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When you feel responsible: dealing with survivor guilt in the aftermath of a suicide

Bereavement for the loss of a loved one following suicide is unique to each individual, while at the same time, the process survivors tend to follow toward healing is surprisingly uniform. If your family is dealing with a suicide, you will most likely feel shock, disbelief, protest, disorganization, and anger. You may also feel intense guilt and anxiety; a haunting feeling that you are to blame. Survivors often feel that they did not do enough to save the person who died: "If only I had said…" "If only I had done…." "Why didn't I see the signs?" These feelings are difficult to reconcile and often leave the family with persistent, troubling concerns that are referred to as "survivor guilt."

Survivor guilt is amplified if you are the one who found your loved one's body.  You are left in the valley of "why" and "if only" and you may feel a profound sense of connectedness to the victim or to others surrounding you after a suicide. As the immediate shock begins to wane, you may feel a great deal of helplessness. 

Everywhere you turn you are confronted with the deeply troubling question of why you were not able to prevent this tragedy from happening. Many people coping with survivor guilt talk about reexamining their entire belief system and having difficulty trusting the world around them. Suicide death in our society is often a source of shame and embarrassment. Your family may have varying religious beliefs that are called to the forefront of this painful and foreboding frontier you find yourself looking upon. You may find that you feel overwhelmed with the question all survivors of suicide feel at one time or another – "Why couldn't I stop it?"

Remember that everyone grieves differently

It is gratifying to know that you are not alone. Survivors should always be aware that each member of your family may grieve a little differently and that one's own personality and individuality enter into the grieving process. There are gaps or differences between each family member's manner of coping with loss. And there may be a canyon of unresolved issues between each family member and the lost loved one. Everyone has different ways of coping with stress, anger and pain. Sometimes families report that while they are healing from a suicide they learned a great deal about one another and about each other's beliefs and values. And often, a silver lining occurs when a suicide ultimately brings families closer together and causes them to reestablish bonds and family connections.

It is quite normal to experience survivor guilt

Survivor guilt is a very normal response to the traumatic experience of suicide. The best way to help yourself heal is to acknowledge and accept your feelings and those of your other family members. Talk about how you feel with other survivors and recognize that you do not have the answers to all the questions hurling around inside your head. It's very important to find ways to keep your loved one's memory alive. Make a memory book, plant a memorial garden (however small) or donate a tree – whatever you can do to celebrate your loved one's life. If your feelings of guilt are so overwhelming that you find it impossible to take care of yourself and perform the necessary day-to-day activities, don't be afraid to seek out a grief professional. They can help you mourn your loss and respond to your own needs as well.

And, most importantly, you may find that talking to other people who have been where you are will help you understand that the suicide was not your fault and while you may never be quite the same, you will be able to forgive yourself, to heal and move forward. Above all, remember that suicide is a personal choice, and no one's fault.

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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.

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