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Letter to the Newly Bereaved

Dear Friend:

I’m so very sorry for your loss. I don’t know anything about you, your loved one, or your situation. I don’t know how you’ve grieved in the past or how you’ll grieve now. But I know that if you’re recently bereaved by suicide, you’re likely in shock, traumatized, and hurt beyond measure. I hope you find something here that resonates with you and reminds you that you’re not alone in this terrible place.

Suicide is a shocking loss. 

Whatever your loved one’s history and state of mind, however much you knew or did not know about it, you’re in a state of shock and disbelief. You may feel numb or fall apart. You may feel physically assaulted, as if crushed by a huge stone or suddenly missing a limb. You may not be able to focus or reason, to eat or sleep or breathe properly. You think the world will never be the same, and you’re right—but in ways you can’t yet imagine. In the wake of this tragedy, you may find more love, generosity, and even gratitude than you thought possible.

Be gentle with yourself and the mourners close to you. 

Give yourself permission to hibernate for a while if you wish. With your own urgent need for comfort, it can be tough to comfort family members; try to leave some of that to others, if at all possible, to make time for your own grief. If you have a spouse or partner, each of you may need to grope your own way through grief. Give each other space and be there for each other when you’re able, with faith that you’ll be more present for one another in time.

Let people know what happened so they can take care of you. 

Ask for help and accept the support that’s offered on your terms; it’s OK to say “no thanks” or “not now.” You’re released from all social obligations and hopefully, from work or other obligations during the first weeks after the suicide. Your employer may be more understanding than you think.

The body takes a hit. 

Don’t be surprised if your health goes haywire. This is where shock takes root. Go slow. Walk around the block. Allow yourself naps or quiet resting time. Remember to breathe. Meditate even for a few minutes with a guided meditation for rest or healing. Find a doctor who understands that you’re suffering from shock and grief and can help explain this to your boss if you need time off.

Don’t fear tears. 

Let them flow through you, washing you clean like a rain till the next storm. It helps to know there’s someone you can call, a piece of music you can play, or a faith community you can visit to steady yourself. Find an expressive release; write, draw, dance, run, pray out your grief. Shout and pound out your anger, too; it’s natural to feel abandoned and betrayed. Let it out.

Questions rush in. 

You’re searching for clues, even if you know you’ll never know anything certain. We need to search as long as we feel the need. Our task as mourners is to build a “coherent narrative” of the suicide that is “compassionate and bearable,” according to psychologist John Jordan in Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors (2011). This takes time.

Self-blame may haunt you. 

Especially if you lost a child, you may feel that you failed in your most fundamental duty as a parent. None of us are mind readers; all of us are flawed; mental illness, when present, can be formidable. Breathe in compassion for yourself and for your lost one. We can’t forgive ourselves until we forgive them, and vice versa. That can be the longest, hardest road. If you have a spiritual practice, try to reclaim it bit by bit, even if you’re angry at God or the universe.

What now?

Therapy can help, preferably with a professional trained in grief and suicide loss. Consider mind-body treatments like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to deal with your intense feelings and guide you through post-traumatic shock into “post-traumatic growth.” Do yoga or tai chi to keep the energy moving.

Where’s hope?

Probably still a way off. Take heart from grief expert Alan Wolfelt, who writes in Understanding Your Suicide Grief (2009) that you can be the source of your own hope: “You create hope in yourself by actively mourning the death and setting your intention to heal.”

Truly, you are not alone. There’s a community of suicide loss survivors that will reach out to you and share their journey toward healing. Take what hope and healing you can from books and online resources on suicide loss. When you are ready, check out local support groups for survivors and the Alliance of Hope Community Forum. Whenever we survivors share our stories, it is indeed an alliance of hope that we create together.

Right now, you’re as hurt and broken as a person can be. Know that you won’t always feel this way. Keep moving through your grief. Reach out for love and support; there’s a lot of it out there. Wishing you comfort and courage.

This article was adapted from Susan Auerbach’s memoir, I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage, and Clarity After Suicide Loss (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017).