When a student dies, your grief may be heart-wrenching. When a student commits suicide, your reaction may be more complicated. Overwhelming emotions may leave you reeling — and you may be consumed by guilt, wondering if you could have done something to prevent this young person’s death. As you face life after a student’s suicide, remember that you don’t have to go through it alone.
Brace for powerful emotions
Suicide can trigger intense emotions. For example:
- Shock. Disbelief and emotional numbness may set in. You may think that student’s suicide couldn’t possibly be real.
- Anger. You may be angry with your student for abandoning their family, ministry, and friends or for leaving a legacy of grief — or angry with yourself or others for missing clues about suicidal intentions.
- Guilt. You may replay “what if” and “if only” scenarios in your mind, blaming yourself for your student’s death.
- Despair. You may be gripped by sadness, depression and a sense of defeat or hopelessness. You may have a physical collapse or even consider suicide yourself.
You may continue to experience intense reactions during the weeks and months after a student’s suicide — including nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal and loss of interest in usual activities — especially if you were the last person they called or you witnessed or discovered the suicide.
Adopt healthy coping strategies
The aftermath of a student’s suicide can be physically and emotionally exhausting. As you work through your grief and help others with theirs, be careful to protect your own well-being.
- Keep in touch. Reach out to family, friends and spiritual leaders for comfort, understanding and healing. Surround yourself with people who are willing to listen when you need to talk, as well as those who will simply offer a shoulder to lean on when you’d rather be silent.
- Grieve in your own way. Do what’s right for you, not necessarily someone else. If you find it too painful to visit your student’s gravesite or share the details of their death, wait until you’re ready. It is not healthy to be “Superman” or “Superwoman”.
- Be prepared for painful reminders. Anniversaries, holidays and other special occasions can be painful reminders of a student’s suicide. Don’t chide yourself for being sad or mournful. Instead, consider changing or suspending ministry meetings that are too painful to continue.
- Don’t rush yourself. Losing someone to suicide is a tremendous blow, and healing must occur at its own pace. Don’t be hurried by anyone else’s expectations that it’s been “long enough.”
- Expect setbacks. Some days will be better than others, even years after the suicide — and that’s OK. Healing doesn’t often happen in a straight line.
- Consider a support group for families/friends affected by suicide. Sharing your story with others who are experiencing the same type of grief may help you find a sense of purpose or strength.
Suicide grief: Healing after a student’s suicide
Know when to seek professional help
If you experience intense or unrelenting anguish or physical problems, consider asking your doctor or mental health provider for help. Seeking professional help is especially important if you think you might be depressed or you have recurring thoughts of suicide. Keep in mind that unresolved grief can turn into complicated grief, where painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that you have trouble resuming your own life.
Depending on the circumstances, you might benefit from individual or family therapy — either to get you through the worst of the crisis or to help you adjust to life after the suicide. Medication can be helpful in some cases, too.
Face the future with a sense of peace
In the aftermath of a student’s suicide, you may feel like you can’t continue in ministry or that you’ll never enjoy life again. In truth, you may always wonder why it happened — and reminders may trigger painful feelings even years later. Eventually, however, the raw intensity of your grief will fade. The tragedy of the suicide won’t dominate your days and nights. Understanding the complicated legacy of suicide and God, through the Holy Spirit, will guide us through the palpable grief will help you find peace and healing, without forgetting you’re your student.