When my grandmother died of suicide many years ago, members of my family grieved very differently. Some processed their grief in their heads, some in their hearts, and some from their guts. Some of the things people said and did were helpful; some were not helpful and unknowingly caused more pain. There are many variables that affect the way individuals grieve.
In our highly technological world, we seem to accept without question people’s uniqueness based on fingerprints, dental characteristics and DNA. We learned as children that no two snowflakes are identical. And yet, when it comes to grief we often forget people’s differences and think everyone should grieve just like we do, even if the way we grieve isn’t especially helpful. The truth is that no two people will ever grieve in the same manner, with the same intensity, or for the same duration. Not understanding or accepting this not only complicates and delays the grief process, but it also causes unnecessary judgment.
Grief counselor Jinny Tesik of the Grief & Life Transitions Counseling and the Western Washington Bereavement Network, reminds us that each of us is a unique combination of diverse past and present experiences, personality styles, attitudes, cultural influences, relationships with our loved ones and circumstances surrounding the death that can and do impact how we grieve. This is true with all death losses, including suicide loss.
Previous death and loss experiences impact how the bereaved handle current losses. Try to remember the losses you experienced as a child. Were they frightening? Did you have adequate support? What roles did various family members play? Were you able to express your feelings and thoughts in a safe and secure environment? Have you recovered from these losses? How you answer these and the following questions will make a difference in the way you grieve. The challenge is to honor your own unique style while making room for the differences of others.
Present circumstances influence grief, whether dealing with your own grief or trying to support someone else. Are there other life stresses in addition to the current loss? Are there any financial difficulties such as loss of income that may add to grief’s burden? Has there been a recent move? Are there problems or strains in a relationship that may be distracting? Are there additional physical or mental health issues with which to contend? Is anyone taking medication that may need to be reassessed by a physician or psychiatrist? Has there been an increase in alcohol use? What about illegal or prescription drugs? Do your current coping mechanisms help or hinder grief? Do you or others place unrealistic expectations on the recovery process?
Familial, cultural, ethnic and/or religious backgrounds also condition grief responses to loss. Do your religious or philosophical beliefs provide comfort or do they add sorrow and guilt? Are there rituals or actions that can assist in your recovery? What kind of social support is available?
The question “why” complicates a suicide loss. It is our attempt to make sense out of this death. It is a spiritual question for which no one definitive answer satisfies. When we examine suicide, we confront a mystery. It is important to keep the last moments of a person’s life in perspective of their entire life. We do not need to judge the final thoughts, action, or heart of the person who died. Leave that to God or your Higher Power.
Grief styles can also impact mourning. Be careful not to judge grief styles based upon gender stereotypes. The research of Ken Doka, Professor of Gerontology at The College of New Rochelle, identifies two major types – intuitive and instrumental. Intuitive grievers tend to express feelings by shouting, crying or sharing in a counseling or group setting. Instrumental grievers may find that doing something related to the loss gives meaning to the experience. Imposing unrealistic expectations based upon gender alone tends to further alienate the griever from the support they need.
It is important to include all family members when considering grief differences. Most adults tend to underestimate the capacity for children or individuals who are developmentally disabled to understand death and grief. Charles Corr, Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University, identifies three questions children ask regarding death: Did I cause it? Can I catch it? Who will take care of me? Adults ask these questions too!
Sometimes the bereaved believe that if they had said (or not said) or done (or not done) something, they could have prevented the death. This is known as magical thinking. Although this thinking is common in all deaths, it is most apparent when the person dies from suicide. Reassure children, individuals who may be developmentally challenged and others of their limitations to control life and death. Affirm their resiliency to survive, teach them skills to maintain a healthy lifestyle and remind them that there are people who love and care for them.
The type of relationship with the deceased can make a difference in grief as well. Both our biological relationship and the roles we play in our family and social networks impact our grief. Was the person who died a spouse? Child? Distant relative? Was he or she the sole provider? caregiver? The one who handled financial matters? Was the relationship close or distant? Was the relationship independent? Dependent? Ambivalent? Were there unresolved mental health issues?
Finally, the cause surrounding death greatly impacts grief. While losing a loved one to a terminal illness is painful, suicide death causes the grief process to be even more difficult and confusing. Guilt, blame, anger, social stigma and isolation can be intense and can affect survivors at different times with different intensities. While it is not uncommon to wonder if you can survive the pain of suicide loss, you can. However, if you ever feel you cannot go on, call a friend or professional to seek advice and assistance to manage your grief. Remember, you do not have to grieve alone.
Regardless how you may differ from those around you, it is important to find ways to express your thoughts and feelings about the suicide death of your loved one. Find someone you can trust and who is emotionally able to listen empathetically, without judgment. Your support may come from a clergy person, a counselor, a friend, a support group or all of the above!
Understanding and accepting the uniqueness with which each person approaches their grief can assist us in providing the support we need for ourselves and others. This is why it is so important to guard against the temptation to compare or to judge our grief response to others. Suicide loss is painful enough; don’t add to it. Remember, differences do not have to divide us. Rather, if we respect and honor them, we can learn to live with those differences and even be enriched by them.
Beth A McGuire, MDiv, CT
Director of Bereavement Services
Hospice of Medina County
The Robertson Bereavement Center