Navigating PTSD After a Suicide

PTSD after a suicide

What do you think about when you hear the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?” The first thing I think about is the military. We so often hear about our veterans returning home from war with symptoms of PTSD. We are also all aware that this untreated PTSD often leads to suicide. But, what we do not often think about is PTSD experienced by survivors in the aftermath of a suicide. In fact, I believe that PTSD after a suicide is more prevalent than we think.

The National Institute of Mental Health states that, “PTSD develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers.”  Essentially, PTSD can develop after someone experiences a traumatic event. I think it is important to discuss the trauma associated with suicide in order to identify how PTSD can develop in survivors.

The night my father took his life, my sister was the one to be notified. Around midnight, two policemen and a grief specialist rang her doorbell. Her husband quickly jumped out of bed, bewildered by who could be at the door at such a late hour. My brother-in-law answered the door while my sister stood on the stairs. She quickly ran to the door when the policemen asked, “Does the daughter of Robert L. live here?” She has expressed to me the pain and shock she experienced when the men told her that our father had taken his life. I flew back to Colorado shortly after receiving the call from my sister. I remember sitting up with her those nights following my father’s death. We were both somewhat creeped out and could not figure out why. My sister expressed to me the sickness she felt when she looked at her front door, and the fear she had that more bad news would come to her front door if she fell asleep. She discussed the jumpy feeling she had when someone rang the doorbell. I remember her saying, “It’s like I have PTSD, but how is that possible?”  It is possible because my sister and I both just experienced a traumatic event. Something happened in our lives that would forever alter our path. The world as we knew it had changed.

My sister and I played detective after my father’s death. I am ok without knowing the details; in fact, knowing them makes it that much harder for me. My sister, however, needed to know every last detail.  Within a week of my father’s death, we knew the gun he used, where and when he purchased it, where he was sitting, the angle of the gun, etc. You name it, we knew it. Talk about trauma! There isn’t a movie out there that could make me feel so ill. Why did we do this to ourselves? Because we wanted answers. As a survivor, you are always searching for answers that often do not exist. This search can expose you to more pain and trauma than the suicide itself.  Experiencing this level of trauma can ignite symptoms of PTSD.

I did not speak to the pain and trauma experienced by those who may have witnessed or been the one to find their loved one.  I have never been one to pretend to understand something that I simply cannot. I can only speak to my own experiences. What I can say as a licensed therapist is the risk of having symptoms of PTSD is greater for those who were a witness or found their loved ones. I want to also pass along the signs and symptoms of PTSD for those who are unsure if what they are experiencing is PTSD. You can read them by clicking that highlighted link.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please know that you are not alone. Know that what you are experiencing is a normal reaction after you lose a loved one to suicide. I encourage everyone to speak with a licensed professional when they feel ready. And if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Remember you are paying them, they aren’t paying you.  So, if you do not feel a connection with the person who is treating you, don’t keep going. There are plenty of great therapists out there!

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Comments

  1. Janice says

    I lost my husband to suicide 5 years ago last week I was the one who found him He slit his wrists in my kitchen and had died a few hours before I cant get the sight out of my mind even now five years later

    • Jessica says

      Janice, I am so sorry that you were witness to such a traumatic event. As I stated in my post, I did not witness my father’s suicide but did play “detective” with my sister. Since I know so many details, I too have a difficult time getting the imagine of his last act out of my head. It still makes my stomach hurt to think about. It can be difficult but I try and redirect my focus when the image pops in my head. Have you been able to talk with anyone about it?

    • Cindy Barden says

      Oh Janice, trust me I know what you mean.The dynamic is so different if you were the one to find the body
      . Please look into EyeMovement Desensitization, a technique being used for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
      There may be a practitioner in your area.
      This worked well for me 2 years out, that vision kept coming back to hit me in the gut.After a few sessions, much better.
      I am not a “woo woo”type of person, but this worked for me
      You can Google it and perhaps find someone nearby you.
      I wish you well,

      I can still see the vision but no more gut reaction.

