Witnessing or Discovering a Suicide
Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Group - Madison, NJ
In 2017 over 57% of all suicides in the US occurred in the home of the person who died by suicide according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). With over 47,000 suicide deaths each year in the United States, witnessing or discovering a suicide is more common then most people realize.
Losing a loved one to suicide is traumatic for suicide loss survivors. But, one of the most difficult aspects of suicide loss is witnessing or discovering your loved one's suicide. The sight, sounds and smells are often overpowering both when they occur and for some time afterwards. The memories are not easily forgotten. Many people seek professional counseling to help them cope with the nightmares that may result.
You are not alone and there is help available.
There is Immediate Help Available
There are numerous crisis lines that you can reach out to speak with someone immediately. Most calls to suicide crisis hotlines are not from people who are suicidal, most of their calls are people who are struggling with an emotional issue that is overwhelming them.
It can be hard to find a friend to talk to at 2AM after you wake up from a nightmare and need a soothing voice to talk to. The trauma of witnessing or discovering someone after a suicide death is an overwhelming emotional challenge for most people. The various hotlines are there for you to call 24 hours a day and seven days a week. They are trained and are awaiting your call.
If you can't reach your existing counselor, or you don't have one, or you are in crisis, call 988 the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there to help! The hotline connects you live to talk by voice with a trained crisis volunteer. First, you’ll hear a message telling you that you’ve reached the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They will play you a little hold music while they connect you. A skilled, trained crisis worker who works at the Lifeline network crisis center closest to you will answer the phone. This person will listen to you, understand how your problem is affecting you, provide support, and share any resources that may be helpful.
If you prefer to not talk with some one on the phone, they have also have a confidential online chat service that you can type and talk online with a trained volunteer. Click Here for the Lifeline Chat service
If you don't feel comfortable talking in person, you can always use the Crisis Text Line. TEXT “HELLO” TO 741741 to begin to text chat with someone using your cellphone. The first two responses are automated. They tell you that you're being connected with a Crisis Counselor, and invite you to share a bit more. The Crisis Counselor is a trained volunteer, not a professional. They can provide support, but not medical advice. It usually takes less than five minutes to connect you with a Crisis Counselor. (It may take longer during high-traffic times). When you’ve reached a Crisis Counselor, they’ll introduce themselves, reflect on what you’ve said, and invite you to share at your own pace.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a program called HEALING CONVERSATIONS which was formerly known as the Survivor Outreach Program. This program gives those who have lost someone to suicide the opportunity to talk with experienced volunteers. These AFSP volunteers, who are themselves survivors of suicide loss, offer understanding and guidance in the weeks and months following a suicide death. Available in person, on the phone or by video chat, volunteers are familiar with the isolation that so often accompanies a death of this kind, and are able to show suicide loss survivors a way forward into a world of support, by creating an opportunity for the newly bereaved to speak openly with, and ask questions of, someone who has been there, too, and truly gets it.
Many faith leaders are trained to deal with tragic loss. You can reach out to a local church or house of worship to speak with one of their religious leaders. They generally do not care if you are an active participant at their services, they are available to chat with you in your time of need.
What Can I Expect if I Witnessed a Suicide or if I Found a Body?
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
If you witnessed the suicide of your loved one or found the body, you are likely to experience trauma symptoms in addition to grief over the loss of your loved one. Images of your loved one at the time of death may be burned into your memory, making it difficult to concentrate on other things. You may experience anxiety and confusion as well as physical symptoms such as chest pain, stomach or digestive problems, breathing problems, or difficulty sleeping. It is also important to know that, even when you have not been an eyewitness to the death, you may develop trauma symptoms.
These emotional and physical reactions are normal responses to trauma and, even though it may not feel like it now, they will likely diminish in the weeks and months to come. If they do not, it is best to seek the help of a mental health professional who has experience working with people who have had traumatic experiences or losses.
