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Bereavement due to suicide

First reactions-shock, disbelief, despair & relief

After the death of someone close to them, most people grieve and go through a period of mourning. Psychological reactions to bereavement vary between individuals as well as between cultures and ethnic groups. Reactions also vary in nature and intensity according to the type of lost relationship and according to the cause of death. How people grieve is also affected by personality, age, gender, previous experience of loss and what support is available. However, certain aspects of grief are probably universal.

Bereavement is harrowing for most people, but a death by suicide can be particularly horrific and shocking (also see ‘Finding out’).

 

Stephen’s first reaction to his wife’s death was one of horror. He was devastated. He screamed...

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Male
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What about you, we haven’t talked about your feelings at all, at that time?


About telling the children, or the whole way through?


The whole way through.


I was devastated. …I just, I couldn’t, I couldn’t believe it, I came through the door and saw her and, that was just horrific…. I still look at pictures of her and can’t believe that’s what happened, I just screamed, and screamed and screamed.


Mm.


You know it was just awful. I don’t know, I sort of, I guess I had so many other things to think about, you know I wasn’t really, you know, you become numb, it sort of, you know I had to think of the children, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking of myself, but you know I was it was terrible, it was horrific, it was horrible, I couldn’t let go of her, I just wanted to hang onto her.

 

Any death is likely to be a shock but Margaret believes that bereavement due to suicide adds ...

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Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
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Yes. What I’d like to talk about is that when a death happens, when there is a death, a sudden death, a sudden and unexpected death, that that’s a shock to everyone anyway. When it’s a child or a sibling, or partner or whatever, they predecease you, that’s a shock in itself. So that’s a different layer.


Hmm.


And then, if the people who die appear to have had a hand in their own death, that’s another layer of shock. And the next layer, I guess, is a very profound layer as well, which is if the person is actually incarcerated at the time, if that person’s in custody, in a way that’s, it’s worse than the worse possible nightmare is to how a death could or might happen.


Hmm.


If you sub, subsequently find out that the person had been put in isolation against their will, that’s something that just doesn’t bear thinking about.

 

Helen had half expected her daughter to take an overdose for a long time before it happened but...

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Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
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I think your initial reaction really is you can’t feel your legs. I mean it’s just you’re so shocked. I mean I half expected this to happen for a long time before it happened, and, part, sometimes, painful as it was, I almost used to wish for it to happen because I used to think she just couldn’t keep on with the way she was. She, she just had such a terrible time for such a long time, and she’d actually talked to me about the fact that she’d thought about suicide lots of times in the past and she’d said the reasons why she’d wanted to, and the reasons why she didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to hurt everybody.

One woman told us that her father's death had not really been a shock. This was because for years her father had said that he would take his own life if he developed a terminal illness. Another woman had, with her mother and brother, helped her sick father travel to Switzerland for an assisted death. He had requested this type of death because he had mainly lost his motor neurone function and wanted a dignified end to his life.
 
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Gillian felt glad that her father had been able to die at a time of his choosing, listening to...

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Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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Yes, now you said that you and your mother felt, felt smug on the way home…

 

Yes.

 

…and had, and had champagne.

 

Mhm.

 

Did you feel, did you feel celebratory?

 

Yes, we did, absolutely, yes.


Tell me a bit more about that.

 

Well, it was, you know, we’d had a nice few days together as a family. We’d watched my brother die of cancer, and it’s, it’s the most horrible thing. But this way my father had ended his life in a, in a comparatively dignified manner, at a time of his choosing, listening to classical music, and with his family. You know, we have the right to feel smug, because, you know, a very nice occasion.


You felt that you had done good and …

 

Yes, we’d done the best for him. Yes, smug.

For more information on assisted dying see Dignity in Dying’s websites.

Some people we talked to said they felt quite numb after their loved one’s suicide. They could not believe it and found it hard to function.

 

Jenny felt stunned and numb for a while after David’s death.

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
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My parents have been brilliant all the way along in fact, and, my dad, I’d, I’d taken my address book home, and so I had all the numbers, and my dad phoned everybody. And so that was really hard for him and I listened to a bit of it. I think I needed to. In some ways it was distressing but I needed to hear a bit of it because I needed to hear it being said to other people …
 
Hmm.
 
… so I knew it wasn’t just in my head, you know.   
 
Yeah.
 
That, you know, it was really true, it had really happened. And I think, I think I was, I mean I’m, I’m sure I must have cried quite a lot but I just can’t really remember now. Yeah, I did, I’m sure I did, but I was just also just quite stunned I think…
 
Hmm.
 
