The practicalities of coping with a suicide
Your tears have not yet dried. You haven't had time to experience your deep feelings about your loved one's suicide. In many ways, you're still in shock. Nevertheless, death, like anything else, has its own practicalities that must be accomplished. You, your family members and your loved one's friends need closure for the loss and grief they're feeling.
As if being a suicide survivor isn't enough, you must also deal with your loved one's funeral or memorial service, burial or cremation, working with your lawyer about the probate of your loved one's estate, obtaining a death certificate for insurance purposes, and coping with the sympathy of friends and relatives. Just when you need some time to yourself to process and grieve, you find that you need to be several places at once and multi-task the actions and decisions that must be made. If you have the sole responsibility for these matters, it is indeed a great physical and emotional struggle.
It helps to know exactly what will happen next
It helps a great deal to know exactly what's ahead of you instead of not knowing and feeling intensely overwhelmed when every moment of your time is filled with pain and uncertainty. Sometimes you'll feel like screaming, "Just leave me alone for five minutes!" Nevertheless, when those five minutes have passed, the practicalities of your loved one's suicide will still be there. Below are some basic practicalities that you will face, and suggestions for coping with them.
- In the majority of US states, if a person does not die in a hospital, an autopsy must be performed to determine the cause and manner of death. Are these two different things? Yes. For example, the cause of your loved one's death was an overdose of drugs; the manner of death is suicide.
- Wherever your loved one took his/her life is first considered as a crime scene and possible homicide. If the suicide occurred in the home you shared with your loved one, you will be considered as a possible homicide suspect. If death occurred outside the home, the police will handle the location as a crime scene and possible homicide. Either way, the police officers will question you about your loved one's problems (physical or emotional), and they will ask about your relationship, if you knew your loved one was suicidal, and other relevant information.
- It is your right to make no statement of any kind until your legal counsel arrives. It is often said that people who have nothing to hide, hide nothing. You're not attempting to hide anything from law enforcement; you are merely protecting your own rights. Let your legal counsel represent you when you are questioned by the police. Remember, they are doing their job. It isn't personal, nor does it mean that they suspect you of murder. This is merely the process of legally resolving a suicide.
- Even in the midst of your grief and bereavement, you must make some decisions about the body and burial of your loved one. Unless the deceased left a will that contains specific instructions about these matters, you will need to go to the funeral home to discuss burial vs. cremation, choose a casket or urn, whether you would like the funeral or memorial service at the funeral home, a church, or some other location.
- If your loved one left a will that directs all funeral expenses to be paid out of his or her estate, you should follow these instructions. In the absence of a will, you must make these decisions based upon what you believe your loved one would have wanted.
"My mother died of natural causes only eight months before my father committed suicide. My sisters and I made all the necessary arrangements; we wrote mom's obituary, planned her cremation and interment in the cemetery, and arranged a memorial service for her. When my dad knew he was terminally ill, he told us, "I want you girls to do for me like you did for your mother." That's all he had to say; we knew exactly what he wanted." ~ Siobhan B. (suicide survivor)
Somehow, death has its own grapevine. Within a day, your friends, other family members, and members of the community will know that your loved one died, and that suicide was the manner of death. It may feel to you as though this difficult situation is the perfect time for others to listen to you, the bereaved, rather than having to talk, explain, and answer questions about your loved one's suicide.
Newspaper obituaries are kind in this dilemma. Unless you write the obituary, a news staffer will do this for you and, if you direct, make no mention of suicide; they will write something along the lines of "Mr. Doe died yesterday after a short illness." You don't need to have an obituary at all if you choose not to.
Nonetheless, the grapevine will deliver the news at warp speed. Family members, especially those who don't live in your town, should be called to inform them of your loved one's suicide. But you don't have to make those calls. If you feel as if you can't tell this story just one more minute, ask a family member or friend to make the calls. The caller can inform others about when and where the funeral or memorial service will be, how they can be of help, and answer some simple questions about the suicide. You and/or your helper do not need to go into long details about why your loved one committed suicide, and most people are kind enough not to inquire.
All the small (but essential) details and decisions:
- If you select burial for your loved one, provide clothes that he or she loved to wear.
- Ask the mortician to wash and set her hair, and say what type of make up (if any) you would like.
- Decide if you want your loved one's casket to be open or closed. The cause of death will play an important part in your decision.
- Select music for the funeral or memorial service. The funeral home or your church will have many beautiful pieces for you to choose from, or play a piece which your loved one was fond of.
- If you choose a religious funeral, your minister, rabbi or pastor will work with you in organizing the service and selecting readings from the Bible, the Koran, or other sacred works, a favorite poem or writing. Keep in mind that some religious faiths view suicide as an unpardonable sin against God and may refuse to conduct your loved one's funeral. In this case, you can always have your own non-denominational service.
- Your loved one may have had some organizational affiliations. Was he/she a military veteran who is entitled to a military funeral with full honors? If there is no military installation in your community, contact the VFW. Was your loved one a Freemason or a member of the Order of the Eastern Star? If so, contact your town's Masonic Lodge and request this type of interment. Neither the military nor most community-based philanthropic organizations will refuse to honor your loved one.
- Decide if you want your loved one's jewelry (like a wedding ring) to be interred with him/her, or if you want these things as family heirlooms. It is sometimes comforting to know that your loved one was wearing a certain piece of jewelry when he/she died; it's a reminder that "I didn't leave you. I simply left."
- Inform your lawyer immediately after your loved one's death by suicide. His or her estate assets should be frozen until a probate court decides otherwise.
- Obtain a copy of the death certificate; your loved one's life insurance will not "pay out" without this document. Some insurance companies refuse to pay out for suicide. This is where your lawyer steps in.
- Do you wish to have a wake after the interment of your loved one? Only you have the right to make this choice. Don't allow yourself to be pressured into having a wake if you would rather have some "quiet time" with only your immediate family and closest friends. Wakes for those who die from natural causes are fond remembrances; wakes where the deceased committed suicide can be awkward.
It's OK to lean on the people around you
So many details! Remember that you have friends, family members and community members who truly wish to help you in this time of grief and bereavement. These are the people who won't judge or criticize, who won't talk endlessly when you need to be alone and quiet, and who won't say or do things that only increase your burden. You are a suicide survivor, not a prisoner of guilt and shame.
Though lovers be lost, love shall not,
And death shall have no dominion.
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Suicide: dealing with the aftermath section helpful too.
Visit our Amazon store to find books on how to cope after a suicide.