Why is suicide grief unique?
The death of a loved one is one of the most painful experiences a person will ever face, but when the loss is by suicide, layers of suffering are added to the bereavement. The first and most common one is created by guilt, the ubiquitous feeling that haunts practically everyone who goes through this kind of death.
Guilt doesn’t necessarily have to be related to the death itself. Most of the time, it sends the griever back to the last moments before their loss, leaving them in search of all the things that could have been done differently. Suddenly, the unanswered text message from days ago holds a new meaning; the glitches in the relationship don’t seem to be as relevant as they were anymore, and a harsh word said in a moment of frustration makes us feel selfish and unkind.
Anything, big or small, opens the door for guilt to slowly creep in with its unforgiving claws.
Parents are particularly hit by remorse, no matter how involved and dedicated they were to the child they lost. When I interviewed Maria Cristina early this year, her only daughter had died by suicide fifteen years prior. Nevertheless, she revealed to me that she still cries in the shower, tormented by an endless list of ‘what ifs.’
At the time of her death, her daughter Mariana was in her early twenties and had just finished college. Although she had been treated for depression as a teenager, everything pointed to a bright future. Mariana had a boyfriend, with whom she shared an apartment in São Paulo, Brazil, a few close friends, a career in the making, and a mother who was loving and present. Practically every weekend, she would drive an hour and a half to visit her daughter.
Their favorite place was “Liberdade”, a neighborhood in the heart of the city that is a sort of a Japanese version of Chinatown. Mariana loved the Japanese culture, especially their culinary, so they would walk around the area for hours, and then eat at a local restaurant. “She was blooming,” said Maria Cristina. In the week of her death, they had planned to meet on Friday to buy a costume for Mariana so that she could go to a Cosplay party. Her mom postponed it to Saturday because of a massive parade that would happen on Friday, which would certainly block the roads to São Paulo.
On Saturday morning, her daughter’s boyfriend called her saying that Mariana was not home when he woke up, so she immediately drove to her daughter’s apartment, but when she arrived, they had already found her body. Since then, guilt has taken on many shapes and narratives: 'I should have come on Friday, as planned' was the first, albeit not the only one.
The front lock of Mariana’s apartment had been broken for months. Whenever a person tried to open the door, it would get jammed and cause a lot of noise. The last time Maria Cristina visited her, she paid a locksmith to replace it, but instead of feeling good about it, this altruistic gesture became a source of guilt for her. “Maybe if I had not fixed it, her boyfriend would have listened to my daughter adjusting the key when she left early that morning, and maybe he could have stopped her,” she told me.
This is guilt in its purest form. It lingers on, waiting for the perfect moment to sink into a person's life. Guilt has the power to resignify acts of kindness and to destroy even the best of intentions.
Another trait of suicide grief is extreme isolation, which is created by many factors, such as the difficulty in sharing one’s pain, the fear of judgment, the shame, the fact that they may not know how to answer even the most basic questions surrounding the circumstances of death, and the blaming of others.
All these may provoke a personal shut down, a desire to hide from the world, but none is more central to isolation than the stigma that surrounds self-inflicted death. This inescapable reaction of others is maybe the most central element that constitutes the singularity of suicide grief, as Maria Cristina recalls:
“On the day of the funeral, several friends invited me to get together, but after that, I never heard from them again. I think they felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say to me. I’m not even included in my extended family’s gatherings anymore. Many of the parents I meet tell me the same thing, it’s pretty common,” she said, referring to members of the support group she attends weekly, in her hometown.
In the book Myths about suicide, the author Thomas Joiner argues that losing a loved one to suicide is frequently followed by a profound change in one’s address books “once trusted friends fall away after ignoring a loved one’s suicide or after saying hurtful and appallingly glib things like ‘It was God’s will.’” And it can even be more wounding than that. A few weeks after my father’s suicide, my younger sister was told that because of what he had done to himself, my dad would be in a horrible place for a very long time.
To avoid this type of remarks, many families choose to deny the suicide altogether by either engaging in lies or self-denial. Maria Cristina told me that she used to participate in an online grief support group for mothers. One of the members had lost a son to suicide but refused to disclose the truth. Every time she talked about it, the woman would mention a car accident as the cause of death. Maria knew it wasn’t true, but she kept it to herself. “One day, when I felt strong enough to share with them my daughter’s story, I was instantly blocked from the group, and couldn’t communicate with them anymore,” she added.
These are just some examples of what makes suicide bereavement singular. Unfortunately, there are many others. The bottom line is:
With each token of rejection, the bereaved retreats in his pain, and it is by avoiding friends and family members that he perpetuates the pernicious cycle of silence.