Understanding Where to Start After a Suicide
We have several pages on our website that help you to understand suicide and how to begin your path of healing after your tragic loss
Finding Support After Discovering you Loved Ones Suicide
One medical study asked suicide loss survivors to rate what they found to be most helpful in their healing. The top results are:
Talking one-to-one with another suicide survivor (100%)
Suicide grief support group (94%)
Books on suicide and grief (85%)
Individual therapy (80%)
Suicide Loss Bereavement Support Groups
By attending a suicide loss support group meetings you can leverage the top two methods. Our group is an example of a suicide loss support group. You can find out more about our meetings by visiting our Meeting Info page. If you live outside the Central New jersey area, you can find a list of nearby in-person suicide loss groups by visiting the AFSP website You can also visit Why Join A Suicide Loss Support Group to learn more about why suicide loss support groups are helpful.
But it is very common for suicide loss survivors to also seek out professional individual grief counseling from a host of mental health service providers. The survivors of suicide loss often struggle with grief more profoundly then a non-suicide related death.
Suicide Grief Counseling
You may struggle to talk about what you have seen or feel after losing someone to suicide. It is important to understand that you are not alone with the feeling you are experiencing. Speaking with a trained professional is often critical to helping you along on your journey of healing. Talking about what you have seen and feel with a professional is important.
Our website has a webpage dedicated to helping you understand what the various options are and how you might begin to find a professional that works for you. Finding someone who will help you is very personal and specific to your individual needs. Many people have never gone to a mental health professional before in their lives, or if they have, they have often gone for a non grief related issue. The whole concept can seem intimidating, but it is often a critical step for suicide loss survivors to begin their long term healing.
A good place to help you understand what the different types of counselors are and how you can work with them can be found in this pamphlet Finding a Mental Health Professional Guide This 13 page document from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance is a great place to begin. It discusses the different types of clinical professionals, the types of questions you need to ask to help you identify what your needs are.
A generalized marriage counselor may not be the right person for you. It is not uncommon for many counselors to not have any specific training in dealing with the trauma of losing someone to suicide. It really does take some effort on your part to interview them in advance, or at your first meeting to understand if they have dealt with suicide loss before or if they have any specialized bereavement training.
Without asking the right questions up front, it is not uncommon for people to go through 2-3 counselors before they find someone that they feel comfortable with. You will know within the first few minutes if this is the right person for you or not, trust your gut. Please don't be turned off if the first 1-2 people you speak with are the wrong people, think of it like a test drive. You need to find the counselor that fits your needs best. There are clinical professionals that can provide you wonderful assistance.
Specialized Suicide Loss Grief Counseling
There are certain counselors who have unique training to help people deal with the trauma associated with the grief that comes from the suicide loss of someone close to you. There are several lists of counselors that might help you to start your search for counseling. We can not specifically recommend someone for you, you need to find the right person for your needs. Everyone grieves differently.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) trained counselors have taken specialized suicide loss bereavement training through the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). These counselors have taken training to help them better understand what is unique and the complexities of losing someone to suicide.
EMDR trained counselors who are trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing) which is a technique used for trauma patients to help cope with difficult memories. EMDR trained professionals specialize in helping victims of trauma to help cope with the memories and the impact that it has had in their life. Some suicide loss survivors report that this is a good technique to help stop the recurring visions and nightmares of the death scene.
Complicated Grief trained counselors who are trained in Complicated Grief. Complicated Grief is a form of long term grief that up to 20% of suicide loss survivors get stuck in. Complicated grief counselors generally work with people that are several months to several years out from their loss. They utilize an intensive multi week program to help improve the lives of suicide loss survivors who feel like their life has gotten stuck after a long period of time and need help to heal.
Methods of Suicide Deaths
The shock of discovering your loved one after a suicide is often a deeply emotional moment. Many suicide loss survivors feel like no one would understand how they feel and what they have seen. Suicide deaths are more common than most folks know. In 2017 across the United States there were 47, 173 suicides.
While you may feel like you are the only person to have found some who has shot themselves or someone who has hung themselves, the facts are that suicide victims who have died by hanging or died by gunshot account for 79% of suicide deaths combined. You are not alone, and there are people who understand what you have seen and feel. Many people have witnessed a suicide or have discovered someone after a suicide death.
According to the Center for Disease Control the method used to die by suicide break down into several common categories. The top three most common methods of suicide death are:
Firearms resulted in 23,854 suicide deaths in 2017. This includes suicides by handguns and long guns. Suicide by firearm account for 51% of all suicide deaths.
