How suicide bereavement is different

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How suicide bereavement is different

Bereavement by suicide shares characteristics with other bereavements and it is also different. Understanding how and why it differs is helpful when you are supporting people who have been bereaved.

The grieving process is often complicated and typically lasts longer than other types of bereavement – significant effects may still be felt for many years after the death. We are all individuals and each person will have had a unique relationship with the person who died – there is no single or correct way to experience bereavement. However there are many common reactions and factors in bereavements by suicide.

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Aspects of the experience of bereavement by suicide which make it different can include:

Circumstances of the loss

A death by suicide is usually sudden, often unexpected and may be violent. These factors increase the degree of shock and trauma experienced compared to many other types of bereavement. Survivors may struggle to make sense of what has happened and fundamental beliefs may be challenged.

Emotional and physical reactions

Bereavement by suicide can bring an intensity and range of emotions and physical reactions which may be unfamiliar, frightening and uncontrollable.

Emotional reactions are often complex and people may find that they are experiencing a bewildering range of feelings including guilt, anger, shame, rejection, sadness and fear. People who have been bereaved by suicide may become vulnerable to thoughts of suicide themselves.

Physical reactions may include tightness in various body parts, stomach pains, sleeplessness and poor concentration.

Post traumatic stress

Those who have been bereaved by suicide may have symptoms of post traumatic stress. If the person witnessed the death or found the body, they may suffer from flashbacks or nightmares. This can also happen even if the person did not see them, but cannot stop imagining what happened – and imagination may be worse than the reality.

Survivors questions

Most people bereaved by suicide are haunted by two questions – “why did the person take their life?” and “could I have somehow prevented it?”. ese are impossible questions to answer and eventually the person may have to either have to accept that they will never know or settle on an answer which they can live with.

It is natural that the bereaved person will take some considerable time in exploring these questions and it is an important part of the grieving process. However it can also be damaging if they are unable to reach a stage where the questions occupy less of their thoughts or if they cannot find an answer they can accept. Self esteem, confidence and hope can be severely compromised.

Stigma and isolation

Death by suicide, even more than other types of bereavement, makes many people uncomfortable and unsure how to react. There is still a stigma attached to suicide, rooted in centuries of history and this generates misplaced associations of weakness, blame, shame or even sin or crime. This stigma can prevent people from seeking help when they need it and others from offering support when they want to.

There may be a desire to deny that the death was a suicide – this may be driven by cultural values or from a sense of denial or of shame. This can create further confusion in an already complex situation.

Many people who have been bereaved by suicide find that they feel isolated. Others may avoid them, perhaps not knowing what to say or because they don’t want to upset the person. The sense of isolation may be especially acute if the bereaved person perceives other people to be uncaring or judgemental. Some people are unlucky enough to receive particularly thoughtless and malicious comments.

It may also be that the bereaved person avoids contact themselves – they may struggle to share their own feelings because they are fearful themselves of what they are experiencing, they don’t want to upset other people or they may worry about how to answer questions such as “how did he die?”

Family and community tensions

Whilst family and friends are often a great source of support, they can also be a source of tension and conflict. Sometimes families struggle to communicate, protective instincts kick in and they may be worried about causing more pain or about having a different view or feeling to others. Because the range of feelings and emotions experienced after a suicide can be so unfamiliar and frightening, people may be uncomfortable or scared to share.

Existing tensions and difficulties in family relationships can be surfaced as a result of the shock and trauma. Some people cope with their pain by blaming another person for the death – this may go as far as excluding them from the rest of the family, denying them the opportunity to attend the funeral and withholding information about the investigation. This can lead to huge rifts and a deep sense of hurt and isolation being added to the loss.

Other prejudices

There may be other factors which create additional stigma – these can include the death happening whilst in custody or the sexuality of the person who died or that of their family or friends. Exclusion or blame may mean that the person feels further hurt or isolated.

Lack of privacy

When someone dies by suicide, it can be difficult to maintain privacy. There may be emergency services at the scene and visits from police. There may be media attention – this can happen when the person dies and may be repeated after the investigation by the coroner or procurator fiscal. The inquest is held in a public court of law and anyone can attend – in certain circumstances reports will be made which remain on publicly accessible databases.


The investigation by the coroner or procurator fiscal is a source of considerable concern for those bereaved by suicide. The process can be lengthy, the proceedings are unfamiliar and the language is legal and technical. The process is open to public attention and there is often media reporting. There may also be additional investigations e.g. if the death happened whilst the individual was under the care of another agency e.g. in prison or if they were receiving mental health treatment.

In addition to being an added strain, investigations may reveal information about the bereaved person which was unknown to their family and friends.

Practical Concerns

In addition to this, there are other practical concerns such as finances, funerals, returning home and returning to work which the bereaved will need to face.