First Steps to Healing
Grief can be more complicated when a death is sudden and there has been no opportunity to say goodbye. When a death by suicide occurs, people often experience both trauma and grief. This can impact all areas of someone’s life in significant and varied ways.
By taking the first steps toward healing, you are honoring yourself and your loved one. This page provides information on grief, mourning, and healing, as well as coping strategies for living with suicide grief.
For more information on grief after suicide, check out our page “Grief after Suicide”.
What is Healing?
When we talk about grief, mourning, and healing, what do we actually mean? Mourning is the outward expression of pain and despair. Initially, mourners have a strong need to talk about their loss, create meaning rituals that help keep their loved one’s memory alive. Over time, this outward expression of mourning, turn into the more private and personal grieving process. Grief is defined by the many thoughts and feelings related to what the loss means and how to manage life without their loved one. Grief has often been defined as another word for love.
In terms of healing, author Alan Wolfelt suggests that:
“to heal in grief is to become whole again, to integrate your grief into yourself, and to learn to continue your changed life with fullness and meaning… Healing is a holistic concept that embraces the physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual realms. Note that healing is not the same as curing, which is a medical term that means “remedying” or “correcting”. You cannot correct your grief, but you can heal it.” (Understanding Your Suicide Grief, p. 22).
Healing after a loss due to suicide does not mean forgetting about your loved one, or trying to make it as though the loss never happened. It is more about honouring your grief, mourning your loss, finding meaning and learning to live with your new life. There is no timeline for grief, mourning or healing, and everyone experiences these things differently.
As individuals, families, and communities engage in mourning and healing after a suicide loss, here are some helpful things to remember:
- Everyone’s experience with grief and mourning is unique to them. There is no “right way” to grieve, and there is no deadline for healing.
- Grief is not shameful, and you do not need to grieve alone.
- It is okay to ask for help and support in managing grief.
Coping Strategies & Suggestions for Living with Suicide Grief
Express and Process Your Emotions
Your body has natural coping mechanisms which assist you in the early phases of traumatic grief. The initial experience of shock may lead you to feel detached, confused, numb, forgetful, and overwhelmed. As the weeks pass by, feelings begin to come out that reflect the pain of your loss. Protest, guilt, loneliness, shame, and very deep sadness are just a few of the many feelings which may experience in waves of varying intensity. These feelings are there for a reason – acknowledge your feelings and express them in a way that feels comfortable to you.
Talking about your loss and your experience with people you trust can be an important part of mourning and managing grief. Find those supportive people in your life, whether that is a family member, friend, teacher, faith leader etc. Some people who have been bereaved by suicide have found it helpful to seek out and join a support group to discuss their loss with others who may have similar experiences.
Asking for support from those around you can also be important. Asking for help and support is not a sign of weakness, but is a sign of strength and courage.
Support Your Health
Traumatic grief can be a very physical experience. Sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, feelings of pain or discomfort, and anxiety can be physical reactions to stress. Eating nutritiously, moving your body frequently, and focusing on rest and sleep are ways that you can support your physical health and help to manage the physical experiences of your grief. Visting your family doctor or another medical professional to discuss your body’s way of dealing with stress can also be helpful.
Hold on to Memories
Often people find comfort in holding onto items that remind them of their loved one, such as clothing, jewelry, or favourite objects. You may find comfort in creating a photo album or scrapbook of your loved one as well. If you would like to create a collection of memories, you could ask other people to record and share their favourite stories and memories of the deceased person.
Take a Break from Your Grief
There may be times when you need to or would like to be distracted from your grief. This is okay, and normal, and you don’t need to feel shame or guilt for wanting to be distracted. You can see a movie, visit a museum or art gallery, pursue a hobby or connect with a friend.
Re-establish Routine in Your Life
The sudden loss of a loved one due to suicide likely caused you to lose or forget about your regular routine, as you worked to navigate the immediate realities of your loss. For some individuals, the structure and distraction of returning to work or developing a new routine can be helpful.
Give Back to Your Community
Volunteering or giving back to your community may help you to manage your grief by creating opportunities for social connection, engagement in positive activities, and to develop a sense of meaning and purpose in your new life. Some individuals bereaved by suicide have found it fulfilling to use their experiences to help others.
The Search for ‘Why’.
Allow yourself to search for answers as to why things happen and how things come to be. Asking questions is part of working through the trauma and the responsibility that you may be feeling. This may lead to a greater understanding of the death of your loved one. It will assist you in the release of feelings of guilt and sorrow. You may not get all of the answers, but you will gradually learn to live with questions as you begin to create your new normal. It is important to know that the pain will lessen and that you will heal. Build a community of support – grief work cannot be done alone.
Sources and Additional Resources
Alan Wolfelt. (2009). Understanding Your Suicide Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart. Companion Press, Colarado: USA.
Jordan, J. and McIntosh, J. (2011). Grief after Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. Routledge, New York: NY.
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – Hope and Healing After Suicide: A practical guide for people who have lost someone to suicide in Ontario
Mental Health Commission of Canada – Toolkit for people who have been impacted by a suicide loss
Government of Manitoba – Suicide Prevention: Guidelines for Public Awareness & Education (includes guidelines for memorialization)
For more information and resources on grief after a suicide loss, check out these pages on our website: