Suicide: bereavement

A–Z / S / Suicide: bereavement

Any kind of death is difficult, and a death from suicide can be especially hard to cope with. It’s sudden and shocking, and may leave you with lots of questions that are difficult or impossible to answer.

If you lose someone by suicide, you may experience all kinds of emotions and physical reactions to the stress you are under. You may feel you will never recover from the loss, and even feel you don’t know how you are going to carry on. Coming to terms with what has happened will take time.

Some common grief reactions to suicide:

  • intense shock, numbness and disbelief
  • reliving the details of the death, especially if you are the one who found the person's body
  • not being able to sleep, or having nightmares and dreams about the suicide
  • feeling shame, whakamā, guilt or blaming yourself
  • a fear of being alone, or of others dying ‒ and wanting to be with friends or whānau a lot
  • feeling betrayed, rejected or powerless
  • anger, or blaming others for the loss
  • not wanting to talk, or  wanting to be alone
  • forgetting things, or finding it hard to concentrate
  • sadness, emptiness or loneliness
  • an ongoing and intense search for meaning and reason for the suicide.
  • feeling alone, stigmatised or blamed for the death
  • thinking about suicide a lot, and having thoughts of suicide
  • feelings of relief  ‒  this is often the case if the person who died by suicide had threatened or attempted suicide a lot before they died
  • physical reactions like soreness, exhaustion, headaches and nausea
  • other grief reactions – read more about grief and loss 

 Getting through a loss from suicide is different for everyone – even the length of grieving will differ from person to person. There’ll be good days and bad days, but gradually things will change and get easier.

Support groups

Some people don’t feel comfortable in groups, or don't want to connect with others bereaved by suicide. Others find significant value in joining groups to share common hurts, experiences and emotions. Bereaved by suicide support groups (see side bar) can provide a safe environment for sharing stories of the person you have lost. They also encourage people more recently bereaved to see that their grief can become more manageable over time and suggest strategies to help.

The WAVES programme is another type of group support. It is an eight week grief education programme developed in New Zealand for adults bereaved by suicide. Its purpose is to help people learn more about grief and suicide, find meaning in their experiences, learn to manage emotions, reduce stigma and feelings of isolation, and move towards recovery and adjustment after a suicide loss. The focus of WAVES is growing through grief. WAVES programmes run at different times across Aotearoa New Zealand. For a list of current WAVES groups, see Skylight's website.

Talk to a health professional

Remember that almost every feeling you have when you first lose someone is normal. However, if you do not eventually start to feel better, or you don’t feel as though you can handle things on your own, you should consider speaking to your doctor or a counsellor. Talking to someone can help you sort out your thoughts and feelings, and help to put things in perspective. Your doctor can help by recommending grief counsellors and therapists to help you work through how to come to terms with your loss.

Read more about getting help with grief on our grief and loss factsheet.

Look after yourself

Take the time you need to make sense of what has happened, work through the grief and take care of yourself. You will most likely know what is best for you and what you need – and remember this may change over time. Some things you can do that might help are:

  • Take time out. Try giving yourself a break by doing something you enjoy, even if you don’t feel like it at the time
  • Stay connected with friends, family and whānau. Being with others will help reduce feelings of loneliness associated with grief
  • Remember the person you've lost  ‒  talk or write about them, share memories and photos
  • Look after your health  ‒ eat well, do some gentle exercise, try to get enough sleep and avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Take one day at a time  ‒  only do what is essential, avoid making major decisions until you can think more clearly
  • Ask for help if you need it  ‒  talk to a doctor or counsellor, a phone helpline, friends, family and whānau to share your story, and to find comfort, support and ways to cope
  • You may prefer getting help from someone of your own culture – look for this among your friends and family or online
  • Join a support group ‒ sharing your experience with others who have been through similar things will give you a space to be heard and help you understand you are not alone.

If you are feeling suicidal yourself

When someone you know has died by suicide, you might start thinking about suicide yourself. These thoughts might pass quickly, or you might have ongoing thoughts about wanting to be with the person who has died. If you are thinking a lot about suicide, and even having thoughts about taking your life, it’s very important to tell someone you trust so that you can get the help you need to feel better.

If you can’t immediately find someone you know to talk to, there are always people who are contactable by phone and who are willing, able and available 24 hours to help you.

Read more about coping with suicidal thoughts.

If you are in a serious crisis or you need urgent help, do the following:

Providing support to someone bereaved by suicide

A death by suicide will have a big impact on close family, whānau and friends, but also on others who knew the person less well. People can become very isolated in their grief – especially when bereaved by suicide. They may experience complications like physical illness, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

The best way you can help someone bereaved by suicide is by listening:

  • keep in contact, be with them, and listen if they want to talk
  • accept their emotions and thoughts without judging them
  • try not to offer your opinions or advice unless they ask for them
  • respect their spiritual or cultural views
  • don't avoid the subject of suicide or what has happened
  • talk about the loved one who has died
  • be patient - working through grief takes time
  • if you think they may be suicidal, ask them - asking about suicide will not put the thought in their head. Read more about supporting someone if they are suicidal. 

Caring for yourself

Remember to take care of yourself when you are caring for others.

  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating properly and exercising.
  • Be kind to yourself, and take time out when you need to. Being in this situation can be very difficult, and you can’t do everything.
  • Find someone you can talk to about this – a friend or family member you trust, or a counsellor.

Related stories