My previous post, “The Stages of Grief” continues to be one of the most viewed posts on our page. On a daily basis a number of individuals are “googling” these terms, searching for something or someone to direct them through the grief process. In this post, I want to revisit the stages of grief after a suicide. Grieving the death of a loved one who died this way is extremely complicated. There are a number of elements that come into play. As a survivor and therapist, I believe these elements have yet to be incorporated into the traditional stages of grief. I want to talk about shame, and how this painful feeling can impact those who are working through the stages of grief after suicide.
Shame is a feeling that is rarely associated with the stages of grief. Why? When you lose a loved one to natural causes there is rarely feelings of shame associated with the death. Even an unexpected loss rarely leaves those left between feeling shame. How could you feel shame when someone you love dies in a car accident or loses their battle to cancer? Shame is an extremely powerful and often painful feeling. It can leave you feeling alone, helpless, and vulnerable. So, how does it impact those grieving in the aftermath of suicide?
I remember receiving the call after the police arrived at my sister’s door notifying her that my father had taken his life. We spent hours on the phone until I left for the airport to fly back to Colorado to be with my family. One thing we pondered was, “What are we going to tell people?” I, being the open book that I am, never thought to tell people anything but the truth. My father took his life; that was the reality of the situation. But, what would people think? Would his character be in question? Would people judge him or our family? These were all questions that we asked ourselves. Questions that only survivors have to even think about. My father was far from perfect, but he was a good man. I do not want him to be stereotyped. I do not want him to be remembered as the man who took his life. Yet, as I worked through my own grief I found it difficult to process my own emotions and work through the stages because of the element of shame. The looks that I received when I told someone how my father died made me want to hide, and I did for quite sometime. It was exhausting talking to others as I found myself offering them words of comfort instead of the reverse. I found myself prefacing his death with stories about his character and the man he was. I wanted everyone else to know that he was a good man, and should not be judged by his final act. It was exhausting.
Shame is a difficult emotion to work through. The only person in this world who can take away the shame that you feel is yourself. I conquered the feelings of shame by not allowing society to have control over me and my feelings. There will always be people who think that what my father did was selfish. There will be those that do not believe that my father is in a good place, finally at peace. That is ok. I will not allow these people to stop me from telling my story. I will not allow them to impact my belief that my father has finally found his peace. I will continue to write and talk openly about suicide in hopes that it will lessen the shame that other survivors may feel.
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide and have experienced the impact of shame please know that you are not alone. As someone who has carried the heavy weight of shame on my shoulders, I offer a word of advice. Do not allow others to dictate how you should feel. Remember and honor your loved one in a manner that allows you to heal. Seek support from those who make you feel better, not worse. Find a place where you can talk through your grief without feeling shame.
There is no instruction manual for grief, and suicide further complicates the process. Please know that what you are feeling is normal, and you are stronger than you think. I can promise you that.
Image courtesy of Shame the movie.