Coping with a loss due to suicide can be difficult, isolating and increasing one’s own risk for mental illness. PHOTO: CHARLOTTE HOLMES

Editor’s note:
If you or a loved one need help regarding suicide, you can call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service’s 24/7/365 free support line at 1-833-456-4566.
You can also text 45645 between 2 p.m and 10 p.m.

As a young girl, I never really understood the clichés surrounding growing up and ‘how fast time flies’ — that was until time stopped. 

I remember the moment so clearly. My eyes dilated with disbelief, my chest sunk, leaving me gasping for air and my body felt a numbing cold roll over it. My brain wasn’t processing what I was hearing on the other end of the phone. 

He was dead. My best friend, someone I loved so much, was gone.

It wasn’t until three days later that I learned he had taken his own life.

I was broken.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that every day, approximately 11 Canadians die by suicide — for every death by suicide seven to 10 survivors are significantly affected by that loss. So, what are the best ways for those left behind to cope with such a loss?

The impacts of suicide 

Though society may discuss the loss of loved ones and statistics regarding suicide, one factor often left out of the conversation is the impact on those left behind — they are left with devastating emotions and forced to learn how to cope and navigate the suddenness of the loss.

Registered psychologist, Katrina Shaw, specializes in trauma and believes that suicide can shatter the worlds of individuals impacted by the associated death. She says one of the biggest difficulties in processing such a loss is being left with unanswered questions.

​​“It can just leave this unresolved, unsettled part of our life, when we don’t have answers to maybe why,how or what happened,” says Shaw.

Feelings of regret, guilt, pain, sadness, anger and grief are just some of the emotions individuals left behind by suicide are faced with.

“We don’t heal in silence, and we don’t heal [by] just stuffing it away and pretending it’s not there.”

Katrina Shaw

A 2013 scholarly article on bereavement after suicide by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry states, “The grief process is always difficult, but a loss through suicide is like no other. It is shocking, painful, unexpected and more challenging for several reasons.”

Any death can be difficult to navigate, but scholarly articles and research studies show the stigma surrounding suicide can make it harder for grieving individuals to discuss their loss with others.

On top of the stigma that comes with suicide, feelings of abandoment can also add to the weight of the death. 

In some cases, individuals left behind by suicide may feel guilty or take on a form of responsibility — this was something I struggled with. 

I believed that I should have seen the warning signs of my friend’s struggles and pushed for him to get help, a thought that plagued me for years after his passing. 

Shaw says self-blame and taking a form of responsibility in cases of suicide is common. However, the feelings that arise may vary for each individual impacted. It is crucial that those around them are tolerant and thoughtful about the discussions they may have. 

“Normalizing that it can be a mixed bag of things,” says Shaw. “It’s working through all of those with love and compassion instead of being judgemental about them.”

Best coping strategies/methods 

The American Association on Suicidology reports that the trauma of losing someone close to you to suicide is catastrophic.

Feeling responsible for one’s passing, heightened risk of mental illness or suicidal ideation, trauma, anger and the feeling of abandonment can be difficult to navigate. Experts and doctors emphasize the need for strong support systems for bereaved individuals. 

“We don’t heal in silence, and we don’t heal [by] just stuffing it away and pretending it’s not there. We heal through connection, we heal through processing, we heal through feeling,” says Shaw.

Within her work as a registered social worker, Alexandra Bolton, has lost individuals in her care to suicide. In additon to working with indiviudals left behind by suicide.

Bolton and Shaw say creating connections can provide comfort in the individual’s grieving process. Support groups can serve as an effective resource for bereaved individuals to openly discuss their loss without feeling shame by the cause of death. 

“To be with other people who have gone through something similar, I think is really really helpful,” Bolton says.

Other coping methods such as prioritizing self-care can serve as a strong foundation for healing. Shaw says setting alarms, going for walks and pre-planning your days can all be beneficial in terms of self-care. Other activities like journaling and reading can also serve as a distraction.

Seeking out any form of professional help is highly recommended. Many loved ones left behind by suicide tend to isolate themselves, increasing their own mental health risks. 

Bolton says educating those impacted by the loss of a loved one to suicide, as well as society as a whole, about the stages of grief is an impotant step in the griveing process. 

“Having knowledge about the different stages [of grief] and ending that stigma of what that grief period should look like,” says Bolton. “I think it is so important because then it allows people to do what they need to do in order to heal from that experience.” 

Navigating such a tragic situation can be difficult and there is no right or wrong method to it.

Those of us who’ve been left behind, are going to carry that weight. 

I blamed myself for my friend’s passing — the pain he was in — I blamed myself for that and for not helping him sooner.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, despite its horror, had a silver lining for me. It gave me time back, time to be still and reflect. Reflecting upon his loss helped me understand that I will always be hurt, but not because I did or didn’t do something, or because my friend did or didn’t do something, but because the reality was that I had lost someone — I had lost him.

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