  2. kim says

    I found my husband almost 8 years after he shot himself in the head. I made sure no one else saw him because I knew that what I witnessed was very wrong. I have just started seeing a counselor a few months ago for the PTSD–it doesn’t go away untreated–I hope it gets better with treatment. However, my kids have been traumatized just by the fact that their dad/stepdad died that way. My 15-year-old son just got diagnosed with PTSD along with a few other problems.
    You are so right about people only associating PTSD with vets. I do not mean to downplay their trauma, but the singularity of the focus makes me feel uncomfortable about admitting to having it. Sigh
    Thank you for acknowledging us.
    Peace

    • Jessica says

      Kim, thank you for sharing your story. You are absolutely correct; PTSD does not go away untreated. I am so sorry that your son is also struggling. It is so good that he has been diagnosed and will be treated. The “good news” is that PTSD is not a forever diagnosis. Symptoms that you and your son experience will start to go away with treatment. I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 16 after a life threatening car accident. It is a difficult time in an adolescent’s life to experience symptoms of PTSD as you are already going through so many life changes. However, that experience made me a stronger person today as did my dad’s suicide. Your son is lucky to have a mother that takes a vested interest in him! Keep supporting him even when he tries to push you away. And make sure you are getting support yourself, inside and outside of a therapists office.

      I also have a difficult time admitting to ever having PTSD because of the horrific experiences that a vet encounters. I have found that people often say, “things could be worse.” I believe that the individuals intentions when saying something like that are good but it can make the other person feel as if their feelings are not validated. When we are going through a hard time we do not need others to point out how much worse it could be. My mother always told me, “don;t air your dirty laundry for others to see.” I never really understood this, and struggled with it because by nature, I am an open book. While I still do not necessarily agree with the statement I have learned who to talk to when I want my feelings validated. These people are few and far between but they exist. Seek those people out. Being a survivor means that we have all lost a loved one in an unimaginable way. But it also means that we are stronger than most. Keep that in mind!

      Please feel free to reach out at anytime! You are most certainly not alone.

      • kim says

        Thank you for your response. After rereading my post, I realized I made an error right off the start. I meant that it was 8 years ago he died, not that I found him 8 years later. Geesh! It had actually only been about 15 minutes, which I will just say led to more confusion on my part despite the gravity of his injury. In fact, despite seeing what I did, I was compelled to investigate also because I needed to understand it–death looks nothing like TV.
        I will take hope in your statement that PTSD is treatable. I do not want my son or myself or any of my children or anybody, for that matter, suffering like this; it’s pretty hellacious. My son is currently getting treatment, but I need to wait until fall semester to be able to see my counselor at the university I attend. When we left off last month, we were discussing EMDR as a possibility. Are you familiar with it?
        I can relate to your mother’s advice and do find myself downplaying most situations in my life if I have “aired them out” in any manner. I don’t want the pity but I also don’t want to feel uncomfortable from well-meaning statements like you mention that hurt despite my best efforts to maintain a thick skin.
        Anyway, thank you for your piece–I do feel a rare sense of safety here.
        Peace
        Kim

        • Jessica says

          Kim, you are so strong for witnessing what you did and holding it all together. Give yourself credit for your strength! PTSD is absolutely treatable. With any trauma it is important to set an expectation. The trauma, and memories of will unfortunately never go away. With treatment, you learn to live with the memories by not allowing them to control your mood. You find a way to make peace with what happened, and live a more meaningful life as a result. Please keep in mind that this takes time, and often we get worse before we get better. I am very familiar with EMDR and have actually considered training, as I am a therapist myself. EMDR is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD. I am so happy that you have someone who is familiar with, and has been trained in this treatment.

