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University Health Services

Support After a Suicide

Death by suicide not only affects the person who died, but also those who cared deeply about the person. If you have lost someone to suicide, this experience may be one of the most challenging experiences that you've ever faced. While there is no easy way to grieve, it is often helpful to understand what you might experience as well as have access to resources and information.

Understanding Grief

The shock and grief that may consume you after you lose someone to suicide is overwhelming. These are natural feelings which will likely change as you move through the grieving process.

No two people experience loss in the same way. Some may experience physical symptoms such as headaches or changes in appetite and/or sleeping patterns. A person in grief may also experience some or all of the following feelings:

SHOCK: "I feel numb." Feelings of being dazed or detached are a common response to trauma. Shock can protect the mind from becoming completely overwhelmed, allowing the person to function.

DENIAL: "I feel fine." Sometimes people can consciously or unconsciously refuse to accept the facts and information about another's death. This process can be even more challenging when there is little information or explanation about one's suicide. Eventually, as you learn more, with the passage of time and acceptance that you may not be able to know everything, you can begin to process the reality of this tragic event and all the emotions that come with it. In time, however, our minds become more able to analyze the tragic event, and this allows the denial to give way to less troubling emotions.

GUILT: "I think it was my fault." Feelings of guilt following a suicide are very common. Guilt comes from the mistaken belief that we should have, or could have, prevented the death from happening. Guilt can also arise if there are unreconciled issues with the deceased or regret about things said or not said. It can be a part of human nature to blame oneself when experiencing a loss, rather than accepting the truth that some things were out of our control. In truth, no person can predict the future, nor can they know all the reasons for another person's actions.

SADNESS: "Why bother with anything?" Once the initial reactions to the death by suicide have lessened in intensity, feelings of sadness and depression can move to the forefront. These feelings can be present for some time and can, at times, be triggered by memories and reminders of the student who was lost. Feelings of hopelessness, frustration, helplessness and bitterness are all common when dealing with death. Typically, you gradually learn to accept the loss and embrace both your happy and sad memories.

ANGER: "How could they do this to me?" Feelings of anger towards the person you have lost can arise. Many who mourn feel a sense of abandonment. Others feel anger towards a real or perceived culprit. These feelings can be complex and distressing when they are directed at the person who died. It is important to know that it is possible to both be angry with someone and to still hold them dear. Sometimes anger is needed before you can accept the reality of the loss.

ACCEPTANCE: "I can miss them and still continue living." “It’s going to be okay.” The goal of healing is to accept the tragic event as something that could not have been prevented and cannot be changed. Acceptance is not the same as forgetting. Instead, acceptance is learning to be present again and to be able to reopen yourself, while still remembering the person who has passed away.

 

What Makes Suicide Different

Losing a student is never easy. However, when you lose someone to suicide, it can feel different from other types of loss. Several circumstances can make death by suicide different, making the healing process more challenging.

STIGMA AND ISOLATION: Talking about suicide can be difficult for those who have experienced the loss. Different cultures view suicide in different ways, and sometimes discussing it can be a challenge. This can also be made more difficult when the act of suicide conflicts with religious views. Suicide can be isolating as communities of friends each struggle differently to make sense of the loss they all experienced. Finding the right people in your support network who are able to help you experience your loss is important. Sometimes, this may mean seeking professional help in order to help you cope with your loss. In those situations it is recommended that you contact a counselor. Resources include the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), MYGroup at 1-800-633-3353 or 704-529-1428, a referral through USC’s Counseling & Psychiatry (803-777-5223) or a trusted therapist in the community.

MIXED EMOTIONS: After a death by illness or natural causes, the bereaved person’s feelings may be less complicated than when the death is by suicide. When a death is by suicide, you might mourn the person's passing while also hold intense feelings about the circumstances of their death. Feelings such as confusion, struggling with why, anger and abandonment can all occur after a suicide as well as positive feelings about the deceased. Sorting through all of these diverse emotions can make the healing process more challenging.

NEEDING TO UNDERSTAND WHY: Understanding the circumstances of a death by suicide can sometimes lead us to asking "Why?" You may second-guess actions, wish that you had noticed signs earlier or wonder how you could have acted differently. This need to understand "why" may be a difficult path, as the circumstances surrounding the student’s death could be unclear, not easily known and remain unknown. Some questions may never be answered, while you may find other answers that make sense. Sometimes you will find answers to your questions, while other times, you must learn to accept the fact that there are some things no one can know.

