Coping After Suicide or Another Traumatic Loss

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Losing someone you care about is difficult regardless of how it happens. But when someone around us dies violently or unexpectedly, it violates our sense of the natural order. And the grief that follows can be more severe, both in intensity and duration, than it is with other types of loss, according to psychotherapist Toni Coleman, LCSW, CMC.

When someone you know dies from an accident, a suicide, a natural disaster, a violent act, or a sudden illness, it can catch you completely off guard. In the aftermath of this kind of out-of-the-blue loss, grief is sometimes accompanied by feelings of guilt and disbelief. In fact, people who have suffered the shock of a traumatic loss are at an elevated risk for post-traumatic stress, as well as other anxiety disorders, suggests research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

From the national headlines in our Facebook feed to everyday life in our hometowns, it can often feel like senseless death is all around us. Understanding what emotional reactions typically happen after a devastating loss can’t take away your pain, but it can serve as a guide to find your way through your grief.

The shock of a traumatic loss

When an older person struggles with a long term illness, their death may be deeply painful. But there has also been time to mentally, emotionally, and practically prepare for that loss. With a traumatic death, on the other hand, there is none of that mental preparation. It may feel as though it came out of nowhere because, in a literal way, it did: It was a shock. A child who was hit by a car, a friend who died in a plane crash on the way back from a trip—these sorts of losses can feel completely unthinkable and unreal at first, explains Coleman. So unreal, in fact, that the bereaved person might initially be unable to process the fact that the person is gone.

The shock that often accompanies traumatic loss might be coupled with a feeling of numbness, like your emotions are frozen. That’s normal, Coleman assures. Her advice is to give yourself time and permission to gradually adjust to this new reality, even if it means irrationally thinking at times that your loved one is still alive.  “If you want to pretend this person is here every morning when you wake up, or set a place for them at the table, go for it,” she says. “You don’t need to try to accept anything. That will come when it’s ready to come.”

Feeling responsible for the traumatic loss

A sense of responsibility often plays a role in traumatic loss, sometimes accompanied by a repetitive chorus of “if only’s.” If only I had noticed the signs and done something. If only I hadn’t asked her to go to the store, she wouldn’t have been at that stoplight at that moment. If only I had answered the phone when he called. “It’s a struggle between yourself and what shouldn’t have happened,” explains Coleman. Depending on the circumstances of the death, you might feel responsible for their death, though you are not.

Or you might be plagued with questions about why you lived and they did not. These feelings are a natural response to the powerlessness we feel after a sudden, traumatic loss, and are sometimes accompanied by a need to understand why the person has died in a grander sense. It can take time to reconcile the facts—that you could not have stopped what happened—with the fact that it was not your fault. If you’re struggling with guilt, talking to a therapist can help.

Before you feel sorrow, there may be outrage

When a friend lost both his parents in a car crash several years ago, the first emotion he expressed on the surface was not sadness: It was rage. His fury was directed at the city planners for not installing a stop sign along a country road; at the driver who couldn’t see the smaller car speeding through the darkness; even at his parents for choosing to make the drive late at night instead of the next morning. In hindsight, he reflected that blame was easier to bear than sorrow. “It’s healthy to let that anger out,” Coleman notes, even though it might seem, on the outside, like you’re not handling your feelings properly.

The intensity of that anger often mirrors the circumstances of the loss; horror and outrage often go hand in hand. Consider Jacqueline Kennedy, who on that fateful November day in 1963, refused to change out of her blood-spattered pink suit, saying: “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.” And even when anger fades, it doesn’t mean it’s gone for good, either. “The important thing to let it out, and to remember is that it doesn’t mean you will never get better,” says Coleman.

Get help with day-to-day logistics

A traumatic loss often touches the whole community and brings an outpouring of sympathy. The death of a child, for example, might mean that friends, teachers, neighbors, coaches, teammates might all be trying to express their sympathy at a time when you might not be able to bear it.

To that end, one thing Coleman counsels bereaved clients to do is get down to brass tacks.  You may be reeling from what has happened and unable to accomplish even the most ordinary tasks, unable to pick up the kids from school or pay the electric bill. If that’s the case: Pick a point person to manage communications and give yourself permission to ask for, and accept help in other areas of your life. “Having a ‘spokesperson’ can help shield your alone time, or to coordinate activities with your other kids,” Coleman says. Choosing someone you trust to be a go-between can give you the space you need to process, and keep the rest of your affairs on the rails.

The anxiety of traumatic loss

When a person dies in a way that is violent or tragic, it’s only normal to feel intense anxiety or fear. For some, that can translate to a preoccupation with the details of the death, obsessive thinking about the timeline, visions of the event popping into your mind, beyond your control, or recurring nightmares.

In some cases, an unexpected death might lead to a full-blown anxiety disorder, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, as well as depressive or manic episodes (particularly among people who have been previously diagnosed with mental health issues). A traumatic loss is exactly that — a trauma — that may shake your sense of security about the world around you, which is fundamentally disturbing. 

Resolution after a traumatic loss

Depending on the type of loss, the details of the death, how close you were to the person, and the specifics of your own life, grief in the aftermath of a traumatic loss may never find complete resolution, says Coleman. “You might accept it, but you might never completely ‘get over it’,” she explains. “Grief is the ongoing process of learning to live with it instead.” (Look out for red flags that grief may be turning into clinical depression and seek professional help to address it.) Doing your best to take care of yourself, maintaining a regular (reasonable) routine, watching your alcohol intake, and seeking support, while taking it hour by hour, day by day, can help you move forward. 

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or 1-800-799-4889 for deaf and hard of hearing. Or find their live chat service here.

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