It was R U OK? Day here is Australia this week, an annual day in September dedicated to reminding people to ask family, friends and colleagues the question R U OK? – because connecting is one thing everyone can do to make a difference to anyone who might be struggling. R U OK? was created by Gavin Larkin, who lost his father to suicide in 1995. Gavin chose to champion this one question to honour his father and to try and protect other families from the pain he endured. As a school psychologist who has had direct experience supporting families and friends following a death by suicide, I thought that it would be valuable to articulate some of the common responses so writers could capture this complex, grief stricken response in an authentic and accurate way.
Learning to live with the loss following the suicide of a loved one is far from easy, and those left behind can experience one of the most traumatic events of their lives. The ripple effect is influenced by how close you are to the drop – a parent who loses their child to suicide will have a different response to their scout leader. Below are some of the most common responses to the suicide death of someone important to us, but in reality, there will be a kaleidoscope of reactions that people experience.
The hallmark of grief, this emotional reaction is likely to involve a deeply personal experience of anguish, heartache and despair. Put simply, it hurts to lose someone we love. How this presents will depend on your unique character; there may be tears, or they may not cry at all. They may mourn openly, or they may mourn only in private. They may be a dark ball of melancholy, or a streak of agitated energy. Every one of these responses is normal.
This is overwhelmingly the most common response. What if… If only… I should have seen it… I should have said something… Guilt shouts all these scenarios loudly, underscoring the belief that a loved one needed our help and we didn’t see it, or didn’t do anything to help. My role as a psychologist is often normalising (and maybe challenging) these thoughts.
A difficult, but completely normal, reaction to the loss of someone you love ending their life. This can be anger at the person who has died: ‘So selfish! How could he do this to us?’, or anger at others: ‘Why didn’t you do something?’ In some cases, anger can turn to rage, often expressed as physical violence directed at objects.
A normal stage of grief, denial is our way of protecting ourselves, a response to the pain we don’t want to feel. Disbelief that something so tragic has occurred is frequently expressed by those who are left behind, often describing a feeling that their loved one will ‘walk into the room any minute’ or ‘she’ll be there when I get home, on the computer like she always is.’
An unexpected loss, particularly when a loved one has chosen to leave us, rocks and shatters your world. What your character assumed was solid, safe, and reliable turns out to be a lie. This is frightening, because it makes us question the reliability of all our other assumptions about life. Add this to trying to process significant events when our brain in overloaded with emotion, and the world becomes a confusing place that is difficult to untangle and trust.
Pain hurts. Sadness, guilt and anger are a distressing cocktail of emotions to experience. Avoidance is one way we protect ourselves from discomfort. A person may avoid talking about the loss or the person or the circumstances surrounding their death, sometimes for years to come. In more extreme cases, avoidance may be found in a hours of gaming, in the bottom of a bottle, or in a handy pill.
The wish for something different. The overwhelming longing that things had gone another way, that a different choice was made, but mostly that the one we’ve lost was still here. I suspect this response may linger for the remainder of your character’s fictional life…
These responses are not exhaustive, but are certainly going to encapsulate a character who has lost a loved one through suicide. On a more personal note, if you, or anyone you know, has lost someone close, make sure to seek help when feeling down. Reach out to a friend, a trusted adult, or find a health professional you feel comfortable talking to. And make sure you ask someone R U OK?
This post was adapted from a joint article I wrote with a fellow writer Kat Colmer. Kat’s protagonist, Jonas, loses his father to suicide. If you enjoy a sexy and sassy young adult paranormal romance then I highly recommend The Third Kiss. You won’t be disappointed.