The decision of a loved one to end their own life can be as hard to understand as it is to accept. The stigma around mental health and suicide has labeled the act of suicide as selfish, thoughtless, and even stupid. This propagates the subjective and often ill-informed that, “nothing can ever be bad enough to warrant such a drastic decision”.
But the statistics say otherwise. In Canada each year, 4000 individuals die by suicide. Among those, approx. 90% were living with a mental illness. So what’s happening?
Each individual loss is tragic, with its own circumstances, making it impossible to sum up the act of suicide with one blanket explanation. One conclusion that can be safely drawn is that, through the eyes of those who suffered, the choice to end their own life was a reasonable one.
What happens to loved ones left behind?
The Emotional Firestorm of Grief
The journey of those who have lost a loved one to suicide is as complex as it is painful. In addition to overwhelming sadness, there can be a battle of acceptance that rages almost daily. Did I miss something? Could I have done more? Why didn’t they come to me?
The trauma of such a loss often causes the nervous system to re-prioritize its focus and continually look for anything that could have avoided such a final outcome. This shift comes with a level of psychological activation that includes cyclic bouts of anxiety, depression, and intense feelings of anger, fear, sadness, guilt, and shame. This internal storm can be both exhausting and crippling. In feeling all this, it is easy and understandable for one to think, “I wouldn’t be going through all of this, if they just hadn’t done it”.
While this may be true, what we do know of those who have attempted or considered suicide is that the decision has little to do with others. When life becomes too psychologically overwhelming, death becomes an outlet for the sufferer, not a punishment for those they love. Many survivors have reported that their decision to suicide was in part based on a desire not to burden their family or loved ones; seeing it as an act of consideration or kindness. In these instances, a predominant perspective becomes “the world is better without me”.
The Journey Toward Acceptance
Acceptance can be the most difficult part of grieving any loss. But losing someone to suicide can make acceptance feel impossible. As human beings, our brains want security and predictability and the journey through such a loss offers neither. So there are times when anger steps in to provide rescue from an endless sense of helplessness, leading to judgment, blame and for a time, distraction from the internal turmoil. But ultimately, anger dies down, again bringing us face to face with acceptance. The acceptance of our own lack of control. The acceptance of our own limitations. Even the fate of our own mortality and the mortality of those we love. The acceptance of the things, we often refuse to accept.
There is no right way to grieve. There is no best way to grieve. Grief takes time and is an incredibly personal and individual journey. However we feel about the fatal decision of someone we love, our own path to recovery will ultimately bring us to the bridge of acceptance. When we cross, if we cross, and how we cross will ultimately be up to us.
Bonnie J. Skinner, MEd, CCC, RP
B. Skinner Coaching & Psychotherapy