Grief is the reaction to loss of any kind. Most people associate grief with the death of a person, but grief can result from numerous types of loss including: divorce, loss of independence or health, loss of a pet, loss of a job, or loss of income. Some of the most difficult and painful losses we will ever experience are due to the death of a spouse or significant other, a child, parent or sibling, loss related to suicide, or loss under traumatic circumstances.
The sections below provide information on these different types of loss and how to manage the unique grief associated with these circumstances.
Loss of a Child
The death of a child can take the form of a loss in infancy (such as miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death), SIDS, or the death of a child at any age. The grief and loss from the death of a child is unlike any other pain one can experience. Some families experience severe stress, and friends may shy away. Parents may find themselves overwhelmed with grief and emotions that never seem to end. These emotions may include guilt, anger, despair, loneliness, or depression. Parents who have traveled the peaks and valleys of this grief affirm you will not feel this way forever. Relief from the grief will not come in weeks or months; it arrives in years. But it will come. They also say that reaching out to others who have experienced this loss is vital to facilitate the grieving process and re-learning to live in the world.
Learn how to support parents who have lost a baby/child
Loss of a Parent
For a young child, the death of a parent is difficult. Depending on their developmental level, they may have difficulty understanding what is happening and the emotions they may be experiencing. A critical role of the surviving parent or caregiver is to help the child adapt to a parent's death appropriate by providing support, stability, and reassurance.. Although losing a parent is hard, studies have shown that with appropriate support and love during the grieving process, some children may experience positive traits such as increased maturity, better coping skills and improved communication.
When an adult child loses a parent in later adulthood, it is a major life transition causing an evaluation of one's own life or mortality. An adult may be expected to cope with the death of a parent in a less emotional way; however, the loss can still invoke extremely powerful emotions. This is especially true when the death occurs at an important or difficult period of life, such as when becoming a parent, at graduation, or at other times of emotional stress. It is important to recognize the effects that the loss of a parent can cause, and to address these effects. For an adult, the willingness to be open to grief is often diminished. Some people may shut out friends and family in processing the loss of someone with whom they have had the longest relationship. However, a failure to accept and deal with loss may result in a more challenging grief process.
Loss of a Sibling
The loss of a sibling is a devastating life event. Despite this, sibling grief is often one of the most overlooked forms of grief, especially with regard to adult siblings. The sibling relationship tends to be the longest significant relationship of the lifespan and siblings who have been part of each other's lives since birth, such as twins, help form and sustain each other's identities; with the death of one sibling comes the loss of that part of the survivor's identity.
The sibling relationship is a unique one, as they share a special bond and a common history from birth, have a certain role and place in the family, often complement each other, and share genetic traits. Siblings who enjoy a close relationship participate in each other's daily lives and special events, confide in each other, share joys, spend leisure time together (whether they are children or adults), and have a relationship that not only exists in the present but often looks toward a future together (even into retirement).
Siblings who play a major part in each other's lives are essential to each other. Adult siblings eventually expect the loss of aging parents, the only other people who have been an integral part of their lives since birth, but they do not expect to lose their siblings early; as a result, when a sibling dies, the surviving sibling may experience a longer period of shock and disbelief.
Overall, with the loss of a sibling, a substantial part of the surviving sibling's past, present, and future is also lost. If siblings were not on good terms or close with each other, then intense feelings of guilt may develop on the part of the surviving sibling (guilt may also develop for having survived, not being able to prevent the death, having argued with their sibling, etc.)
- Most of us will experience the death of a parent or sibling over the course of our lives.
- These losses can be life-changing events.
- Some people feel a sense of survivor guilt when a sibling dies, or when they reach the age to which their sibling lived.
- The death of a parent can also change your perspective on life.
- It may mean that you are now the oldest generation in your family, and you may think about your own mortality differently.
- You may feel a sense of abandonment.
- You may also have regrets about things left unsaid.
Loss from Diaster
The uncontrollable nature of disasters—whether natural or caused by people, such as mass shootings or terrorist attacks—sets off strong emotional and physical aftershocks. Within moments, the disaster may have claimed what took you a lifetime to build: relationships, a home or business, cherished items, family heirlooms, property, pets. People react to disasters in different ways, but grief—expressed or not—is part of disaster’s aftermath. Even when loved ones make it safely through the disaster, life is significantly changed.
