable betrayal for those left behind. 

Those on the outer edges of the tragedy – relatives, friends, work buddies – often don’t know what to say or how to act. They avoid contact or keep their communication as generic and brief as possible. Because they don’t know what to say, sadly, they don’t say anything at all. As a result, surviving families become isolated, which an experienced bereavement counselor says is precisely what they don’t need.

Mary Beth Lamey is a licensed clinical social worker and bereavement counselor for Thompson Funeral Homes in Columbia, South Carolina. She’s worked with grieving families for over 20 years and says that families who lose loved ones unexpectedly require more attention, not less: 

“It becomes a real challenge for families that lost a loved one from suicide, homicide, or violence. There  can be a stigma attached to it, and even the folks that care for them and want to support them have no idea what to say or do.” 

Mary Beth adds: “Instead of silence, which can increase that sense of separation, people need to step past their discomfort and reach out anyway. There are no magic words. But simply being with someone is much better than not acknowledging them.”

Download our 5 Things to Say (and Not Say): A practical guide to support families who have lost a loved one to suicide 

Dealing with Guilt, Remorse, and Powerlessness

In a recent year, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 14 and 25 to 34. Intentional self-harm was the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 and the fourth leading cause of death for ages 35 to 44. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider suicide a significant public health concern

For every life lost to suicide, parents, children, siblings, cousins, and friends grieve their absence. They feel a tremendous amount of guilt, remorse, and powerlessness, along with their grief. Mary Beth explains: “When anyone dies, whether it is from a long battle with cancer or from suicide or other unexpected death, we think, Should I have called the doctor earlier? Should I’ve done this? Should I have done that? Those are normal grief responses. Families who have experienced a loss due to suicide, homicide, or violence oftentimes will need a little bit extra attention and care.”

It’s Not Your Fault 

When coping with such a painful loss, it’s natural to look for someone to blame—ourselves, our loved ones, others, or even a higher power. But it’s crucial to separate responsibility from blame. The blame lies solely with the pain, grief, depression, addiction, or other mental health issues your loved one was battling, which led them to make this devastating decision.

Cheryl Stevenson, MA, LPC, has plenty of experience with patients dealing with the aftermath of a suicide and other unexpected or violent deaths. The lead counselor and owner of Chronos Care Counseling since 2003, Cheryl says family members grapple with guilt: “It can be the guilt that they were not there to help the person. They weren’t there to protect the person. And then the other side to guilt is feeling that they didn’t do something right.”

Recognizing that anyone can miss the warning signs, even mental health professionals, is essential. People contemplating suicide don’t always exhibit apparent signs of distress or hopelessness. In fact, many may display a sudden calmness after deciding to end their life. We must acknowledge that we can never truly understand what someone else is going through in their mind. No one can foresee what lies ahead.

Warning: Individuals bereaved by suicide may have an elevated risk of contemplating or considering self-harm. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will act on those feelings. If such emotions persist or become more pronounced, please share them with someone you trust and consult a mental health expert.

Accept the Depth of Your Grief 

It’s natural to want to avoid difficult emotions, but they exist whether we acknowledge them or not. Trying to push them away will only prolong and intensify our pain. By allowing ourselves to experience and accept even the darkest emotions, we can begin to let them diminish and find some relief from the pain. 

Accept that grief does not follow a timetable. Living with changes in family dynamics, size, and relationships is a lifelong process.  As tempting as it is to use the five stages of grief as a road map, the reality is messier. According to Cheryl, “Grief will come in different waves and phases. It’s not a textbook checklist.” 

Mary Beth agrees: “Grief is a new normal. Grief is who you are. The process of getting through it, the process of not only surviving but thriving through it, takes more than a prescriptive amount of time. When you add the complexity of having your loved one die by suicide or any kind of violent means, it exacerbates these feelings.” 

Recognize the Importance of Saying Goodbye

Cheryl recently attended a memorial for a loved one. She says that a funeral or life celebration allows the bereaved to come together and share their grief. She also says that no matter how someone’s life ended, the life they lived deserves a meaningful and respectful goodbye.

Too often, families won’t hold a memorial or even publish an obituary after losing a loved one to suicide. They might not want to deal with insensitive questions, or they cannot shake a perceived stigma about the manner of their family member’s death. 

To counter that, Cheryl suggests: “Funerals or celebrations of life are important. They start the grief process where tears are fine, and reassurance from those who share your pain is okay. It’s a healing thing that helps us know everybody’s working on being okay. I’m working on being okay. I’m not there yet, but I am working on it.”

Self-Care Suggestions From Experts 

Writing down your thoughts and feelings provides a safe space for reflection. Keeping a journal can be a helpful outlet for your emotions, even if you’re not ready to talk about them yet. Another therapeutic exercise may be writing a letter to your loved one, saying the things you never had the chance to share.

Remember that your loved one’s life was about more than their suicide. Their final act does not define who they were. Celebrate the joyful and meaningful aspects of their life and your relationship. Acknowledge their achievements. Share memories, photos, and stories with others who loved them.

It’s normal for the healing process to have ups and downs. Some days, it may feel more manageable, while other days, even years later, painful reminders like birthdays, holidays, or a familiar song can cause waves of pain and sadness to resurface.

You need to take care of yourself. Try to eat nourishing food, exercise regularly, get enough restful sleep, and spend time in nature if possible. While it may be tempting to turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the grief, self-medicating only delays the healing process and can create more problems in the long run.

Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time, and it’s not a linear journey. Others may move on or stop discussing your loss before you’re ready. Avoid making major life decisions when you still feel overwhelmed by grief. Trust your instincts, honor your timeline, and allow yourself the healing space and grace needed.

Build a healthy support system.  Don’t shut yourself off. Isolating makes it more challenging to learn healthier ways of dealing with loss. Get back to a daily routine that nourishes your mind, body, and spirit. Organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Compassionate Friends provide a healing community for surviving family members and friends. 

Get professional help. Licensed mental health counselors have training and experience with individuals and families coping with suicide. The American Psychological Association offers tips on finding a mental health professional. 

Compassionate Funeral Care Makes a Difference, Too

During such a heart-wrenching time, selecting a compassionate funeral provider can make a difference for families grappling with losing a loved one to suicide. With their understanding and sensitivity, these providers offer a safe space for families to navigate the complexities of grief, providing gentle guidance at every step. They can help you plan a memorial when you are ready to honor their life and unique qualities.