          I too do not like pity. There is a huge difference between empathy and pity. Pity, often makes me feel weak which makes me defensive as I try and convince the person to not feel pity. Boy is that exhausting! Through my grief journey I have found that there will always be people who pity me, or judge the actions of my father. I cannot change that. What I can do is sort through my life and make sure that the people in it make me a better, stronger person, not a weaker one. I try and not let other’s reaction to my father’s suicide impact me. Much easier said than done of course.

          As someone who has experienced PTSD in adolescence, know that it can be a very difficult and confusing time for your son. Have patience and compassion. You are doing the right thing by getting him treatment! You are a great mother:)

          I am so happy that you feel a sense of safety here. Please know that you can reach out at anytime if you need to talk. Our email address is oursideofsuicide@gmail.com

          Jessica

          • Sonya says

            I uttered the same words to our doctor. Death looks nothing like what they show on television. I found my husband after he shot himself in the head. It has been 2 months. My sadness seems to get deeper each day.

          • Jessica says

            Sonya, I am so sorry that you had to witness your husband’s death. I cannot imagine how painful that must have been. Please know that with time, and often professional assistance it does get better and the images do dissipate. I say this as not only a survivor, but as a therapist who has worked with clients who have experienced a level of trauma as strong as you. Be gentle on yourself, and allow yourself to heal in the manner that you need. Find support in another survivors, and know that you have support here. Don’t expect the pain to go away overnight. I wish it did, but unfortunately grief has it’s own clock. I say this, because often we are left feeling “crazy” as the world wants us to “get it over” much quicker than the mind and heart allows. It takes time to learn how to be happy again, and find your purpose. We often become a different person after the loss of a loved one to suicide. Know that this person can be stronger, and live a life with even more purpose. Until then, just allow yourself to grieve. You will be in my thoughts and prayers.

  3. Amanda says

    I know this is a blog from July but I stumbled across it after researching suicide related PTSD. I spoke with my therapist yesterday, she happens to be trained in EMDR and wants to start therapy for me. My younger brother shot himself in the forehead with a crossbow 4 short but long weeks ago. I did not find him but I did for some odd reason stand in his driveway and watch them carry him out in the body bag. He left notes and after reading them I felt the need to research every detail of them and the meaning of different signs. I even messaged people I didn’t even know but he knew trying to get details or answers. At first I thought it was the psych major in me wanting to get to the bottom of a mental illness but then I realized I had a deep obsession for finding answers to unknown questions. I now have uncomfortable dreams, struggle with staying asleep, want to cry constantly, fight to find a genuine smile, I’m a facebook addict but deactivated my account, have cut off contact with most everyone except my family and best friend, I can’t get these detailed gruesome images that I’ve created out of my head, and the hypervigilance is awful. Luckily I have an 8 year old which reminds me why I have to keep pushing through this and get better so that I can properly take care of her.

    • Jessica says

      Amanda, I am so sorry for your loss. It is great that your therapist is trained in EMDR. EMDR has been extremely helpful for treating PTSD. I too researched every last detail of my father’s suicide. As survivors, we are just trying to make sense out of something that our brains simply can’t compute. Hug your 8 year old, and try and remember the good that still remains in the world. Please know that you always have 3 people who understand your pain.

    • Kim says

      You don’t need to actually witness anything to contract PTSD. My son was the same age as your little one when his dad died and although everything was cleared up before he got home from school (it happened in our backyard), he was diagnosed with PTSD this last summer and is seeing a therapist now. Even though I lived with my husband and witnessed his struggle and found him, I still needed to research and ruminate about every aspect his life and death. I think it’s like Jessica said “we are just trying to make sense out of something that our brains simply can’t compute.” Take care of yourself and your child. I was really grateful I had two children left to raise when my husband died. I don’t think I would have been able to continue.