RISK FOR SURVIVORS: People who have recently experienced a loss by suicide are at increased risk for having suicidal thoughts themselves. Remember that having suicidal thoughts does not mean that a person will act on them. These thoughts can occur both to you and to others impacted by the loss, including other students you may be teaching or advising. If you are concerned about a student, call Counseling & Psychiatry at 803-777-5223 and ask to speak to a counselor. If you are having your own suicidal thoughts, you can reach out to the Employee Assistance Program MYGroup at 1-800-633-3353 or 704-529-1428, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, crisis support through Counseling & Psychiatry at 803-777-5223 or a trusted therapist in the community.

 

Healthy Ways to Cope with Grief and Loss

You will never "get over" the loss you've experienced, but you can "get through" it. You have been changed by this loss, but you can learn how to survive, even grow, from this challenge. The following are suggestions for healing in healthy ways:

SEEK SUPPORT: It's very important to find people in your life who are good listeners, so you can turn to someone when you need extra support. You may find it helpful to talk to a colleague, friend, family member, mental health professional or spiritual advisor. Some find joining a support group helpful since each person will be able to relate in different ways to your experience. Whatever support looks like for you, it's important to reach out for help when you feel like you need it.

BE PATIENT: Just as you may be feeling a range of emotions, people around you may also be sorting through their feelings. Be patient with yourself and others: those who are supportive of you as well as those who do not seem to understand. Limit your contact with those who tell you how to feel and what to think. Take time to heal. Set limits for yourself and give yourself permission to say "no" to things that may come your way. It's difficult to make decisions when you're feeling overwhelmed; you may decide it's best to put off important decisions until you feel ready to make them.

STAY PRESENT: Take each moment as it comes. That way, you can better accept whatever you're feeling and be able to respond in the way that is most helpful to you. Maybe you would benefit from calling your best friend. Maybe journaling would help you let go of your thoughts for now. Learning mindfulness or relaxation techniques like deep breathing can help you stay present and experience your emotions without feeling overwhelmed.

EXPRESS YOURSELF: You can choose to tell others how you're feeling or acknowledge your feelings privately. If you don't feel like talking, you can set aside time each day to grieve. Just make sure you leave enough time to do something pleasantly distracting before bed. Either way, acknowledging your experiences helps.

ALLOW YOURSELF TO HAVE FUN: Social events or pleasant activities can provide relaxation and distraction. Laughter heals, and it's also OK if you cry.

ESTABLISH ROUTINE: It’s important to reestablish routine as soon as you can. Building in some structure can help you manage your grief and provide a sense of normalcy and hope.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: Eat as well as you can, exercise when you can and avoid alcohol and other drugs that will make it harder for you to work through your grief.

 

How to Tell Others about Your Loss

When a student dies by suicide, knowing what to say to others can be challenging. The university offers support to your classes, departments and organizations to process a loss in the community. It can be beneficial to gather together as a community in a familiar place to share the loss and find support in one another.

Counseling & Psychiatry can work with you to coordinate a community support meeting. A Community Support Meeting is a facilitated conversation that takes place in a location selected by the affected community; it is structured to provide a safe place to talk about what has occurred and how community members are reacting to the event. For more information, please call 803-777-5223.

Sometimes the stigma associated with suicide can cause survivors to feel like they need to hide the truth or suppress their anguish. Sometimes survivors feel that others who were not directly touched by the suicide do not understand what they are experiencing. When this happens, dealing with a student’s suicide can feel like a painful secret.

It is important to think about what you are comfortable talking about, and what you may say if you are asked questions. You might choose to tell others that you aren't ready to talk, e.g., "I can't talk about this right now. It's too painful." If you are ready to tell others about the loss, you still may choose not to tell them all the details. In those situations, it is fine to say, "They died by suicide, but it is too hard for me to talk about what happened at this time." Remember, when and how you talk to others about the suicide is completely your decision.

 

Remember

  • Grief after losing someone to suicide can feel like a rollercoaster, full of intense ups and downs and everything in between.
  • There are healthy ways to cope with your loss.
  • Resources are available on campus to help you with your academic and emotional needs. Reach out to friends, family, colleagues and supportive others when you want to talk or need distraction.
  • If the intensity of your grief does not ease in time, seek professional help.

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