Trigger warning: This post contains a frank discussion of suicide and suicide attempts as it pertains to guilt and anxiety regarding suicide.
Every time somebody attempts or dies by suicide, at least six people are left struggling profoundly to deal with the difficult, overwhelming emotions that are a natural part of grief.1 Those bereaved by suicide often feel high anxiety and guilt. Unfortunately, however, this intense anxiety and crushing guilt can be overlooked as everyone focuses on the person who has attempted or died by suicide. If you have excessive anxiety, worry, fear, and/or feelings of guilt in the wake of suicidal behavior of someone you care about, know that you're not alone and that your feelings aren't wrong or selfish. The following information can help you identify your anxiety and guilt as well as know what to do about it.
It's Okay to Have Anxiety and Guilt When a Loved One Attempts or Dies by Suicide
Suicide causes anxiety not only in the person planning it but also in caring and concerned friends and family members. Worries, fears, and relentless what-ifs are common in someone mourning a loved one's suicide attempt or completion.
Anxiety can skyrocket when family members are called to the hospital or the morgue. This can be incredibly traumatic. Sometimes, it's hard for someone to stop thinking about the event or to rid themselves of horrific images. These recurring thoughts can intensify anxiety until it seems to take over. Such acute stress and trauma can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); therefore, receiving help in the form of therapy, medication, or both is vital.
Anxiety can also develop when there are problems within the family and disagreements around how to talk about the (attempted) suicide. Stress and tension are usually high, and when coupled with grief and loss can wreak havoc on someone's sense of security and stability. When family members argue about to whom to disclose information (Employers? School? Family friends? Young family members?) and what, exactly, to say, anxiety can make civil communications and solutions impossible, which serves to exacerbate anxiety even more.
Common worries following a loved one's death by suicide or attempted suicide include:
- Was this my fault?
- Could I have prevented it?
- What is wrong with me that I didn't see this coming?
- Will my loved one try again?
- How can I prevent this from happening again?
- I'm afraid I'll be powerless to stop her if she wants to retry.
The worries and fears that arise after a loved one's suicide attempt or completion can take over, affecting your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It's not unusual for someone to develop anxiety about the safety of all loved ones, which can lead to over-protecting, fretting, and clinginess. This, in turn, can strain relationships, increasing stress and anxiety.
It's normal to feel out of control or unsteady after someone you love dies by suicide or attempts to do so. Your future can seem uncertain, which is another cause of anxiety. Feeling steady and calm in the knowledge that everyone you care about is safe can seem impossible, especially at first.
Anxiety can become debilitating. It's important that you be able to seek the help you need in order to heal from anxious thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that arise when dealing with suicidal behavior in your loved one. Guilt, though, can interfere, preventing people from reaching out.
Guilt Is Normal After a Loved One Attempts or Dies by Suicide
Guilt and anxiety often go hand and hand, each contributing to the other in a dizzying dance. Survivor's guilt is an extremely common experience in many situations involving a death regardless of the cause. When a loved one dies, or attempts to die, by suicide, survivor's guilt can be paralyzing. Just a few examples of the guilt people may feel in this situation include:
- This was my fault.
- I should have been a better spouse/parent/child/sibling/friend.
- I am a terrible person for wanting to avoid the stigma surrounding my loved one's death.
- What if I had paid more attention to him?
- What if I had tried harder to take her to the therapist or doctor?
- What if I hadn't been late to get home?
Ruminations of guilt and anxiety can be relentless. A loop of emotionally and physically painful what-ifs can haunt someone night and day.
You are Allowed To Seek Help
Anxiety and guilt can keep you prisoner. Both can make you want to avoid anyone and anything that has to do with facing this painful struggle. Many people believe that they don't deserve to seek help for themselves, but that is a belief distorted by anxiety, worry, fear, guilt, loss, and grief. Connecting with others can help you deal with your feelings, thoughts, and experiences and adjust to a life that has been changed by the suicidal behavior of someone you care about.
Working with a therapist that specializes in grief and the anxiety associated with it can help you identify distorted beliefs, confront them, and rework them to reduce both anxiety and guilt. Support groups can also be valuable. Group information can often be found at your community center, library, hospital, schools, or clinics.
Experiencing anxiety, guilt, or both after someone you care about has attempted or died by suicide is normal, but that doesn't mean the thoughts are accurate. It's possible to heal, and, yes, you deserve it.
If you feel that you may hurt yourself or someone else, call 9-1-1 immediately.
For more information on suicide, see our suicide information, resources and support section. For additional mental health help, please see our mental health hotline numbers and referral information section.
- Harvard Health Publishing, "Left Behind After Suicide." May 2019.
- Bryan, H., "After an Attempt: The Emotional Impact of a Suicide Attempt on Families." Feeling Blue: Suicide Prevention Council, 2006.