Left behind: Grieving after losing loved one to suicide Create a safe place for the bereaved to feel comfortable talking freely about their loved one and the emotions they are experiencing

Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse Mental Wellness

As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

One in every 100 deaths worldwide is as a result of suicide and a large proportion of these deaths occur in Africa.

Zimbabwe has a suicide rate of 23 per 100 000. However, for every suicide death, there are between six to 36 family members, friends, colleagues or others affected by this death.

Experiences of those left behind after a suicide

Families and friends left behind after a suicide are often left with many questions. They experience complex emotions and may struggle to recover from the devastating loss.

Suicides often seem sudden and unexpected and are almost always traumatic to those left behind.

Those left behind after a suicide may experience:

  • Anger: at the deceased for abandoning them, at themselves for not having seen any warning signs, at health workers for not having helped enough, at God for allowing such a loss to happen.
  • Shame: families left behind after suicide may feel ashamed due to the stigma associated with mental health problems and death by suicide. Cultural practices following a suicide can further isolate the family and worsen the sense of shame.
  • Guilt: those left behind after a death from suicide may wonder what they could have done or what they should not have done to prevent the suicide. This can lead to a devastating sense of guilt and self-blame.
  • Sadness and grief: the loss of suicide triggers the same process of grief as any other death, but often sadly without the same social and cultural support mechanisms.
  • Having many unanswered questions: Even if the deceased left a note to explain their actions, a death by suicide often leaves many unanswered questions. Many of those left behind may ask why this happened.
  • Poor social support: there is a lot of stigma associated with suicide and social and cultural practices following a death by suicide, including how the funeral is managed. This can result in poor social support for those who have been bereaved. People often do not know what to say, or how best to console those grieving a loss from suicide and may often opt to stay away from them further isolating the bereaved.

How can I help someone grieving from a loss through suicide?

  1. Make time to be with them, be present. Give the gift of time and be a steady support even if you do not know what best to say
  2. Listen attentively and empathically. Listen without rushing to answer back but to hear the person out, create a safe place for the bereaved to feel comfortable talking freely about their loved one and the emotions they are experiencing.
  3. Be non-judgemental about the suicide or the feelings the bereaved is experiencing. Do not assign blame concerning the suicide.
  4. Do not minimise the impact of the loss and avoid hollow statements such as “I know what you are going through”.

How can I better manage my grief following a suicide?

  1. Acknowledge the difficult emotions you are experiencing, the anger, frustration, despair, shame, guilt. Be emotionally aware, emotionally authentic and be willing to be emotionally vulnerable so that you can open up to trusted people. Reach out for professional help if you need to.
  2. Allow yourself to talk about the deceased, not just about how they died but about who they were and how their life impacted you.
  3. Forgive yourself and the deceased. Let go of self-blame and guilt and forgive your loved one for the decision they made. They were unwell as they made that decision.
  4. Rebuild, realign and refocus your life. Life will never be the same again without your loved one, but you can find ways to continue living.

Post traumatic growth

A death by suicide is traumatising and can cause emotional upheaval and distress. However, trauma can help us to grow as people. This is a concept that has been studied and called post traumatic growth. Trauma can help us grow by:

  • Helping us gain a greater appreciation of life.
  • Helping us gain a deeper appreciation of remaining relationships.
  • Helping us realise inner strength and resilience we did not realise we had.
  • Helping us gain a deeper sense of spirituality and stronger faith.

If you or someone that you know may be struggling with grief from suicide, please contact your nearest healthcare provider and get help.

  • Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by: Dr Chido Rwafa- Madzvamutse, Consultant Psychiatrist.
  • Feedback: (Dr. Chido Rwafa Madzvamutse Whatsapp+263714987729) (www.ahfoz.org; [email protected])

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