… quite sort of numb and there’s a poem, I can’t remember the line out of it, that somebody sent me, that said, it’s something with the effect, to the effect of, you know, people say I’m being brave but I’m not, I’m just numb. And I thought, you know, this was ages afterwards and I thought, “Yeah, that’s right.” You know, you don’t really have any choice. I mean, maybe some people are “braver” than others, in inverted commas, but I didn’t do anything special. If I was brave it’s just something to do with my personality and the way I was. I didn’t, I didn’t, I wasn’t feeling desperate and somehow denying that I‘m bottling it up. I just was the way that I wanted to be.
 
Hmm.
 
And actually I think it’s not so much bravery as just sort of numbness. You put something between yourself and what’s happened, at least for a while, just to be able to cope and deal with it. I think.

Many people had quite a strong physical reaction when they heard the news that a friend or close relative might not live or had died suddenly due to suicide. One woman said that she found it hard to eat, lost weight, and found it hard to look after her everyday physical needs. Some found it hard to sleep. Others reacted in different ways.

 

Nina felt breathless and collapsed when she heard that her brother was in intensive care. After...

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
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When you got that phone call from your father, what was your first reaction then?

It was just like I couldn’t breathe, I collapsed on the floor, as if you’d picture it in a film. My Dad said to me, “Nina, there’s been a hanging”, and I couldn’t process what he meant, “What do you mean, there’s been a hanging.” And my Dad just, you know he said, “Joe’s hung himself. And he probably is not going to live.” Just within one sentence, and just trying, trying to process the information, I’d only seen my brother and although we were living, I’d just started university, I’d seen him the week before,  you know I’d seen him happy, we’d been away, we’d got on so well, he was you know, he’d had his 16th birthday.

 

The first, I mean the first year was just a haze and a bubble, and I can’t really, you know you’re just on auto pilot then, you’re just doing things because you know you have to eat, and you know you have to, well in Mum’s case she didn’t go to work but you know you have to kind of almost maintain a kind of normal life, but you’re just existing for the first year, you don’t, I can remember Dad saying to me, just that in those three days that Joe was still alive, I can remember him saying to me, “Nina you won’t remember anything that happens when we’re at the hospital, all this will just, will just go, you won’t remember it.” And I can remember thinking, don’t be silly, of course, of course I will, and I do, and I remember that whole three days when Joe was alive in the hospital, the minute that he died, that’s when my memory just went, gone. And, and I have conversations with my friends and, the, “Do you remember this and that?” Nothing, and I think it’s your body kind of protecting you almost, because if you would actually you know have to deal with what had happened, then you know you would just crumble, you would just fall apart. So yeah absolutely, the first, the first year was auto pilot, I call it, and “I was in the bubble.” And then probably two years after that I was still so tender, and I would just be exhausted at the end of the day.
 
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After his son died, Colin experienced what he called 'painful grief'. He found it difficult to...

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Age at interview: 69
Sex: Male
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I mean the emotions are quite awful, I mean there was a stage when in the immediate aftermath I actually found it difficult to speak, such was the pain I lost; my vocal chords had gone, you know, that’s an immediate [reaction]. I also had a series of nightmares which faded after oh I don’t know a month or two, but they were, you know like quite, I mean, I don’t, I don’t dream normally and I hadn’t dreamed before and I haven’t dreamed since but in that period, in that period when you are suffering with such pain, literally, painful grief, I certainly suffered a series of nightmares which were quite alarming.

 

When Leon died Arthur felt as though he had a terrible weight in the centre of his chest. Time...

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Male
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But the one thing that I do remember of Leon’s death, if anybody had told me that you got heartache or you could suffer from heartache, I wouldn’t have really taken too much notice of it. But I do remember after Leon death I had a terrible weight in the centre of my chest here.  Whenever I turned, whenever I walked, whenever I stood up, sat down, this awful weight was always there.


Hmm.


And it was there for about three months this, this awful … and it was like a millstone in the middle of your chest rather than round your neck as they say.  And it really was a hard time.  It was a very, very long process of getting back to normality again.


Did that pain go on for years?


No it went on for probably … pain went on for probably, like I say maybe three months, fours months and gradually got less and less. 


What other emotions were you feeling at that time apart from shock and  physical pain?


The only thing I was always aware of was time standing still, it was almost as though time didn’t matter. Time … nothing was of importance. It was … it was almost like, I suppose if you’d been in a time capsule really. 

