Understanding Grief and Suicide Bereavement

While grief is common and normal, there is no “normal” amount of time to experience it.


Grief is a natural human response when faced with sudden or expected loss of someone or something important to you.

While grief is common and normal, there is no “normal” amount of time to experience it. Personality, level of functioning, age and the nature of the loss will all affect how long someone grieves.

While grief may be unpleasant, it is purposeful. According to grief expert J.W. Worden, the four primary tasks of grief are:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss
  • Experiencing the pain of the loss
  • Adjusting to a new life without the lost person
  • Reinvestment in the new reality

Grief and depression are not the same, but they can look the same on the surface. Depression is a mental health condition otherwise known as "major depressive disorder" that involves persistent feelings of hopelessness, sadness and loss of interest or pleasure for at least two weeks. One difference is that people fighting depression often tend to be more isolated and disconnected and may actively avoid support. 

Nevertheless, grief can become more protracted and complicated for some.

If you are wondering if grief response may have become debilitating, ask these questions after a few months have passed:

  • Have you found it hard to focus on anything but your loss?
  • Is it hard to reconcile that the loss has actually taken place?
  • Are you still experiencing intense yearning, sorrow and pain?
  • Do you want to escape or avoid things that remind you of your loss?
  • If a loved one has died: Do you have “survivor guilt” (the belief that you should’ve died instead of your loved one or that you might’ve been able to do something to prevent their death)? Do you fantasize about your own death, so you can be reconnected?

Rituals to Help People Cope With Grief

Below are a number of effective rituals that can provide closure in supporting you and your loved ones through grief.

  • Rituals of remembrance: Light candles for or say the names of your loved ones.
  • Rituals of communication: Write a letter to your loved one and say the things you couldn’t or didn’t while your loved one was alive.
  • Rituals of nurturing: Soothing music, affirmations or other grounding practices can help restore yourself.
  • Rituals of reflection: Meditation, prayer, journaling or drawing.
  • Rituals of community connection: Balloon releases, dove releases and walks with similar loss survivors.
  • Rituals of release: Express guilt, anger and regret on paper and then burn or bury the paper as a symbol of letting these toxic emotions go. 

Suicide Bereavement

Every year, about 1 million people in the world die by suicide. Every year, tens of millions of family members and friends are left behind to make sense out of the death.

A number of circumstances about a suicide death may influence traumatic grief reactions and lead to complicated bereavement. For most survivors of suicide loss, the death is unexpected, thus there is no opportunity for goodbyes, unfinished business, resolution of conflict or answers to questions. Very often, the bereaved are left with endless “woulda-coulda-shouldas” and “what ifs.”

When loved ones die from a prolonged illness, by contrast, people have time to prepare themselves for the transition to loss. A sudden death leaves people with no time to make amends, express how much the person mattered or say goodbye.

In addition, deaths that involve suffering or extreme pain may cause horrifying traumatic imagery and intrusive thoughts – whether or not loved ones actually witnessed the death scene or the body. If the death occurred at a place where the loved ones frequent, that space will most likely continue to trigger traumatic reactions. Sometimes in high-profile suicide deaths, the news media might consider the story newsworthy and then the wider public’s reactions and gossip causes additional strain on loved ones. When friends and family did not foresee suicide as a possibility for their loved one, the experienced randomness of such a loss can trigger a greater sense of vulnerability and anxiety. This shock is often the case when there were no apparent warning signs before the person died.

See also: New Guidelines for Preventing Suicides

Suicide, thus, evokes complicated experiences for both grief and trauma. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s groundbreaking book talks about how trauma leaves shattered assumptions in its wake. Her basic premise is that traumatic events shatter three world views that all people tend to hold: benevolence of the world (“people are generally good”), meaningfulness of the world (“good things happen to good people”) and self-worth (“I am good and can keep myself and those who love me safe and healthy”). These shattered core beliefs are usually at the heart of the moral injury and survivor guilt experienced by many friends and family who loved someone lost to suicide. Because of these experiences, the processing of the trauma often gets “stuck in the craw” of those left behind because many believe they must pay penance for their perceived failure at keeping their loved one alive. 

For these reasons, it is not uncommon for people bereaved by suicide to also experience suicidal thoughts. If you are worried about someone who is experiencing despair from depression, complicated grief or suicide bereavement, reach out and offer support. Show up and share caring messages. Most importantly, listen deeply without judgment. If you need additional tools or guidance, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).

Sally Spencer-Thomas

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Sally Spencer-Thomas

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a battle with bipolar condition.


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