When Your Spouse Dies By Suicide | Counseling | Therapy

When Your Spouse Dies By Suicide

Dr. Erica Goldblatt Hyatt , LCSW, DSW — Therapist

Close up of an adult placing one hand on a gravestone, and their other hand holding pink chrysanthemums image

Suicide is a difficult word to say, and an even harder concept to grasp. Whether it happens after a few years of partnership or what seems like a lifetime together, the suicide of a spouse is always shocking. Your spouse may have been struggling with mental illness and suicidal ideation, and this may not have been the first time they attempted to take their own life. Or, your spouse’s suicide may have been completely unexpected. How do you begin to cope with this tragic, unspeakable loss? Seeking spousal loss therapy can help you begin to put one foot in front of the other and begin to cope with one of life’s greatest tragedies.

Suicide is the second most common cause of death for people ages 15-34. While people ages 65-74 have lower rates of suicide than younger age groups, rates of suicide increase beyond 74, particularly in men. People who die by suicide may have a history of mental illness or substance abuse, but sometimes a suicide can feel as though it comes completely out of the blue. If your spouse died by suicide, beyond the shock, you may be feeling especially isolated, because suicide is a very stigmatized form of death. There are some losses that are unspeakable, not only because of the manner of death, but because society has dictated that death by suicide is wrong or shameful. In the past, this perception was fueled by some religious and cultural beliefs, but more and more, clergy and society at large are becoming more compassionate and understanding. Today, people are being encouraged to talk about suicide, to understand that suicide is the result of many complex and intersecting issues, and that survivors need to reach out for support. This is where spousal loss therapy services can provide you with a place to begin.

My Spouse Died By Suicide…Can Spousal Loss Therapy Help?

The short answer is yes. In the aftermath of suicide, you may be experiencing guilt about how you might have prevented your spouse from ending their life. The truth is, nobody can stop another person from making a decision like suicide. If your relationship was troubled, or your spouse insinuated that you might be to blame if something happened to them, this still does not mean you were responsible for what happened. There may never be a satisfying answer for “why” your spouse died by suicide, but assigning blame to yourself is not helpful. However, guilt is normal, as is social isolation, because so many people do not understand suicide, and can even make hurtful remarks about what happened. When you come to spousal loss therapy, you will be met by a therapist who is experienced and knowledgeable in working with spouses who have been affected by suicide. A spousal loss therapist can help validate and normalize your feelings of loss, and walk you through your understanding of what happened.

Sometimes one unspeakable thought that arises after a suicide is that a survivor feels relief that their spouse is no longer suffering, and this immediately creates a secondary reaction of guilt. Only you know the toll that your spouse’s mental illness or suffering took on your spouse, and how this affected many areas of their life and your life together, and it is OK for you to also feel relief for yourself, that you do not have to experience your spouse’s suffering. A spousal loss therapist can help you deconstruct the guilt you feel and create self-compassion and understanding.

Usually in the aftermath of a suicide, friends and family step up to help support the spousal survivor. However, it is normal for these supports to gradually drift back to their regular lives and priorities. On the other hand, you may still be navigating your new normal and, above all, you may still feel like you want to talk about what happened. It is not uncommon for survivors to feel silenced after a few months of grieving: while others have moved on, you may still feel very much consumed by thoughts about your spouse’s suicide. Spousal loss therapy creates a safe environment for you to talk about what happened for as long as you want, however you want, with coaching and coping techniques provided to help you continue to make meaning from your loss.

You may also be wondering how you will face formerly happy milestones like anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays. In the first year following a suicide, celebrating anything can feel impossible or inappropriate. A spousal loss therapist will help guide you through these events and also reassure you that there are ways to approach each day mindfully and with purpose. They will also reassure you that the anxiety and anticipation of the event is usually far more distressing than the day itself. Furthermore, they will help prepare you for new milestones and holidays without your spouse, as well as to accept feelings of guilt when you begin to experience happy moments again. Though it may feel impossible, you will find happiness and joy, but when this comes, you will likely experience guilt: shouldn’t you continue to feel sad after your spouse’s suicide? Is it fair to feel joy when their life has ended so tragically? The answer is a resounding yes. You will never forget your spouse, and their death will always be tragic, but a spousal loss therapist can help you live your life and engage in it fully, because you have chosen to live, and are allowed to create a meaningful existence.

Beginning to Process Your Spouse’s Suicide

Spousal loss therapy can help you address and cope with distressing symptoms after your loss. Many survivors of suicide experience upsetting, intrusive images and painful reminders of their loved one’s suicide. If you are experiencing this, it is very important for you to reach out for help. One of the key elements of spousal loss therapy is to learn ways to cope with these upsetting memories, as well as the many thoughts and feelings you have in the wake of the death of your spouse.

As you prepare for spousal loss therapy, it may be helpful to explore your feelings by externalizing them into a letter to your spouse. Give yourself permission to write or type a document where you explore the following:

  • Feelings of anger, betrayal, and resentment for your spouse
  • The physical experience of grief in your body – where is your grief taking residence?
  • Things you wish your spouse knew before and after their suicide
  • Hopes, wishes, or dreams that died when your spouse died by suicide
  • If you can allow it: wishes for the future, years from now, that give you hope for moving forward in life
  • Shared memories: vivid descriptions of times that were special for the both of you.

It can also be useful to write a letter of forgiveness and compassion to yourself. What would you advise your best friend if they were grieving the loss of a spouse to suicide? What words would you want them to hear?

It is important for you to know that spousal survivors of suicide can be at greater risk for depression and other mental health disorders, as well as physical ailments, so it is extremely important to take care of yourself during this time. In addition to working with a spousal loss therapist, you should focus on eating healthfully, getting rest, and calling upon your support network. If you have children, include trusted mentors, teachers, guidance counselors, or religious clergy to help with discussions about suicide and death. Creating enduring relationships with your spouse who died may feel impossible at first, but it can also be reassuring for you and your children in the long run. Some families find it meaningful to create a memory box that includes pictures, cards, tokens, and other mementos that children and a surviving parent can add to as the years go on, keeping their loved one up to date with the new memories that are made. Some families may also choose to honor certain holidays and anniversaries by lighting a candle, visiting a memorial site, or simply spending time in nature. Right now you may feel anger and confusion, and you may not want to be thinking about how your family will move forward following this immense loss. This is where spousal loss therapy can be helpful, meeting you where you are at in the grieving process, and helping you to make a meaningful life moving forward.

In a perfect world, nobody would suffer the loss of their life partner, but the reality is that tragedies happen, and suicide may be one of the most painful. Remember that the concept of closure does not exist in grief situations: there is a myth that the bereaved should “get over” their loss within a certain amount of time. Know that your loss will be with you for the rest of your own life, but it won’t always feel so upsetting and painful. Slowly, with the help of spousal loss therapy, you can begin to cope, learn skills to help you face the pain of the loss, and find hope in your life again.

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