Coping with grief

Grief is a normal human response after a loss, such as death. It helps a person to adjust to what has happened. It is completely normal to feel all kinds of emotions after a suicide, including shock, numbness, fear or anger.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to grieve. You need to let yourself grieve in whatever way works for you. This is part of the healing process.

Everyone experiences grief in a different way. Your cultural background, gender, age and relationship to the person who’s died can shape the grieving process. The intensity of grief can be difficult to manage. Some people who experienced losing someone to suicide said that:

“My body shook for days and I could hardly sleep. I couldn’t remember things I’d just been told and had so many emotions coming at me all at once.”

“I just could not stop crying. Every part of me hurt.”

“I had no emotions for a long time. I couldn’t even cry when I tried to.”

Many people mistakenly think of grief as just emotional pain. However, grief affects every part of us – our thoughts, feelings, body, spirit and relationships with others.

You may feel you will never recover from the loss, and even feel you don’t know how you are going to carry on. Coming to terms with what has happened will take time.

What does grief look like?

Some common grief reactions to suicide include:

  • intense shock, numbness and disbelief

  • reliving the details of the death, especially if you are the one who found the person’s body

  • not being able to sleep, or having nightmares and dreams about the suicide

  • a fear of being alone, or of others dying ‒ and wanting to be with friends or whānau a lot

  • feeling betrayed, rejected or powerless

  • feeling shame, whakamā, guilt or blaming yourself

  • anger, or blaming others for the loss

  • not wanting to talk, or  wanting to be alone

  • forgetting things, or finding it hard to concentrate

  • sadness, emptiness or loneliness

  • crying a lot, or not being able to cry

  • feeling faint or shaky

  • an ongoing and intense search for meaning and reason for the suicide.

  • feeling alone, stigmatised or blamed for the death

  • thinking about suicide a lot, and having thoughts of suicide

  • sensing the person’s presence or hearing their voice

  • feelings of relief ‒ this is often the case if the person who died by suicide had threatened or attempted suicide a lot before they died

  • physical reactions like pain, exhaustion, headaches and nausea

Grief can also affect any health conditions you have, such as asthma or heart problems. Keep an eye on these and use medication or get medical help as necessary.

“Months after her death I was in a shop and saw something she’d love. I found myself starting to cry, and then I was really sobbing. I had to leave the shop and get outside.”

Give yourself time to grieve

Take the time you need to make sense of what has happened, work through the grief and take care of yourself. You will most likely know what is best for you and what you need – and remember this may change over time. Read the caring for yourself page for a list of things you can do that might help.

Getting through a loss from suicide is different for everyone – even the length of grieving will differ from person to person. There’ll be good days and bad days, but gradually things will change and get easier. Be patient and try to take each day at a time.

There will be times when grief may sweep over you in sudden, unexpected waves. This may be triggered by things like music, places, photos or a sudden memory. Waves of grief can be hard to manage.

Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, or milestone events can be especially hard. Expect your grief to resurface in some way at these times. Planning ahead may make things easier to manage, e.g. you could plan to be with others, have a meal together, visit a special place, hold a ceremony or light a candle. Some people may prefer to treat the day like any other day. Everyone is different and will choose what suits them best.

“I tried to hurry grief because I got so tired and fed up with it. Looking back, I can see it’s just what had to happen.”

“Don’t ever feel ashamed for grieving. Don’t try to push grief down. Let it out and feel it. Don’t avoid it to make others feel better. Grief is normal. It means you loved.”

“When I saw teenagers having fun it’d make me so angry that they could still enjoy their lives when my son couldn’t. All my tears would come back. Now, though, I enjoy watching them.”

Supporting children and young people to grieve

Children and young people all experience grief differently. This can be affected by their age, personality, family situation, previous experiences and their relationship with the person who died.

Children and young people may often seem unconcerned, playing or doing their usual activities, so adults assume they are not properly aware of the death, or affected by it.

However, this isn’t necessarily true, as children and young people deal with grief in their own way. Coping with grief is an ongoing process, which can show up in different ways at different times.

Children and young people tend to grieve in bursts, and at other times look for reassurance and comfort in their normal routines and activities. They may also experience bad feelings and/or suicidal thoughts themselves.

This means that bereaved children and young people need ongoing attention, reassurance and support. It is not unusual for grief to resurface later on, even well after the death. This can happen as they move through different life milestones, and develop as individuals. It may help to find a counsellor or other support person they can talk to.