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Mourning the loss of a loved one from suicide

Mourning the loss of a loved one to suicide can be a difficult and painful experience. There is help and support available for service members and their families who are going through this experience. Mourning the loss of a loved one to suicide can be a difficult and painful experience. There is help and support available for service members and their families who are going through this experience. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Russel Midori)

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An unexpected loss of a loved one by suicide can leave family members and friends struggling to cope with a range of emotions and many unanswered questions. Experts from the Military Health System offer advice and resources to help through the grieving process.             

Dr. Mark Bates, associate director for psychological health promotion at the Deployment Health Clinical Center, said some common emotions people experience after a loss include sadness, shock, anger, denial and guilt. While there are various stages of grief, there’s no specific order for these emotions. People may cycle in and out of them as they process their grief.         

“Death is one of the most difficult things to accept,” said Bates. “If you put it in the context of a person killing him or herself, that’s even harder to accept, so it’s common to feel a sense of surreality, like it was a bad dream.”             

Suicide can leave behind many unanswered questions and a lack of closure for family and friends. People may feel like they could have or should have prevented the death, said Bates. They may also feel guilt from unresolved issues with the deceased.             

Another natural response is anger. It may be pointed toward the person who committed suicide, toward oneself for not detecting it or toward others who may have a perceived or real role in what happened, said Bates. 

“The reality is that we all do our best and hindsight is 20/20,” said Bates. 

Lt. Col. David Bowerman, a chaplain in the Army Surgeon General’s office, said finding support is an important part of mourning. While it may not be comfortable to talk about feelings related to loss by suicide, it is important to find safe, comfortable ways to express your feelings as you are grieving. 

“We’re all feeling [various emotions] but maybe we think we’re the only one who feels that way,” said Bowerman, who lost his brother to suicide five years ago. “If we take the time to mourn, to join with others who suffered the same loss and support each other, we can get some healing and closure that way.” 

Chaplains and clergy members are available to all service members to provide a confidential space to talk and offer support. The website Military OneSource can provide service members and their families information on face-to-face counseling, benefits, support groups and grief counseling. The site also offers confidential services by phone and online 24 hours a day. Therapists, grief counselors and support groups specific to this issue can also be found in local communities. Finding ways to acknowledge and work through feelings, such as journaling, making art or writing a letter to the person who has passed, can also help. 

Everyone’s process and length of mourning is different. It is important to set boundaries with others and not let others tell you how to feel, said Bates. 

“Where you’re at is where you’re at,” said Bates, stressing that going through the full spectrum of emotions is normal. “Your body and mind is doing what it needs to do to heal and sometimes there’s a lot of pressure […] of what we should be doing.” 

For information on resources and services available to service members and families coping with the loss of a loved one, visit www.militaryonesource.mil

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