Tips to help survivors cope with suicide loss, from the Harvard Mental Health Letter

Although death by suicide often occurs on impulse, it has long-lasting ramifications for those left behind, reports the November 2009 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. National Survivors of Suicide Day, marked this year on November 21, was established to honor the survivors left behind by those who die by suicide. Survivors include immediate family members, relatives, friends, and co-workers—and, in many cases, mental health clinicians.

Most studies that have followed survivors of suicide loss find that their grieving process is similar to that of survivors of people who perish unexpectedly or violently. But survivors of suicide loss experience additional challenges. These include shame (which is reinforced by societal stigma about suicide), guilt over being unable to prevent the death, and a preoccupation with understanding why the death occurred. Survivors of suicide loss are likely to grieve longer and more intensely than other people—a type of prolonged mourning known as "complicated grief." Complicated grief can go on for years and involves intense emotions such as sadness, anger, and yearning for the deceased. Relatives and friends are also susceptible to developing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Treatment options do exist, advises Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. These include various forms of cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and support groups. Here are a few tips to help someone who has survived a suicide loss.

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