Complicated grief is the phrase psychologists sometimes use to describe the anguish suffered by those who lose a loved one to suicide.
"Grief is normal; trauma is not. The combination of circumstances is like a vicious one-two punch. We are grieving the death of a loved one, and we are reeling from the trauma of suicide. The first is difficult enough; the second may seem unbearable,” he writes.
I met Hsu at a 2008 conference and noticed his book on a vendor's table. I had no idea then that I would need it a few short weeks later when my son took his own life. It was one of the few books I was able to read in those first brutal months.
The book is dedicated to Hsu's father, Terry Tsai-Yuan Hsu, an accomplished electrical engineer who died by suicide after suffering a debilitating stroke. Hsu brings to the topic both a survivor’s perspective and good scholarship.
He outlines 10 features of suicide grief:
- Shock, disbelief, and numbness – ‘The act is so incomprehensible that we enter into a state where we feel unreal and disconnected."
- Distraction —"Friends of survivors may need an extra measure of patience … traumatic grief has caused an inability to focus.”
- Sorrow and Despair —"Survivors often fall into a state of melancholy and depression … In some ways we may unconsciously identify with the hopelessness that precipitated our loved one’s death.”
- Rejection and Abandonment —"Suicide feels like a total dismissal, the cruelest possible way a person could tell us that they are leaving us behind … So we feel abandoned. Our sense of self-worth is crippled. All our doubts and insecurities are magnified a hundred-fold.”
- Failure —"Our feelings of regret and guilt may seem overwhelming, but they eventually subside as we realize the death was not our fault.”
- Shame —"Beyond the combination of normal grief and traumatic grief, survivors of suicide suffer an additional insult to injury—the societal stigma that surrounds suicide.”
- Anger, Rage and Hatred —"We may hate our loved one for doing this to our loved one. We grieve the suicide and rage against him simultaneously.”
- Paralysis — "A simple phone call had triggered an anxiety-filled reaction.”
- Sleeplessness —"We lie awake, with our thoughts flying in all directions.”
- Relief – "About half of suicides are at least somewhat expected due to ongoing depression or patterns of self-destructive behavior. In our sadness, we are shocked to discover that we are glad it’s all over.”
- Self-destructive thoughts and feelings — "One danger of being a suicide survivor is the possibility of falling into suicidal despair.”
This is treacherous terrain to navigate. Adequate support and therapy can help, but so does giving oneself and everyone else time and space to recover not only a sense of self, but an accurate sense of the person who died.
“Because of the corrosive, personality-altering nature of suicidal depression, by the time suicide occurs, those who kill themselves may resemble only slightly children or spouses once greatly loved and enjoyed for their company. The days, weeks and years following a suicide may be a time of gradually recovering the memories of our loved one, of discovering true and lasting remembrances of their life,” writes Hsu.
Our loved ones are not their deaths and their last troubled moments do not negate the joy they brought to our lives. We are forever changed by their suicides, but we do not have to be destroyed by them.
Hsu lists some of the lessons suicide can teach us.
- "Suicide reminds us that we live in a fallen world."
- "Suicide teaches us that life is uncertain."
- "Suicide reminds us of our mortality."
- "Suicide shows us the interconnectedness of humanity."
- "Suicide demonstrates the necessity of hope."
I would summarize these lessons by saying that suicide humbles those who live through it. If we're attentive, it can leave us with a greater appreciation for all the good gifts we've been given in this life. If we're not, it can destroy us as surely as it destroyed the life of the one we lost.