In 1990, I lost my 23-year-old sister to suicide. There were no warning signs or history of depression. On the outside, she seemed perfectly normal and happy. While most of us can’t fathom the idea of taking our own life, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, someone commits suicide in the U.S. almost every 14 minutes, and in 2010, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages. The Jason Foundation ranks suicide as the third leading cause of death for ages 10-24 and the second leading cause of death for college-age youth.
In some cases, there are warning signs before someone commits suicide, such as eating disorders, giving away possessions, depression and withdrawn behavior. Paying attention to those kinds of behaviors in friends and family could save a life. In other cases, there are no advance clues, leaving loved ones in a total state of shock. My personal experience was the latter.
While the best way to cope with suicide is to prevent it, that’s not always possible. For those of us left behind, overcoming the gut-wrenching grief from a loved one’s suicide can be unbearable. It takes time, effort and a monumental shift in perception.
Here are eight ways to help you survive a loved one’s suicide, from my experience:
• Accept that you can’t always save the ones you love. Everyone in this world has free will, and although there are times you can change another person’s mind, that only works when that person wants to change.
• Seek professional therapy to help you cope with the grief. Even if you’ve never seen a therapist, consider doing so. Having an impartial person to talk to will help alleviate the burden. Try to find a therapist who specializes in grief counseling.
• Celebrate your loved one’s assets, not flaws. It’s natural to be angry at a suicide victim, but it’s healthier for you in the long run to put your anger aside and remember what you loved about that person.
• Forgive them and forgive yourself. Maybe you were unaware of the warning signs. Maybe there were none. You can’t help someone if you don’t know they need help or if they don’t want help. For a complete list of warning signs, go to suicide.org.
• Eliminate shame. For many families and cultures, suicide is a stigma — a sign that the victim was mentally ill or the family did something wrong. Suicide is one of the most common causes of deaths. The more educated and open we are about it, the more we can help each other get through the grief.
• Release your inner most feelings by writing a letter to the deceased. This allows you to process your feelings so they don’t get bottled up and surface negatively at a later date. It helps you to forgive, grieve and cry — all of which are necessary.
• Join a support group. You are not alone in this experience. It’s times when you feel like retreating into a shell that you need to connect the most with other people.
• Accept that you may never have the answers. People commit suicide for any number of reasons, some of which they may not even fully realize themselves. The answers sometimes never surface. Stop chasing them so you can move on.
• Yes, time will help you to heal, even though it seems to get worse before it gets better. Know that as each day, month or year passes, the hurt will lesson. Life will go on, and so will you.
In addition, keeping a positive outlook throughout the grieving process will also help you through it.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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Inspiring personal growth, professional success and positive change. Author of The Goddess of Happiness, Vita’s Will and Note to Self: Love (Book & Screenplay). Lover of food, fashion, fitness, funky music, dogs, dancing, cooking, laughter and anything Italian.