Twenty years ago, my best friend took her life. She was plagued by severe bipolar and despite medication and treatment, she was unable to get better. She had a genius IQ, was beautiful, a delight to be around, a deep thinker, and obtained a Ph.D. by her early twenties. She was an amazing friend. I can still remember the phone call informing me of her suicide and the numerous phone calls that followed as I became the family representative to inform friends and family. I was devastated, hurt, saddened, confused, and lost yet I had to be strong, sensitive, practical, and comforting.
It is generally accepted that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Following a death, these stages can be done consecutively or in random order. One day could have multiple stages of grief followed by a month of a consistent stage. There is no proper way to manage grief other than to go through the entire process and not stay stuck in denial.
However, when the cause of death is suicide, this adds an additional three stages to the grieving process and changes how the other stages are managed. Why? Suicide is a violent way to end a life leaving many unanswered questions, the uncertainty of perception, insecurity of the relationship, and abandoned dreams. Here are the modified stages:
- Denial. At the initial onset is a refusal to believe what has occurred. “This can’t be happening,” “This must be a bad dream,” or “This isn’t real,” are all typical responses to hearing about a suicide. There is a sense of walking through stiff mud unable to move at a normal pace or being in the middle of a thick fog with zero visibility. Everything seems surreal.
- Shame. The act of suicide brings about a level of shame, disgrace, dishonor, humiliation, or embarrassment over the loss. Depending on the cultural or religious background of the remaining family and friends, the intensity of these emotions can be overwhelming. Some cultures and religions strictly forbid suicide forcing its’ members to not accept the cause of death. This only adds additional grief and isolation to the process as the members are pushed into dealing with the rejection as well.
- Questioning. “Why did this happen,” “How could I have not known,” or “What am I going to do now,” are characteristic of this stage. Even when a note or journal is discovered, this rarely provides the comfort for which it might have been intended. In the absence of any written communication, family and friends fill in the blanks with their own narrative which is frequently inaccurate.
- Anger. Eventually, the unanswered questions result in anger directed towards anyone in their path. Petty issues become irritating, kindness is annoying, resentment multiples overnight, people are aggravating, and harsh remarks fly out of the mouth. Even God becomes a target of infuriation. But behind all of this is a wave of powerful anger towards the person who committed the act of suicide.
- Bargaining. As extreme emotion subsides, reasoning takes its place. In an imaginary argument with the deceased, the family member or friend tries desperately to negotiate a different solution. “If only I had done,” “I should have known,” or even “You should have told me,” resonate with varied endings but resulting in the same outcome. There simply is no rational calculation that ends with suicide as the only option.
- Guilt. After all the analysis, what is frequently left behind is the feeling of guilt. A sense of justice demands that someone must be held accountable for the act. Since the person who committed suicide is no longer available, others step up to fill the place. Guilt is followed by regret. Unfortunately, sometimes that regret is followed by shame resulting in the recycling of the stages.
- Depression. The feeling of guilt is so strong and overwhelming that it plunges the family and friends into a deep depression. This is not unlike the depression experienced by the person who committed the suicidal act. The difference is the family or friends don’t have suicide as an option now that they personally understand the intensity of the grief that it causes others. So they are left to confront what seems like a never-ending cycle of sadness, hopelessness, and despair.
- Acceptance. This is the hardest part of the journey because acceptance can only mean acknowledging the loss of the person not the manner of their death. Depending on the significance of the relationship, reaching this stage can take years to achieve with many unable to move past one or more of the stages. While the suicidal act was meant to hurt only the one person committing the act, it in actuality devastates every one within close contact. The ripple effect is far and wide.
The sting of my best friend’s suicidal death has never left me. Nor do I expect that it ever will. There is something unfinished about the end of her life. And while I have grown to accept that she is gone, she will not be forgotten.
Suicide is not the answer. Everyone who considers or talks about it needs to get some help from a professional. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out for assistance. The national suicide prevention lifeline is 800-273-8255 or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.