Suffocation resulted in 13,075 suicide deaths in 2017. This includes suicide deaths by hanging, suffocation and gas inhalation. Suicide by suffocation accounts for 28% of suicide deaths.
Poisoning resulted in 6,554 suicide deaths in 2017. Poisoning includes suicide deaths by poison ingestion or by drug overdose. Suicide by poisoning accounts for 14% of suicide deaths. It is believed that this category is underestimated. The current spike in opioid overdoses has resulted in deaths being classified as overdose deaths and not as suicide deaths.
Independent of the statistics and the method used, many suicide loss survivors struggle to understand how their loved one died. Feelings of guilt, anger, confusion and many other complex emotions are common after a suicide death. The method used to die by suicide often comes down to what was available at the time. If one method was not used, often a different method could have been used. Sadly there are websites that teach troubled people how to die by suicide using common articles available to anyone.
Common Issues Associated With Discovering Someone Who Has Died By Suicide
The various means of suicide death can lead to other unique trauma. Death scenes are often more messy and complicated then you see on television and in the movies. Families and friends may be left to clean up after a death or are forced to hire a bio-hazard cleanup company to clean up the location of the suicide death.
People hope that the coroners report or the police report will provide them details that might help them understand their loved ones suicide, unfortunately the rarely do. The death reports often are a reflection of what you told the investigators. They do not always run toxicological reports.
After a suicide death it is often hard to see the site of the suicide death without being triggered by deep emotions. Some families will move out of their homes for an extended period after the suicide death to avoid having to see the scene daily. The method of death may require you to dispose of carpeting, furniture or repair damages and paint the room after a suicide death. Some people seek to sell the home or condo where the suicide occurred due to the deep emotions associated with the location of their loved ones death. It is often thought that you should wait six month to a year before you make any major change in your life. Speak with your grief counselor to understand the issues that can come from making quick decisions after a suicide.
One article that deals with a religious way to take some of the pain associated with the location of death is Home Blessing: Love, Hope and a Wish for Peace . This one page article is by a priest who is called by a family to bless the room in which a loved one died by suicide.
Finding someone who has shot themselves
Suicide by firearm often leaves a complicated scene with blood and traumatic injuries that are hard to visually forget. The use of a firearm is >90% likely to result in a suicide death due to the violence and trauma the gunshot causes. It is not uncommon for police to treat the scene as a crime scene and begin a criminal investigation. Generally the weapon is seized by the police after the suicide. This often leads to issues associated with the specific firearm used and when it is returned by the police. Some folks struggle to have firearms in their homes after a suicide, even if they had firearms in their homes for decades without incident. Many people struggle that their personal gun was used in a suicide by a family member.
Finding someone who has hung themselves
Suicide by suffocation also has it's own unique issues associated with it. Sometimes the person who discovers the suicide death has to remove the method used to suffocate (noose, bag, etc) and place their loved one on the ground. The weight of a human body is often more than a typical person can lift. This can also lead to emotional issues about what was seen and done. There are many ways to hang yourself and they don't all involve a rope , people often use what is available to them. This can include clothing, extension cords, belts, coat hangers etc.
Finding someone who has overdosed
Suicide by poisoning can also cause emotional issues. Society tends to place stigma on the use of illegal drugs, so the suicide death by poisoning can lead to issues discussing the guilt and shame often that occurs after such a suicide death. While some suicides can involve illegal drugs, many suicide involve legal drugs or even over the counter drugs that people did not realize could be fatal in the wrong combination. Survivors often struggle with the fact that they had substances in their home that were used by someone to die by suicide. It is not uncommon for teenagers to steal prescription drugs from other family members medicine cabinets.
Did they die because of me?
Depending on the means of suicide, it is not uncommon for people discovering a suicide death to attempt some form of life saving efforts. The emotions at the scene of a suicide death are exceptionally high and the ability to think clearly is difficult. Just calling 911 and waiting for the first respondents can feel like it took an eternity. Some efforts done by people discovering a suicide death range from taking a hanging victim down to attempting CPR on their loved ones.
