Is bereavement by suicide and other sudden unexplained death different? 

The loss of someone you have been close to, whatever the cause of their death, can bring intense feelings of grief. But some of the responses and emotions experienced by people who are bereaved by suicide may differ from those felt after other types of death. The fact that a person’s death appeared to involve an element of choice raises painful questions that death from natural or accidental causes does not. 

Bereavement by suicide may sometimes be prolonged. It may reawaken earlier losses, especially if any of them were also by suicide. Shock, social isolation and feelings of guilt can often be greater for bereavement after suicide than for other causes of death. The grieving process is characterised by questioning and a search for an explanation. Some people may feel a strong sense of abandonment and rejection. Some of the particular aspects of bereavement by suicide are described below. Some – or perhaps even all – may be relevant to your own experience of grief. 

Recurring images

A common and disturbing aspect of grief after suicide can be recurring images of the death, even if you did not actually see it happen. If you were the one who found the body of the dead person, this can be very traumatic, especially if the death was violent. You may find that you have recurring nightmares and go over and over the images of the death in your mind. By talking about what happened and re-examining the details again and again, you may find that they become less painful. If the images persist and you find them interfering with your life, ask your doctor if they can refer you to a specialist who can help. 


Many newly bereaved people will ask “why?”, but bereavement through suicide can often involve a prolonged search for a reason for the death. Different members of the family may have very different ideas as to the reason why, and this can put a strain on family relationships, particularly if an element of blame is involved. Many people bereaved by suicide eventually come to accept that they will never really know the reason why the person did what they did. Although the death may have followed a specific event, suicide is rarely due to a single cause. 

Could it have been prevented?

Reliving what could have been done to save someone from suicide is a common experience of people bereaved in this way. Everything can seem painfully obvious in retrospect, and the ‘what ifs?’ may seem endless: “What if I had picked up on that warning comment or sign?” or “What if I had not been away that weekend?” It may help you to remember that the changes in behaviour that lead to suicide can be very gradual. It is very difficult to see when a person gets to the point where they want to take their own life, and even mental health professionals find it hard to know when a person is particularly at risk. Once a person has decided to take their life, they can go to great lengths to cover up their plans. 

Feelings of guilt

When someone dies by suicide, their family and friends may suffer from intense feelings of guilt, self- blame and self-questioning. 

Following her brother’s death, one woman describes her terrible feelings of guilt: 

“Not one day has passed that I haven’t asked myself – ‘why?’ – and haven’t experienced the tidal waves of guilt that seem to drag me under deeper and deeper. I agonised over whether we as a family could have done something that might have made him want to stay with us. Why did we say all those terrible things to each other while we were growing up and even worse, why didn’t I say all the things to him that I now wish I could?” 

It may help to talk about your feelings with someone you trust, to get a realistic perspective on them, but if you don’t want to share your feelings, try not to blame yourself. You could make a list of the things you did do to help the dead person. Try to remember that you could not predict the future and that nobody is responsible for the actions of another person. No one is perfect, and the reasons for suicide are seldom simple. Try to forgive yourself if there are things you said or did which you now regret. If your feelings of guilt persist, you might find it helpful to discuss them in a support group or with a counsellor. 

How do I tell other people about the death?

It is sometimes difficult to talk openly about suicide, but trying to keep the facts a secret will only add to your stress in the long term. If you don’t want to talk about the details, you could say: “They took their own life, but I can’t talk about it now.” Suggestions of what to tell children are in the section on ‘How shall I tell my child about the death’. 

Rejection and abandonment

It is common to feel abandoned and rejected by someone who has killed themselves. One woman, whose brother took his life, recalled: 

“I was upset that he hadn’t come to talk to us. I think we all went through anger at some point. You think: ‘How could you do this to us?’ ” 

Sometimes this sense of rejection leads to feelings of inadequacy and causes the bereaved person to cut themselves off from people who could help them, because they feel worthless or fear further rejection. These are common experiences. 

It is possible that the person who died was so concerned with their own problems that they couldn’t think about other people, or may have thought that others would be better off without them. 

Suicidal fears and feelings

Despair is a natural part of grieving, but after someone has died by suicide, this feeling may be combined with fear for your own safety. People bereaved by suicide sometimes worry about whether suicidal tendencies are inherited and may become more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts of their own. If you have feelings like this, it may help to discuss them with a support group or your doctor. While these thoughts usually pass with time, it is essential to seek professional help if they become very strong. 

“I’m older now than my mother was when she killed herself: perhaps that means I’ve escaped her fate . . . Suicide is seductive; when it becomes an option, you toy with the idea of it . . . For years whenever I believed I had screwed everything up I would think I had to commit suicide . . . This mood can still come on me but it’s rarer now”.1

1. By Her Own Hand: Memoirs of Suicide’s Daughter. Signe Hammer (1992). New York: Vintage Books, pp. 190–191.

Stigma and isolation

A mother writing about her son’s death pointed out that many of us have never been told what to say to someone who has had a suicide in the family. 

“What I needed to hear was the same thing that might be said to anyone else who had experienced the death of someone close – ‘I’m truly sorry for your pain and is there anything I can do? If you need to talk about it I’m a good listener. I’ve got a good shoulder to cry on.’ And I needed to know it was really meant. Nobody wants to talk about suicide. Everyone thinks that it’s best not to say anything, that if you don’t talk about it, it will be forgotten and will go away. For me nothing could be further from the truth.” 

Although attitudes to suicide are changing, the silence of others may reinforce feelings of stigma and shame. If other people are embarrassed, uneasy and evasive, you may feel isolated and that you are lacking opportunities to talk about, remember and celebrate all aspects of the person’s life. 

You may feel a strong need to protect the dead person and yourself from the judgement of others. You might isolate yourself, either through a sense of shame, or simply because you want to shut yourself away for a while. Friends may not get in touch because they don’t know what to say. You might be able to make it easier for others by letting them know what they could do to help (see ‘How friends can help‘). 

Joining a support group for people bereaved by suicide can help reduce the sense of stigma and isolation. There are also websites where people can share their experiences. 

Suicide notes and messages

People who die by suicide sometimes leave a suicide note/message. This can be a source of comfort for family and friends if the person expresses love, asks forgiveness or tells them they are not to blame. If the death was entirely unexpected, a note/message can help to settle any uncertainty about whether it was a suicide. 

Occasionally, however, a note/message can be hurtful, unpleasant and blaming. It helps to remember that the note/message only reflects the writer’s state of mind at the time when their thoughts and feelings may have been disturbed. 

A note/message will not necessarily provide all the answers as to the reason for the suicide, but if no note/message of explanation is left, this can also be upsetting.