  4. ami says

    Hiya i’ve just read your post – i hope you’re still replying to comments. To start off, i’m 18 and i suffer with bpd, anxiety and depression. Not sure how much you’ll know about bpd but a few years ago i ‘switched’ on my dad, meaning i had no interest in him and i didn’t want to be in contact with him. Just over a month ago, i was told he jumped in front of a train and had died. I was more shocked than upset (because of my difficult relationship with him).
    Two days later my ex-best friend turned up at my house after about 6 months of not talking (again, this was due to my f***ing bpd…). We argued and i found out the next morning that she had left my house after our argument and done exactly the same thing.
    My situation is a bit complicated and has lots of aspects – as you can see! – and i’m finding it very difficult to come to terms with what has happened. I’m worried to ask my therapist about how it’s affecting me and possible ptsd symptoms so i thought i’d start here?
    Sorry for the huuuuge message!
    Ami xx

    • Jessica says

      Hi Ami-

      I am absolutely still replying to comments. I actually know quite a bit about BPD as I am a licensed therapist. I won’t pretend to know it all, as I believe you and anyone else diagnosed with BPD are the only experts! I am familiar with the “switch” you are referring to. I can imagine that the lack of contact has made the grief process even more complicated. Then to have your friend do the same thing; very very difficult. I highly recommend exploring this all with your therapist. PTSD is very real for survivors even if you were not there to witness the act. There are so many emotions that we often stuff down. As you know those emotions always come to the surface, and often not at the best time. I do hope that you are comfortable enough with your therapist to talk about this all. It is definitely important!!

      Jessica

  5. Cassie says

    Growing up my mother never had custody of me because of many mental illnesses she had (depression, bipolar, ptsd) She always told me she didnt want to live anymore and it was pretty hard as a child. It sounds bad, but I always thought my mother would die by suicide. I lived with my dad from when I was a baby until I was 18. He was someone I could always count on being there for me. He was honestly my bestfriend. One day when I was 18 I got up and got ready for work and hung out with my dad for a few minutes before I had to leave. He seemed more quiet then usual but it was 7am so i just didnt really pay attention. I went out the door but realized I forgot to tell my dad I loved him so I opened the door and told him and said goodbye. His voice cracked when he said it back, and his eyes looked a little watery but again 7am i thought he just woke up. I went to work and a couple hours before I had to leave my aunt and best friend came. They told me “there was an accident” but wouldnt tell me anything else. I automatically knew it was my dad. I was screaming at them to tell me what happened, I couldnt move or breath, I couldnt even stand up barely. When I got into the car with my friend I was begging her to tell me what happened. She was crying and finally just said “suicide” and I lost it. Right then all the obvious signs just kept smacking me in the face. He was so sad and angry all the time the last few years. He was alone and just sad. I too needed to know every single detail. They cleaned what they could, but I saw the spot in his bedroom where it happened. Right in the doorway. I had to leave my home that day. Pretty much pack all I have and stay with whoever I could. 2 years later I still never have gotten help. I now have a beautiful 9 month old who helps me, but April 21 will be 2 years since hes been gone. It feels like its just getting harder and harder for me again. I cant get it in my head, still now, that hes not coming back. Sorry for the long post, but I havent been able to talk to anyone about this in a long time. I physically cant get myself to and its hurting my relationship now. I just hate that I feel such a deep sadness all the time.

    • Jessica says

      I am so terribly sorry for the great loss that you experienced. Our stories are similar in that I too took time to get the help I needed. The anger and deep sadness I felt after the loss of my father impacted every facet of my life. I still do not know why I held on to the pain as long as I did. It is as if subconsciously I felt that letting go of the pain meant I was letting go of my dad too. It was not easy to seek out assistance, but when I did, I truly felt as if a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I am not sure where you are located, but I highly recommend a group if you have any available to you. Just being in a room with others who actually understood my pain was healing in itself. Talking to other survivors, and being a survivor myself, I know that we all have to let go when we feel ready. There is no right or wrong time. For me, I knew it was time when my life no longer felt like my own. Please feel free to reach out to us anytime. You can email us at oursideofsuicide.com. I would be happy to send resources for you to have as well. Please know that you are not alone. –Jessica

  6. Amy says

    I don’t want to be around anyone. I don’t know if I love my husband anymore. I love my kids more than anything but my husband wouldn’t let me grieve my mothers suicide. 17yrs late to am mad at him.

