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12 Sept 2018

Suicide Loss Survivors: Coping with Complicated Grief

“Today (October 16, 2014) I was told by my 20-year-old son in a hand written message that he ‘could not take this anymore’… A part of me still believes this is all someone else’s nightmare being played out in front of me…,” Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan, a mental health activist from the United Kingdom, who lost her son to suicide nearly 4 years ago.

The death of a loved one, whether caused by prolonged illness or by a sudden event, often hits you like a tsunami. It devastates the family and friends who are survived and leaves them with heart-aching memories of the loved one. But what happens when the mode of death is suicide?

According to the World Health Organisation, every 40 seconds, one person worldwide chooses to take away their life. Among the estimated 8,00,000 people, 17% are Indians. According to WHO, suicide rate in India is 14.7 for every 1,00,000 women and 17.8 among every 1,00,000 men. These alarming rates not only indicate the prevalence suicides but also emphasise an urgent need to cater to those who are left grieving.

Dr Sangeeta Mahajan, a mental health activist from the United Kingdom lost her son to suicide nearly four years ago. The pain of losing her child and the guilt of not having helped her son who was going through mental health concerns back then, prompted her to spread awareness about mental health issues and also start her own blog.

“Healing is an ongoing process. Guilt is a big part of grieving for death by suicide as one always feels one could have done more, understood better, listened more closely, spent more time, paid more attention, given more hope or pooled more resources,” says Dr. Mahajan, who continues to write on her blog as journaling her thoughts has been one of her strongest coping mechanisms. 

Unusual and Unsettling Grief

Grieving is always challenging, but in the case of a suicide, it can be complicated and traumatic for the survivors. Unlike an accident or death due to an illness or age, where the cause is easy to determine, in the case of suicides, the rationale behind the person’s intention is never known. It is for this reason that grief in the case of suicide is more complex and needs to be understood distinctively.

Grieving

“In case of a suicide loss survivor, losing their loved one can bring an emotional baggage with feelings of guilt, anger and a heightened sense of blame towards themselves. This is because, in retrospect, they strongly feel that they could’ve done something to avert the situation or they delve into reasoning, where they tend to blame themselves or the dead person for his action,” says psychiatrist and integrative medicine specialist Dr. Shyam Bhatt, who is also the Trustee at The Live Love Laugh Foundation.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, suicide loss survivor is a family member or friend of a person who died by suicide.  Suicide loss survivors experience magnified emotions like denial, guilt, anger and shame caused by the trauma and stigma related to death due to suicide.

In such cases, people tend to engage in self-blaming as a coping mechanism. According to experts, suicide loss survivors tend to self-punish for the lack of a timely intervention. This happens because they overestimate their role in the suicide and how it affected the result of their loved one’s action. 

Impact Of The Trauma

According to a study, each suicide leaves behind at least six ‘suicide loss survivors’, who are people who have lost someone to suicide and are struggling to make sense of their loved one’s death. Suicide loss survivors showcase a high risk of thinking, planning or attempting suicide due to the constant feeling that the deceased escaped the pain by taking their own life. They also often tend to long for the deceased and wish to join them in their decision, to show support. 

Dr. Mahajan, who has had suicidal thoughts in the past says, “Thoughts come uninvited, but we don't have to act upon them. If we wait and watch, they pass. I have accepted that it is part of the human condition to feel that way sometimes. I am not ashamed of anything. I am proud of my son. He was a bright young man who succumbed to a serious illness, which could have been managed better.”

Grieving

“Healing is an on-going process. Guilt is a big part of grieving for death by suicide as one always feels one could have done more, understood better, listened more closely, spent more time, paid more attention, given more hope or pooled more resources,” says Dr. Sangeeta.

According to research, suicide survivors have a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that requires professional help for recovery.

For suicide loss survivors, it is important to recognise these feelings and seek timely support to accept the loss and navigate a healing mechanism.

Dangers Of Attaching Stigma To Suicide

Unlike other modes of death, suicide is still largely stigmatised and shamed in our society, despite having been decriminalised by law under the Mental Healthcare Act  2017. We hide suicide stories from children, we hesitate to talk about the pain behind someone’s suicide, we consider the deceased person selfish, for choosing to end their suffering by taking their life. 

“Stigma around suicide is a major reason why there is judgement and isolation when people grieve. It is also a reason why suicide loss survivors don’t share their feelings with others. Stigma is a social problem.”

The stigma attached to suicide has resulted in suicide loss survivors fighting a lone battle.

“For centuries, suicide has been a sin by religion and a crime by law. Those deep-rooted biases are difficult to erase even though it is now decriminalised. Like in the case of HIV/AIDS, stigma comes from ignorance and unfounded assumptions. People assume that mental illness equals a character flaw. As a society, we are fearful of it and don't have enough compassion for people in extreme emotional pain. Hence, we are unable to allow them space to express themselves,” says Dr Mahajan. 

Need For Responsible Reportage

Media plays a role in creating a negative perception around suicides and shaping the grief of suicide loss survivors. 

“Suicide is a symptom of an illness. And in 90% of the cases, it is a cause of a mental illness. So, when the media highlight proximate events to imply a cause, it is ridiculous and irrelevant. So, I strongly recommend professional help for suicide loss survivors, as the process of grieving is intense and complicated in this case.” he added.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, kindly talk to a mental health professional today. Visit www.theliveovelaughfoundation.org/therapist.html for finding a therapist near you.

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