Written by: Teresa A. Johnson, MS, NCC, LPC-Intern
Supervised by: Penny Haight, M.Ed., LPC-S
“Don’t step off the road — There might be another one!” ― James McGarrity
Survivor’s guilt is used as a term which explains the guilt one feels for surviving a traumatic event. Survivor’s guilt is also felt when losing a friend or a loved one to suicide. There are many questions as to “how could I prevented this?”, “I should have known,” “What if I told them …..”Although it seems simple to state there is obvious survivor’s guilt, many turn away from a general perspective and are unaware of why they feel this much guilt and wonder when the healing can begin.
Survivors of Grief
Typically, when dealing with grief there are 5 stages in which one can expect, not in any given order, which are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In general, there is a transition between each stage of grief. With survivors of suicide, it seems that the transition can be more difficult, and often times, one may feel they are stuck. More often, one may not even notice they are stuck in a particular stage.
The news of the suicide, or being there for the event- either way, it may be difficult to understand and to process. Although the news is there and the event occurred, there are still many unanswered questions. You may feel the unanswered questions hold you to this significant event. You may feel like you need to know why or that you do not understand what led them to this ultimate decision. It is difficult to understand and to process that in order to move past this denial you will eventually have to learn that you will not be able to obtain all of the answers to your questions and some will remain unanswered.
In addition to this, in the beginning of the loss, you may notice an influx of bad memories. There are numerous triggers you may begin to develop and often playbacks and nightmares associated with this stage. You are often plagued by bad memories, images, and scenes of the loss. Unfortunately, this is part of a process one seems to go through before being able to get to the good memories. As the time and healing begins, the negative images become less and the positive memories become more.
Anger in the loss can often times coincide with grief. You may notice that you become angry with yourself feeling as though you should have known; should have seen something. You may also become angry at the deceased, and when you do, you may find yourself becoming angrier at yourself for even thinking that way. You may also find yourself becoming more hypersensitive to the world around you.
As stated previously, there are many unknown answers for the survivor. This makes this stage a bit different than the typical stage of bargaining. The survivor still goes through the “what if’s” or “If only” or “I should have” but the ultimate question of why will always remain at large. There is only the assumption as to why the loved one decided to take their own life, but generally never the definitive answer as to what exactly led them to that point.
During this stage, there is more than immense sadness as the label would lead one to believe. Suring the depression stage, there is a point where the sadness begins to fade slowly as the realization and certainty of the loss sinks in. During the depression stage one may realize they are not able to change what has happened, and they have lost the energy to continue to fight the inevitable. This stage is more than sadness; this is the stage that the emptiness begins to take over, even at times vengeance.
During the depression stage, it is also common to shut others out. You may notice yourself becoming bitter and angry, sometimes hurtful to loved ones. You may also notice yourself becoming less emotionally attached to those who are closest to you. The depression is a natural stage needed to prepare for the acceptance stage. There is no set time as to how long this depression will last that is an accurate depiction, several factors affect the amount of time needed for someone to go through the depression stage to include the relationship with the loved one and our own personalities.
Acceptance is not a stage in which one bounces back and decides everything is ok. Acceptance is a stage that one reaches to acknowledge that the loved on is gone, and there is no turning back. Reaching this stage is difficult, but it is important to remember there is no right or wrong time frame to reach acceptance. One must also accept that acceptance does not mean you have to understand or be ok with the untimely death of a loved one, only to accept that it happened and that you are finally ready to adjust to a new life without the loved one in it.
Important Tips for Suicide Survivors
Here are some important tips for those dealing with the loss of a loved one through suicide:
- Understanding that grief will take time, be patient with yourself
- Learn to turn guilt into forgiveness
- Acknowledge the anger that you feel
- Reach out to others
- Anger, guilt, confusion, forgetfulness are common responses
Important Tips for Family and Friends of those with Survivors Guilt
- Accept the intensity of their grief
- Acknowledge their need for grief
- Listen openly without judgement
- Never succumb to clichés (Look what you have to live for, time heals all wounds….)
- Respect their faith and spirituality
- Know where to find resources
Resources are available when they are needed. Some of the local resources for the Fort Worth area are located below.