Most people said that they felt desperately sad when they realised that they would no longer see the person they had loved so much. Then they started wondering why it had happened. People also wondered if they could have done anything to prevent the tragedy. Other emotions included despair, bewilderment, guilt and anger (also see ‘Changing emotions - sadness, guilt & anger’).
 

Maurice wanted to know why his son had taken his life. He wondered if he could have altered the...

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Male
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What were your immediate feelings when you heard that terrible news?


Well obviously, well, within the, within the first few minutes one occupies oneself talking and then the gradual realisation that that you will, well probably not at that stage, that you will no longer see them. And immediately you start asking “Why?” And that’s continued really for 23 years. Partly one, one questions whether one should be guilty or whether one could have altered facts or altered the circumstances to, to alter his decision, but then immediately, yes immediately I handled it differently to Jane because Jane, my wife, she didn’t express outwardly grief at that stage, it was some considerable time before she handled, she expressed open grief, but I was, yes I don’t know whether I was able, but I, I did cry  in those first few days and then I was able to talk about it to other people and in fact I occupied myself I suppose by telling other people what, what had happened I suppose.

 

Michael felt desperately upset that something so awful had happened. He did not blame himself but...

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Age at interview: 42
Sex: Male
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I was, well, initially of course I was just extremely upset, I can remember ringing a friend who was living in England at the time actually and kind of trying to just tell him the news and basically being unable to speak the words because it’s, it’s so hard and it’s so awful and you just you know, your first reaction is just disbelief and then upset at something so awful has happened. And something so awful has happened to, you know, someone you love, and you think, “Why was it so bad for him? Why was it so awful for him?”, that even, you know reaching out to someone like me, would not have provided him with enough to make other options viable for him. And that, you know that is quite painful actually. Because… I don’t think I ever blamed myself at all, but you do certainly think a lot, well I certainly thought a lot about why it was that, you know, he couldn’t have rung me, or other people up, or come to see me and you know what it was that was in his mind that was so bad that something like speaking to me wouldn’t have helped at all. But you know I don’t know how, I can’t quite put myself in the mindset actually of it being that bad. And there was just a great deal of sadness and grief after that really, that this, you know, lovely man was no longer there and never would be again. That was very depressing.

 

Mike was only 18 when his father took his own life by suicide. Mike felt tremendous grief. He...

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Age at interview: 53
Sex: Male
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... but at the time it was very bewildering that such a strong person to, for this to happen and we just totally completely, your, your, your, your feelings and emotions, it’s just like you’ve been churned around in a huge washing machine because you, your feelings of great despair, great sorrow, perplexity, well why? It just seems such a senseless act, what’s all this about? You know, it, it is bewildering, at the same time you’re feeling anger, you’re feeling resentment, you’re feeling absolutely despairing and  the, the deepest of grief, because it’s all seem so senseless to you.
 

Jasvinder felt she should have done more to help her sister but she couldn’t because her family...

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Age at interview: 42
Sex: Female
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I was in shock initially that, it was the sheer disbelief that my sister had committed suicide; I couldn’t comprehend the actual thought. And then as the hours went by, very quickly as the hours went by I was beginning to feel angry and as the day went by I began to start feeling guilty that I could’ve done more. I did ask her to leave and come with me, she said, “I can’t do that.” And I was feeling quite, I was feeling quite ashamed as well that you start back tracking and you start thinking to yourself, well okay, you didn’t, you couldn’t do more because you are in your position of being disowned, and you know you almost are a victim of that, well you are a victim of that, but there comes a point where you have to lift yourself out of that, and jump out of that space, and maybe it was that position that I’d owned, of being my place and I could never get out of it, so the shame part of it for me was a little bit, a bit about you should’ve done more, you know that kind of you should be ashamed of yourself, that kind of shame I mean. And I remember a couple of weeks before Robina took her own life, she rang me and it was out of the blue and she said, “I want my son to know his father, his real father.” And I thought it was a really strange question because all this time you’ve not seen him, you’ve not bothered with him. And she said, “I want my son to know who his father is, and I want you to take this phone number,” and it was in Canada, “and I want you to ring it, to see if you can get hold of him.” And I said, “Okay, I’m fine, I’ll do that, I, I’ll ask.” She goes, “Well I can’t make the call,” she said. So I did make the call and I left several messages, he never got back to me, and the guilt for me is, also, I should have questioned that more, why was she asking me to make contact with her ex-husband for the sake of her son, it was as if in her head she was making plans, not necessarily plans to commit suicide but there was sheer desperation there and she was making plans to do something. And she was trying to cry out to me, and maybe I should’ve questioned it more and more, about why and why and what for and, but, I didn’t think to do that.

