Practical Information for Immediately After a Loss
Adapted from After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief (2nd Edition) by Jack Jordan, Ph.D., and Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
The immediate aftermath of a loved one’s suicide is a challenging, confusing, and painful time. The information that follows will help get you through the first few days with a better understanding of the things you’re likely to face.
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Do the police have to get involved?
Because suicide is considered an unnatural death, the authorities are required to investigate. Suicide is not against the law, but given that there are cases where a homicide has been made to look like a suicide, the authorities will want to make certain that the suicide has not been staged to cover up foul play.
At the scene of the suicide the police may limit your access to the body—and to your home, if that’s where the suicide took place—until their initial investigation is complete. They may also take some of your loved one’s personal belongings, including any notes or messages that they may have left. If the police take personal possessions, be sure to ask for an inventory so you can keep track of what should be returned to you. You have the right to get all of these possessions back once the investigation is complete.
As part of the investigation, the police will want to question you. You should cooperate with them, but you have every right to ask them to conduct their investigation quickly and sensitively.
Remember that neither you nor your loved one has committed a crime.▲ Back to Top
Can I/do I have to view the body?
If you are the immediate next of kin but not the person who discovered and identified the body at the scene of the suicide, you will be asked to identify the body either in person or through photographs. You may choose not to identify the body yourself and ask someone else to do so.
Even if the body has already been identified, you have the right to view it, and also to request that the coroner or medical examiner give you time alone with your loved one.
Whether you view your loved one’s body is up to you. Research conducted with people who chose to view the body indicates that most survivors later on feel they made the right decision in doing so. While they may forever carry that last image in their mind, they also feel that the experience helped them come to terms with the reality of the death. But this comes down to a difficult and obviously stressful decision on your part – take your time, and try, as best you can, to decide what will be best for you in the long run.
Before you view the body, it is a good idea to have a friend or relative view the body (or photographs of the body) first to determine if the sight might be too traumatic for you.
The medical examiner or coroner may discourage you from viewing the body if the suicide method has caused significant damage on the grounds that the sight will unduly upset you. This is a legitimate concern, but the decision about whether to view the body and how much of the body to view is yours to make.▲ Back to Top
Does there have to be an autopsy?
In the event of a suicide, the medical examiner or coroner may be required to perform an autopsy on the body, which is a surgical procedure used to determine the cause of death. The next of kin have a right to request a copy of the autopsy report.▲ Back to Top
What can I expect if I witnessed the suicide or if I found the body?
If you witnessed the suicide of your loved one or found the body, you are likely to experience trauma symptoms in addition to grief over the loss of your loved one. Images of your loved one at the time of death may be burned into your memory, making it difficult to concentrate on other things. You may experience anxiety and confusion as well as physical symptoms such as chest pain, stomach or digestive problems, breathing problems, or difficulty sleeping. It is also important to know that, even when you have not been an eyewitness to the death, you may develop trauma symptoms.
These emotional and physical reactions are normal responses to trauma and, even though it may not feel like it now, they will likely diminish in the weeks and months to come. If they do not, it is best to seek the help of a mental health professional who has experience working with people who have had traumatic experiences or losses.▲ Back to Top
What do I need to know about planning the funeral?
If you have any concerns that the funeral home where you would like to hold your loved one’s funeral might not be comfortable handling a suicide death, ask up front (or have a family member or friend ask for you).
If the funeral is to include a member of the clergy, talk to them in advance to explore their understanding of suicide and consider educating or avoiding those who hold views about suicide being sinful. Research shows that suicide relates to a combination of health and psychosocial (life) factors, and there are many clergy who will be both sympathetic and supportive of you and your family, so there’s no reason to settle for someone who is not.
If you’d like to memorialize your loved one with charitable donations, provide an “in lieu of flowers” statement in the obituary or at the funeral home that informs people where they can send monetary donations in your loved one’s name. For information on how to memorialize someone by supporting the work of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, visit AFSP’s Memorial Fund page.▲ Back to Top
In my loved one’s obituary, do I have to say the death was a suicide?
Do what feels comfortable to you. However, by including the cause of death you will avoid repeated questions and rumors about how your loved one died later on, and you will again give people the opportunity to support you in a way that is appropriate.▲ Back to Top