    • Jessica says

      Amy, I am so sorry that you have not been able to grieve the loss of your mother. It is never too late to work through the trauma, anger, sadness, and pain. I would be happy to provide some resources if you would like. I do hope that our site offers you support and hope that the pain can become less of a barrier.

  7. Matt says

    I lost my 24 year old Son 2 days before this was published. I am not coping well, don’t know what I’m doing. I’m the one that found my Son and my mind has been altered my emotions are obliterated. He shot himself with a gun that I had bought a year and half before.

    • Jessica says

      I am so very sorry for your loss. PTSD has unfortunately become common for those who who have lost a loved one to suicide. From speaking with others who have found their loved ones I know that trauma therapy has been very helpful. It can help the images become less of a burden. It also allows you to actually grieve the loss you have experienced. Are you in the Chicagoland area by chance? I would be happy to offer some resources from you. I have met with white a few people who have lost a child to suicide. They can offer you much hope, that I can assure you. I also wanted to give you a post that was recently written by a mother who lost her son to suicide. If you would like more information related to resources, please feel free to email me at oursideofsuicide@gmail.com.

      http://www.oursideofsuicide.com/2015/04/09/on-losing-a-child-to-suicide/

      -Jessica

  8. Ivan says

    I lost my aunt almost one year ago, she also took her own life. We weren’t especially close or anything but it was the first time I lost a close family member. For me it was extremely sudden (she did have an tough life with drug abuse, but I thought that was al sorted out) Due to the fact that my parents lived in another country at the time, my brother and I had to arrange all the technical stuff like emptying her house and stuff like that. The months after that I didn’t think or feel to much about it, except that I didn’t sleep well. I just went on with college and stuff, but a couple of months ago I started having panic attacks. I thought it had to do with stress about my study and the fact that I was tired due to not sleeping well. I got help via my college institution in the form of counseling and the panic attacks are gone, because I learned that it’s isn’t something to be scared about, it’s just a reaction to a emotion (concious or subconcious). I still do have a specific (could be called ‘obsessive’ I guess) thought that keeps popping up in my head, especially during stressfull days like pre-examens: I get scared of the thought “what if I kill myself?” I definitely don’t what to do anything like that, but it is an extremely scary thought. I talked about it with my counselor three weeks ago (I have an upcoming meeting this friday) en she told me about cognitive therapy and how to replace that thought with a more positive one. I just still find it hard to do so. Is it normal to have these kind of thoughts after experiencing something like that? Like I said I really don’t want to harm myself or anybody around me, but that ‘what if’ thought does keep coming up and it’s scart.
    Thanks.

    • Jessica says

      What you are talking about is completely normal and very common with survivors of suicide. Becky and I talk often about this fear that either we will end up like our fathers, or someone else we love will die in the same manner. Suicide is not something our brains understand. So when it happens all of a sudden this new fear is created as we realize suicide is real. I think it is hard for therapists to understand this concept if they haven’t experienced a loss to suicide. Can they still help you, absolutely, but that level of understanding just isn’t the same. Cognitive therapy is great. However, as a therapist myself, I struggle with the idea that we can just replace negative thoughts with more positive ones. For example, if I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, you will likely think about the pink elephant simply because you were just told not to. I would recommend exploring your thoughts with your therapist in greater detail, and even verbalizing to him or her that the whole changing your thoughts isn’t working. But please know that what you are experiencing is completely normal after losing a loved one to suicide.