Many suicide loss survivors unnecessarily grieve that they did not do enough or that they did not do something correctly after discovering their loved ones. It is a common mistake to think that your efforts or lack of efforts lead to their death. People die by suicide because of the pain that they had in their head and the method that they used, not because of something you did or did not do at the scene.
Social Media Groups That Focus on Suicide Loss
It also helps to learn how other people have coped with discovering someone after a suicide. Besides the in-person support groups mentioned above, there are numerous social media groups that deal with suicide loss. You may find online support and you are able to talk with other suicide loss survivors on sites like Facebook. Just be careful about the various groups and their privacy settings.
Books About Losing Someone to Suicide
Our website has numerous lists of books that help you understand the feeling associated with losing someone you care about to suicide. Reading about suicide loss was rated as the third most helpful method and by going to our reading lists you can find many books about how to cope .
Articles and Websites Dealing with Finding Someone Who Died By Suicide
Here are also a number of articles about finding and coping with what you have seen.
Resource: Blog Post
Summary: There are, unfortunately, instances in which a person dies by suicide in a public arena. If you have witnessed the suicide of a stranger in a public place, what should you do? Should you just continue on as you were before and brush the incident off? After all, you never met the person in question and don't even know the person's name.
Summary: I have worked with survivors of death by suicide, murder, accident, terrorism and natural causes. I have been privy to their most intimate moments in the homes and/or hospitals when their loved one died. I have witnessed the unbearable pain of a parent grasping an expressionless lifeless child's body. I've seen a family seek comfort in one another as they surrounded a dying loved one in prayer. I have stood by a wife as she lay in bed with her young husband and whispered in his ear that it was OK to leave and she would be fine. I'm only one of countless professionals who work with survivors and are touched by the dead.
Survivor Experience: The Features of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Summary: People who have lost a loved one to suicide are also vulnerable to PTSD, especially if they witnessed the suicide or its aftermath or if the death was described to them in graphic detail by an eyewitness or in a police or coroner's report. People who already struggle with mental health issues are especially vulnerable to PTSD.
Navigating PTSD After a Suicide
Resource: Blog Post
Summary: What do you think about when you hear the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?” The first thing I think about is the military. We so often hear about our veterans returning home from war with symptoms of PTSD. We are also all aware that this untreated PTSD often leads to suicide. But, what we do not often think about is PTSD experienced by survivors in the aftermath of a suicide. In fact, I believe that PTSD after a suicide is more prevalent than we think.
New Approaches To Helping The Witness To A Suicide:
Resource: 7 Page PDF
Summary: Sometimes in life things happen suddenly and unexpectedly, and we can become caught up in a series of circumstances beyond our control. These events can have a long lasting emotional impact upon our lives. Such is the case when one is confronted with the suicide death of another person. Being witness to the self-inflicted violence and death of a person can have many ramifications – regardless of whether one has witnessed the suicide of a loved one at home or that of a stranger in a public place.
For people who have witnessed a suicide death
Summary: There is the time-worn adage, "a witness to violence is a victim of violence." Suicide is a form of self-inflicted violence and witnessing a suicide or finding someone after they have died, whether you know the person or not, can be very traumatic. You may have intense feelings and reactions-this is a normal response to an abnormal event.
Coping after a traumatic event
Summary: A sudden illness, an accident or an assault, or a natural disaster - these are all traumatic experieCoping with traumances which can upset and distress us. They arouse powerful and disturbing feelings in us which usually settle in time, without any professional help.
Resource: 1 page PDF
Summary: After witnessing a traumatic event, you can expect to experience some strong emotional or physical reactions. In some cases, you might suffer both emotional and physical reactions.
The Haunting Effects Of Witnessing A Suicide
Resource: Blog Post
Summary: An eyewitness to a suicide recounts how they felt
Home Blessing: Love, Hope and a Wish for Peace
Resource: 1 page PDF
Summary: An article by a priest who is called by a family to bless the room a loved one died by suicide in.
Bringing Hope and Comfort: How To Help a Person Who Has Witnessed A Public Suicide
Resource: Blog Post
How a Public Suicide Harms the People Who See It: For unwitting bystanders, the experience can be traumatic.
Resource: News article
I Grieved a Stranger After He Killed Himself in Front of Me
Resource: News article