Coping with Loss by Suicide

While any loss of a military service member is hard on the family left behind, it can be especially difficult when a loved one is lost to suicide. In 2014, an average of 20 U.S. veterans died by suicide each day, which is 18% of the total amount of deaths by suicide in the U.S. adult population for that year. Research on suicide indicates that every suicide death leaves approximately six “suicide survivors,” people who are intimately and significantly impacted by the loss. This means that in 2014 alone, 43,800 family members and friends of those who served were devastated by such a loss. Additionally, from 2005 to 2010, active service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours. Needless to say, suicide is a striking and tragic issue of concern for the U.S. military community.

While the statistics are staggering, grief cannot be quantified and explained simply, and is especially complex in cases of suicide. Below are some helpful things to keep in mind in case you or someone you know is grieving the death by suicide of a loved one.

Accept the complexity of your feelings.

Loss of a loved one by suicide is often accompanied by feelings of regret, self-doubt, and anger, in addition to sadness and pain. Many close to the deceased might replay memories, searching for clues that explain the event, or ways in which they could have seen it coming or prevented it. Others may feel angry at their loved one, or feel a sense of abandonment. Acknowledge that this loss is a traumatic event in your life, and that it is okay to feel whatever you feel. Accepting your emotions as they come is the first step towards processing them and moving forward.

Reach out for help.

Whether this means finding a good friend who will listen to you with compassion or a mental health professional who will help you work through your emotions, asking for help is important. It’s common, especially in cases of loss by suicide, for survivors to isolate themselves. Pain, and the fear that others will pass judgement on the situation, often prevent survivors from wanting to open up to others. However, even if one person does not understand, there are always more who will, and isolation will only prolong your suffering. Taking care of yourself often requires reaching out to others for assistance, so don’t assume you need to go through this alone.

Find your “new normal.”

It may help to acknowledge that your life will be forever changed by this trauma, but that does not mean the pain will be constant and everlasting. It is common to feel like any happiness or goodness you experience in the future is a betrayal of your lost loved one. The truth is that moving on with your life, continuing to love others, and finding happiness, are all ways to honor the gift of life which you still have. Try to let yourself experience all that life has to offer, and over time you will find a new sense of normalcy.

In essence, try not to judge yourself for your reaction to this loss. Acknowledge that your feelings may be complicated, but they are normal given the trauma you have experienced. Ask for help when you need it, and let yourself find contentment, and joy, as you move forward.

An especially tragic aspect of military suicide is that these losses can take place after a conflict is over, when wartime casualties are no longer mounting; only adding to the devastation for a family who thought their returning loved one was safe. Additionally, a culture of stoicism is often encouraged for service members and adopted by their families; therefore it is especially important to work with military suicide survivors to help them process their grief.

Michelle Butts
Health & Disability Advocates

July 25, 2017

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