  9. Jason says

    I had a very similar experience to what you had Jessica and I have been suffering from Ptsd, severe anxiety and depression. 8 years ago I was woke up at 1am with door ringing and pounding. It was my brother waking me up to tell me the horrible news that my mother who I was very close with and needed and relied upon so badly in life. In the past 8 years because of my emotions I have been divorced and made some bad choices. I don’t even feel like I can function at work or otherwise. I just want to lock myself in my room and be isolated and alone. I have tried to get help with counseling psychiatrist etc. I have not been able to figure anything out. I don’t know what to do anymore I relive the story of the events that led to my mom’s death over and over and my anxiety is the worse it’s ever been. I’m scared and at a loss now. 8 years I would have thought I would be better not worse. Any thoughts or help would be so much appreciated. Thanks

    • Jessica says

      I am so sorry to hear of your struggles. As a survivor, and grief therapist, I can assure you that you are not alone. Have you tried to find survivor groups? Or worked specifically with a grief therapist who has experience with PTSD? In the aftermath of my father’s death I found my grief group to be the best help. Sitting among others who TRULY understood what I was going through helped me move forward. I would be happy to send resources for you if you are interested. Please feel free to email me at oursideofsuicide@gmail.com.

      -Jessica

  10. Alicia says

    Stumbled upon the article after googling PTSD after suicide. On March 30, 2015, my father in law took his life by shooting himself in the head. My mother in law was in the home when this tragedy occurred. I feel like I can be a little more personal in writing so I will give you the entire story. I had taken off that Monday morning of March 30th to take my oldest daughter to the children’s services to be interviewed for possible sexual abuse by her grandfather. We were very close to my father in law and mother in law so we did see them frequently but I must say I was in denial regarding the issue. After meeting with them and hearing that they thought that she had been inappropriately touched and my niece had been further sexually abused, my immediate reaction was “how do we prosecute?” I was torn in 100 different directions and pieces because I also have a younger daughter and will probably never know if she was touched. My older daughter never spoke of any abuse and never showed any signs and I only pray that she never ever does. So I was incredibly angry and shocked and numb all at the same time. After leaving there I told my husband that I thought we should go to our pastors and just try to talk things over and calm down over what had occurred. While at our pastors house, we both had received a phone call and text message from his dad asking why we weren’t answering our phone. He left my husband a brief voicemail with a soft tone expressing that he loved him. That Monday March 30, 2015 my father in law had also taken a lie detector test regarding the alleged misconduct. He consistently and emphatically said that he had nothing to worry about and the results would be in by Friday. Friday never came before he took his life. It was that Monday night around 9:30 our phones starting ringing and at first we just pushed it off as we were having bed time devotions with our little girl. Finally, my husband picked up the phone and started screaming that his dad had shot himself. It has been nearly 4 months and I must say it doesn’t seem to get that much easier. I have asked my husband to seek counseling with me and the girls if he wanted. I said however you want to do it I will help. I have dreams that he is holding my babies and it scares me to death. I wasn’t there when the shot occurred but loud noises make my heart race. When the phone rings past 9 p.m. I now wonder what is wrong. I was only off a short 6 days from work and I now cannot seem to function like I should. It’s hard on a marriage, kids, and us as individuals to try and get through this. it’s real and it’s scary. Suicide hurts.

    • Jessica says

      I am so terribly sorry for all that you are going through. I too became jumpy around loud noises, and would all but panic if I saw a gun on television. I replayed the late night phone call I received from my sister, informing me that my father had taken his life. Symptoms of PTSD can definitely manifest themselves in survivors, even if they did not witness the suicide. I attribute this to our own imagination; sometimes the images in our head are worse than the images in reality. The ripple effects following a suicide are incredibly large. They impact every facet of your life. We all grieve differently, which can put tremendous stress on a marriage, as we believe the other person should be grieving a certain way. I highly recommend seeing a therapist, specifically a grief therapist. It might take your husband some time to come around. He is likely still in the shock phase. I found that phase to last quite some time. But there is no reason why you can’t go and see someone on your own. With everything that has happened, it would likely be extremely helpful for you. Both Becky and myself participated in a grief group specifically for survivors of suicide. I cannot say enough about how helpful this was for me as I worked through my own grief. Just being among others who actually knew what I was feeling, helped. Take care of yourself during this difficult time, and know that you are not alone.

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