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Dealing with Anxiety and Guilt After a Loved One’s Suicide

September 10, 2020 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Trigger warning: This post contains frank discussion of anxiety and guilt after a loved one has died by suicide. 

Losing a friend or loved one to suicide can be devastating and cause a storm of roiling emotions that threaten to overpower you. Among the many strong emotions you may be feeling are anxiety and guilt. These emotions are complex and multifaceted, making them hard to deal with.

The more you understand the very normal feelings of guilt and anxiety following a loved one's death by suicide, the better equipped you'll be to deal with them positively.

Understanding the Depths of Anxiety and Guilt After a Loved One's Suicide

It's normal to feel anxiety and guilt after losing a loved one to suicide. Few people, though, realize just how complex these emotions are. People can face many different inner and outer experiences when dealing with this type of loss, and many of them cause anxiety and guilt.

These include:

  • Beating yourself up for missing signs or for not having done more to help
  • Feeling unease at all of the remaining unknowns and unanswered questions 
  • Feeling dread at the thought that these unknowns and unanswered questions may never be answered
  • Experiencing discomfort because you are living and because you want to be alive despite this pain (this is also known as survivor guilt)
  • Feeling that you don't deserve to move forward and heal from this tragic loss
  • Experiencing conflicts stemming from religious beliefs (many religions view suicide as a sin and restrict services and rites for someone who has died by suicide, leaving survivors to worry about their loved one's soul)

Feelings of anxiety and guilt after a loved one's suicide can be intensified when it's difficult to talk about the death. Sometimes, people feel guilty about needing support so are reluctant to seek it, adding a new layer of anxiety while leaving the other aspects of anxiety and guilt unaddressed.

Further interfering in someone seeking help for themselves is the stigma that continues to surround suicide.1,2 It's difficult to know how to openly discuss death by suicide, so many people avoid doing so. Also, loved ones often disagree about whether to keep the cause of death a secret. If the person who died was close to children, knowing what to say to them can also cause anxiety and guilt. 

While feelings of anxiety and guilt are very normal, that doesn't mean that you have to experience them intensely for a long time. You can deal positively with them (including the guilt that might arise from dealing with them positively). 

How to Deal with Anxiety, Guilt When a Loved One Dies by Suicide

It's important to know that losing someone to suicide is a complex and personal situation that is different for every person who experiences it. Therefore, there is no single right way to deal with it.1 Allow yourself to be you by noticing how you feel in a given moment, pausing to name it and simply be present with it without judging yourself for it or comparing yourself to others. Remind yourself that your feelings of anxiety and guilt are normal, and let yourself feel them. 

There's a fine line, though, between allowing your feelings to exist and remaining stuck in them. Try these approaches when you catch yourself stuck in anxiety, guilt, and grief:

  • Examine your thoughts and feelings more deeply to determine what is driving them. Use the above list as a guide to help you understand your feelings. When you can name specific anxious beliefs or what's underlying the guilt, you can then address it rather than giving in to vague negative feelings.
  • Write in a journal. Journaling can be helpful in exploring your specific anxiety and guilt. You can also write letters to your loved one and to yourself to help you sort things out. This is especially useful when you are having a hard time finding people to talk to. 
  • Talk to someone. While journals can be great tools in helping you express difficult thoughts and emotions, the conversations are one-sided. They can be a great asset, but they don't replace person-to-person interaction. Seek the help of a therapist to help you through this time. You can also find support groups for people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Being able to share thoughts to others who can relate can be comforting and anxiety-relieving. 

Dealing with the storm that follows a loved one's death by suicide isn't easy. Anxiety and guilt are common and often intense. Know, understand, and allow your feelings and thoughts, and reach out for support.

If you feel that you may hurt yourself or someone else, call 9-1-1 immediately. 

For more information on suicide, see our suicide resources, information, and support section. For additional mental health help, please see our mental health hotline numbers and referral information section. 

Sources

  1. Mayo Clinic Staff, "Suicide Grief." Mayo Clinic, May 12, 2020.
  2. Harvard Women's Health Watch, "Left Behind After Suicide." Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, May 29, 2019. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2020, September 10). Dealing with Anxiety and Guilt After a Loved One’s Suicide, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, September 30 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2020/9/dealing-with-anxiety-and-guilt-after-a-loved-ones-suicide



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson delivers online and in-person mental health education for students in elementary and middle school. She is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She also speaks nationally about mental health. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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