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How Do I Handle My Own Reactions Following a Suicide or a Suicide Attempt?

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

What about me? How do I handle my own reactions following a suicide or a suicide attempt?

Suicide is stressful and painful for everyone involved. It goes way beyond the pain of the suicidal individual and affects all of the people who care about or who depend upon that suicidal person. If you are trying to help a suicidal person to feel better, odds are that you yourself will have a difficult time as well. If you have recently lost someone to suicide, odds are that you will be devastated or at least experience a grief reaction for some time.

Don't underestmate the emotional impact on yourself of the work you do to support someone through a suicidal crisis. Though you may not be suicidal, you are likely to have been affected by exposure to someone who is. It's not that suicidality is contagious (it isn't). It's more that being around suicidal people is frequently depressing and difficult. It raises the issue of death and the meaning of life and other existential issues that most people would rather not face. You may end up feeling angry, guilty, helpless or depressed yourself in the wake of a suicide attempt or a completed suicide. Your entire family may share in these feelings and reactions. To the extent that dealing with a suicidal crisis has disrupted your normal household and work routines, you may find yourself confronted by upset family members and angry bosses and clients. There may be other family issues you need to attend to that are sources of stress. Such reactions are likely to be magnified many times if your loved one dies.

To the extent you have been affected by a loved one's suicide or suicide attempts, you may benefit from speaking with a therapist so as to help work through your powerful emotional reactions.

In working to support a suicidal person you care about, take care to balance the effort you put into that support with the demands of keeping your own family and work commitments running, and supporting and nurturing your own mental health. Don't try to be the sole support for a suicidal person. Instead, enlist the help of competent people around you who can share the load. If the situation requires professional intervention, then go about arranging for that professional intervention and do so without feeling guilty. You cannot support other people if you do not first and most primarily make it a priority to support yourself. While you may need to over-extend yourself during the immediate crisis, don't try to operate that way for an extended period. Make it a priority to recover your normal rhythms as soon as you can.

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