Bereavement due to suicide

Help and support from professionals

People bereaved by suicide face many problems and may feel guilt and anger (see ‘First reactions’ and ‘Changing emotions’), so often they need help. This may come from many different sources, including family and friends (also see ‘Self-help groups, conferences and helplines’ and ‘Help from Cruse Bereavement Care’).

General practitioners (GPs) can be an important source of care. Some people we talked to said that their GPs gave them plenty of time to talk about their feelings, though one man said that he had only a 10 minute appointment, which was not enough. GPs also prescribed antidepressants, sedatives or sleeping tablets. However, some people did not want to take such a medicine and refused it or threw the tablets away. As one bereaved parent said ‘I’m not depressed, I’m grieving’. Another was convinced that it was her daughter’s antidepressants that had caused her to kill herself, and couldn’t bear the thought of taking pills.

Many people need more specialised help, which may come through individual, group or family counselling or psychotherapy. Counsellors or psychotherapists work in different ways: some mainly listen, but will probably help people to explore and understand their feelings too. Others ask questions, suggest different ways of thinking about problems or challenge negative thought patterns. (For more information on different styles of counselling or psychotherapy see the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)

People may seek counselling or psychotherapy immediately after the death has occurred or months later. During individual counselling the counsellor sees a client in a private and confidential setting and explores the distress or other difficulties they may be experiencing. Not everyone bereaved by suicide will want or even need counselling or psychotherapy: family or friends may provide enough support, but for those who do seek professional help, research suggests that it can have some benefits. Clients often use the terms counsellor and psychotherapist interchangeably. A trusting relationship with the counsellor or psychotherapist is very important.
Counsellors or psychotherapists may be attached to a GP’s practice or a hospital or a bereavement counselling service, or they may have their own private practice. Counselling is sometimes provided free by the National Health Service, or the person’s employer or college may pay for it. There may be a waiting list for counselling. Some people do not want to wait for counselling. They may want to choose their own counsellor and decide to pay for it themselves.

Between Chloe’s death and her funeral, Linda and her husband found it really hard to sleep, and they hardly ate at all. Linda couldn’t stop thinking about the time when she found Chloe. One Sunday they decided to seek help so they went to the hospital and saw someone from the crisis management team. A member of the team gave them some tablets to help them sleep and someone else gave them useful advice to maintain their daily routines. Linda was also referred to a psychologist.

After one of Susan’s sons died by suicide she had counselling. The counsellor came from the hospital and went to Susan’s home once a fortnight for a year. The NHS paid for this.

Dave had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) after his son died. CBT can help people to change how they think ("Cognitive") and what they do ("Behaviour)". These changes can help people feel better. Instead of focusing on the causes of distress or past events, it looks for ways to improve people’s state of mind now.
The NHS mental health team offered Stuart three or four sessions of bereavement counselling but he decided that that would not be adequate so he found a counsellor through the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy website. A scheme organised through his work paid for a number of sessions, and he paid for some himself.
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Some people had other types of therapy. Dolores still sees a psychotherapist, who offered her Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This is a therapy that uses eye movements and thoughts to resolve symptoms resulting from exposure to a traumatic or distressing event.
Some people received help from various sources. After two of Kate’s children died by suicide she received help from her GP, from the local mental health crisis team, and from a mental health nurse, who called at the house every day for the first six weeks after Anna died. Kate also saw a psychiatrist, and has had five sessions of ‘family therapy’. Other members of the family are supposed to go to the family therapy but she is the only one who goes. When we talked she was about to start counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder. This is available for those who are experiencing thoughts and feelings associated with trauma, such as repeated vivid recall of events, flashbacks, intrusive images and thoughts, nightmares and anxiety.

Some of the people we talked to said that they did not want any counselling. Michael, who was living in Australia when he was bereaved, felt very depressed after his friend died. He could not work. After about five weeks his GP refused to sign the ‘sick notes’ unless he agreed to have some counselling. He had about six weeks of counselling but did not find it useful; perhaps partly because he did not think he needed it and did not want to attend. He also wonders if it was just the wrong kind of counselling for him.

Last reviewed January 2015.

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