People may feel relief as well as the usual feelings of grief. Some people had been reassured to hear that this is not an uncommon response.
 
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A speaker at a conference organised by Cruse told Patricia that after all she had been through he...

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Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
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When the sergeant told me that Andrew was dead, in amongst this bombarding of thoughts and emotions that just hit my head from all sides and made the room feel as though it was spinning, in amongst it I recognised that I felt relief.
 
Hmm.
 
That wasn’t the only feeling but it was in amongst all those, “Thank god it’s over”. And I said I you know there have nights I couldn’t sleep for thinking about it. How do I deal with it? What do I do? And he [the speaker at the conference] looked at me and said, “Well”, he said, “You know I think after what you went through, you’re experiences over all those years, sixteen and half, from start to finish, if you hadn’t said something like that to me I’d be very, very worried about you. What you felt in those circumstances was totally normal”. And I felt as if somebody had taken a great big haversack, full of granite boulders off my back, as he said that. Anyway we then had a very nice lunch the hotel served. And we then we due to go to workshops sessions in the afternoon and I was in the ladies loom just getting freshened up and ready to go into that. And another woman stopped me and could I … do you mind if I speak to you?
 
Yes. 
 
And I said, “No not at all, why?” I knew I’d seen her in the room but I hadn’t the faintest idea who she was, up to this day I still don’t know who she was. And she said, “I just wanted to thank you for asking that question this morning, I made sure I would recognise you because I just want to thank you because when you asked that question, you asked it for me too. But I would never have had the courage to ask”. And I think it was that that that propelled me into the work I’ve done for ten years now.
 

Lynne loved her mother, but having spent about ten years helping her mother live with mental...

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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And I think it, it sounds a very, I guess it, it will sound a very horrible thing to say, but I think if I’m totally honest, when you’ve lived with somebody who has a mental health problem for years and years and years, and it’s completely dominated a lot of your family life, and then when you go through quite a few weeks of you know, all those kinds of things about attempting suicide, and whatever, there is a, there is a, a little part of me that felt almost as if, “Well it’s all over now.” And that sounds an incredibly horrible thing to say, but there’s almost a sort of a, it’s almost as if there, relief isn’t the right word to say, but it’s almost like that you know that, that that having gone through all of that, and trying to help somebody and just never, there never seemed to be an end, you never seem to have reached a point where you could feel “Yeah, Mum’s now better,” ‘cos every time when we did that, then she would slip back and we would go through another period of lots and lots and lots of her having, of being quite poorly.


Other people have said that too.


Oh.


It’s a sense of relief, having gone through so many months or years of trying to help somebody, so you’re not alone.


Well it feels, because it feels such a horrible thing to say about, you know, how could you love somebody so much but sort of feel relief, you know, hearing them telling you about how she killed herself, and then how can you turn round and say it’s a sense of relief? It doesn’t, it doesn’t feel right to say that, but that is the absolute honest answer is you know that there is a sense that well at least, you’d know that, you’d know that all of that’s stopped, you haven’t got to keep going through it and I’m sure, because I was away, training during the week and home at weekends I’m sure I only know half of what my father went through. I’m sure he was going through you know an awful lot of things that that we were just never told about. So I think about all that you’ve lived with, someone for years and years and years, there is in all honesty, that that kind of sense and that makes, in dealing with that in itself you, because that’s something that I’d never, I never said that to my father, would never have dreamt of saying to him, gosh isn’t it a kind of relief that all of this is over now, so it was never spoken about. So you kind of almost have to try and make sense of that in, in your own head and that’s quite hard you know, how can you actually really admit to yourself that you feel relief when you’re also going through bereavement and, and so that, that was quite difficult.

 

Helen also felt a sense of relief when Charlotte died. She says that it’s an awful thing to think...

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Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
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You said at one time you almost felt a sense of relief at Charlotte’s death. Do you want to say a bit more about that?


Yes. It’s an awful thing to think in a way, and it’s an even worse thing to actually voice, but I did feel a sense of relief because even before she died I used to sometimes wonder how I would feel if, if she did it, because she’d, she’d threatened to do it before. And she had such a horrible time for such a long time, she was in such distress so many times that I felt she didn’t have to suffer that any more, that she was free of it. And also, I didn’t have the worry of if she was okay anymore. Because every day I used to worry how she was.


Of course.

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated October 2012.

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