Emotional and physical responses to disaster may include:
- Changes in eating/sleeping habits
Loss through Suicide
The death of someone close is one of life’s most stressful events. When the death is from suicide, those close to the person who are left behind must cope with their sadness and a range of emotions. Many “survivors” of suicide loss feel alone and struggle with a roller coaster of emotions. It is important to know that if you have experienced the loss of someone close through suicide, you are not alone and healing does occur.
While all kinds of loss are painful, unique issues come up when dealing with death through suicide. The grief that occurs after the loss of someone through suicide may feel different than grief after other types of loss. The feelings of loss, sadness, and loneliness that are common to anyone grieving are often more intense following loss through suicide. However, suicide often triggers intense emotions that are unique to the survivors of suicide.
Some unique emotions felt are:
- Shock - This is an immediate reaction and may leave you feeling numb or disorientated. Survivors often feel that that their loved one’s death couldn’t possibly be real.
- Anger - Anger may be towards the person who died another family member, God or towards yourself.
- Guilt/Sense of Responsibility - The most common feeling loved ones express after losing someone to suicide is guilt-“Did I miss something? Could I have prevented this?” It is common to replay “What ifs…” in your head. This is called “survivors’ guilt”. Most survivors also struggle to make sense of the death and to understand why their loved one chose to end their own life. It is easy to get caught up in self-blame, but it is important to come to understand that no one has complete control over another person’s actions.
- Relief - Relief is a normal response, especially if the suicide followed a long and difficult mental illness. Survivors often feel a sense of relief that the unpredictable nature of life has come to an end.
- Shame - Many survivors of suicide find that it is difficult to talk about their loss because of the dishonor connected with suicide. This can lead to feeling lonely and abandoned. It is important to know these emotions are a normal, natural part of the grieving process. These emotions will usually lessen with time as you develop coping skills and move through the grief process. As with all grief, it is important to remember that each person grieves differently and that each grief experience in unique. There is no set timeline for grief and it is important to be patient with yourself because it takes time to heal.
Some things that you may find useful in dealing with your grief following loss through suicide are:
- Information - Some survivors have found it helpful to review information about grief following loss through suicide. There are numerous books and websites available with a wealth of information. This may help survivors understand that they are not alone and that healing can happen.
- Communicating - You may find it is helpful to reach out to family and friends. If you aren’t ready to talk about your loss, it may be helpful to keep a journal or record your thoughts and emotions and talk about them later.
- Community - Find people you can share your feelings with. Even though it may seem difficult, maintaining contact with other people is especially important during the stress filled months after a loved one’s suicide. Some survivors find comfort in community, religious, or spiritual activities.
- Individual Counseling or Support Groups - Support groups can be helpful for survivors because they provide a safe place for you to express your feelings, or simply a place to go to be with other survivors who are experiencing some of the same things you are going through. Support groups aren’t for everyone though and some survivors may feel more comfortable talking with someone in private. It is okay to seek professional help if you feel that you are not handling your grief on your own.
- Self-Care - Take care of your body, mind, and spirit as much as possible. Be kind to yourself, this is the hardest thing you will ever do. It is okay to cry, it is okay to heal, and it is okay to laugh. Eventually you will start to enjoy life and this is not a betrayal of your love one, it is a sign that you are healing.
Grief and Healing
Following the death of someone close through suicide, you may feel like you will never heal from the loss. You may always wonder why it happened and there will be things that trigger your grief into the future, but eventually the rawness of your grief will fade. Understanding the uniqueness of loss through suicide can guide you toward finding support that is right for you and help you work towards healing. Remember, you are not in this alone.
Learn how to support someone who lost a loved one through suicide
Researchers have found that people are greatly affected by the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one. There are several factors that make a loss traumatic, and the more of them that occur together, the greater the traumatic impact of the loss. Traumatic grief can occur after losses due to homicide, war, car crashes, suicide, and other sudden and violent deaths.
Traumatic grief may occur if the loved one’s death is:
- Sudden and unexpected
- Witnessed by the survivor