When a Friend Dies by Suicide
The death of a loved one is always extremely painful, but having a friend die by suicide is especially devastating. Friendships are an important part of the human experience and impact our happiness, well-being, and sense of belonging. While we don’t get to choose which family we’re born into, we do get to choose who we build friendships with, and having that connection severed by suicide is incredibly traumatic.
Why didn’t they come to me?
When a person dies, the first people we tend to sympathize with are family members, but being a friend of someone who dies by suicide presents its own unique struggles. After all, you’re the one they’re supposed to vent to when their family drives them nuts. You’re the one that’s supposed to take them out to get their mind off their crazy ex. You feel a responsibility for their well-being, and it’s hard to accept that their psychological battle was out of your control.
While there’s no easy road through the grieving process, knowing what to expect can help. If you’ve lost a friend to suicide, here are a few things you should know:
It’s ok to be angry
If your friend had been killed by a drunk driver, you’d know exactly who to be mad at. You’d be enraged with the person who made the choice to drive intoxicated. If your friend died by suicide, however, it’s a bit more confusing. They are both the victim and the person who caused their death. It’s normal to feel abandoned, angry, or resentful as you process what’s happened.
“Why” may never be clear – and that’s ok
Chester Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park, died by suicide in 2017. His family posted a video showing Chester smiling and playing games with his loved ones just hours before taking his life. Sometimes it’s easy to pinpoint why a person became suicidal - a traumatic event, extreme stress, or mental illness are common instigators. But in cases like Chester’s, suicide was something that no one saw coming. The factors leading to suicide are often unclear, and acceptance can only happen when you realize you may never fully understand “why.”
Grief comes in waves
Some days you’ll feel at peace, accepting that you could not have prevented your friend’s death. Other days, you’ll see an ad for your favorite band coming to town and feel devastated that you can’t call your friend to go with you. Milestones that should be enjoyable, like finding the love of your life, buying a new house, or watching your kids graduate may all have a bitter tinge knowing that your friend isn’t there to share those experiences with you. It’s normal for symptoms of grief to ebb and peak. When you are having an especially bad day, remember that your feelings will subside in time.
Self-care is not betrayal
When your friend dies by suicide, guilt and depression can curb your motivation to take care of yourself. Simple acts like brushing your teeth, eating healthy, and exercising can feel burdensome. Reestablishing your routine will help bring back a sense of normalcy as you work through your grief. Allow yourself to experience both mundane and enjoyable activities, as routine and laughter are both important parts of the healing process.
Therapy isn’t sold in pint glasses
Friends play an important role in the formation of our identities, and after losing a friend it can be tempting to try to numb your void with alcohol. Be cautious about using substances to cope with your grief, as this does not help you work through your pain but only masks it until you sober up again. Alcohol exacerbates depression and anxiety, making you feel even worse once your buzz wears off. This can lead to you becoming dependent on alcohol to cope with your symptoms, worsening your depression and making recovery significantly more challenging.
Pain has a ripple effect
It’s common for loved ones to have suicidal thoughts in the wake of their friend’s death. Our brains want to make sense of things, and when something is insensible, our minds tend to replay the hurtful event repeatedly as we try to make sense of it. This confusion may cause you to fixate on death and despair, resulting in overwhelming feelings of depression and hopelessness. Know that the intensity of these feelings will fade in time. If your suicidal thoughts are unrelenting, seek help from a specialist right away. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can help direct you in getting help, either for yourself or for a loved one in need.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
When in doubt, lean
You may feel like isolating yourself, staying in bed, and wallowing in depression for a while. As tough as it may be, push yourself to get out of the house and lean on the support of your friends and family. Isolating yourself may only worsen your depression. Stay connected to supportive people, and limit your time spent with people who tell you how you should think or feel.
Cultures may clash
Different cultures and religions have varying views on suicide, making it something that many people are unwilling to acknowledge or discuss. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding suicide only worsens the problem, discouraging those in need from getting help. Depending on their beliefs, expect that your friend’s family members might have a hard time talking about what happened or speaking up for the needs of those battling mental illness.
You can change perceptions
As their friend, you have the power to make a difference by talking about suicide. Your voice can empower those in need to seek help and acknowledge that sufferers should be recognized and supported without shame. You can share your story through social media, online or in-person support groups, speaking engagements, or by educating your close friends and family. Start by learning how to reduce risk factors and increase protective factors to help prevent future deaths by suicide. A great resource is the Center for Disease Control’s listing of risks and protective factors.
You made their life better
Know that your relationship was just as important to your friend as it was to you; their choice to end their life was based on a warped perception of reality – a feeling that death was the only viable escape from their struggles - and was not a reflection of the value they placed on your friendship. You improved their quality of life despite their internal battle.
Hope lies ahead
When their loss is still new, it may feel like you’ll never be happy again. Close friends are a defining part of our lives, and their loss is excruciating. This pain reflects the intense bonds we are blessed to experience as human beings. While birthdays and other milestones may be especially tough from year to year, know that the intensity of your grief will lessen over time, and someday you will be able to embrace both the happy and sad memories. Believe that no matter how dire things may feel today, the future holds hope, peace, and acceptance.
Variations can help
While your friends might not have the words to say, a specialist in depression and grief will understand your needs and will listen, validate what you are experiencing and help you discover ways to cope with your loss.
Variations Psychology has experts with a wide range of specializations:
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Center for Disease Control https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/riskprotectivefactors.html
Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide http://www.sptsusa.org/
University of Texas Suicide Prevention Program https://cmhc.utexas.edu/bethatone/studentscopingsuicide.html
The Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/in-depth/suicide/art-20044900?pg=2
How to Cite This Blog Article:
Shinn, M.M. (2018). When a Friend Dies by Suicide. Psychologically Speaking.
[Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/when-a-friend-dies-by-suicide