Grief Awareness Week: Shining a light on grief after suicide loss

candle burning
Image description: candle burning with dark background

Grief after suicide loss can be particularly complicated and difficult. You may experience a wide range of feelings and thoughts that are difficult to understand and to manage. 

Feelings you might experience when you lose someone to suicide include intense sadness, shock, anger, frustration, confusion and isolation.

Some people also talk about experiencing a sense of shame or guilt, and while this is a very common reaction it is important to remember that people who take their own lives are often trying to stop feelings of distress that can feel as intense and real as physical pain – the reasons for suicide are complex and you are not to blame.

“You can’t force yourself to feel great after something like that has happened. You can’t change how you feel… If I’d just swallowed my anger and my shock I’d probably be worse off now, but instead I let it out… You’ve got to find a way to let your feelings out” – Rachel, Suicide Bereavement Service Client

Ahead of Grief Awareness Week (2 – 8 December), we are shining a spotlight on our Suicide Bereavement Service and the meaningful work they do across South East London.

“I just don’t know how I would have got through the year without this support. I feel incredibly grateful” – Michael, Suicide Bereavement Service Client

Delivered as a partnership between Mind in South East London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, the service is based at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham.

This year, the service has provided over 2000 hours of support to 234 people who have lost someone to suicide.

To delve deeper into the important work of the Suicide Bereavement team, we spoke to the service’s manager, Amy Kirk-Smith, about how they help people coping with loss after suicide.

Why was the service set up?

The Suicide Bereavement Service was launched in August 2021. The NHS funded a wave of similar services up and down the country as part of its long-term plan for suicide prevention.

We recognise that:

  • Grief following suicide bereavement is especially complex and people are, therefore, particularly in need of support.
  • People bereaved by suicide sadly are at greater risk of feeling suicidal and attempting suicide themselves. Our service makes sure this group is supported and prevent further deaths by suicide.

On a day-to-day level, I see our purpose as making a deeply painful experience a little bit easier to cope with, a little bit less burdensome for the person going through it.

“We can’t change what’s happened but we aim to reduce some of the burden and help people feel less alone” – Amy Kirk-Smith, Service Manager, Suicide Bereavement Support

The South East London Suicide Bereavement team, left to right: Ayah Hamadeh, Support Worker; Justin Alexander, Support Worker; Levi Santana, Community Chaplain; Laura Hurley-Barrett, Counsellor; Ian Pearce, Community Chaplain; Amy Kirk-Smith, Service Manager; Sam Stevens, Administrator. 

The South East London Suicide Bereavement team, left to right: Ayah Hamadeh, Support Worker; Justin Alexander, Support Worker; Levi Santana, Community Chaplain; Laura Hurley-Barrett, Counsellor; Ian Pearce, Community Chaplain; Amy Kirk-Smith, Service Manager; Sam Stevens, Administrator. 

How many people have accessed the service?

Since the service launched, we have supported over 350 people. On average, we provide around 40 hours of support each week. 

How to access the service

We accept self-referrals, referrals from friends and family and referrals from professionals. We try to make the process as easy as possible.

There is a short referral form which can be emailed to us, but we also encourage people to just give us a call on 07933 393 397 between 9am and 5pm Monday-Friday. If we’re not available right away, we’ll call back as soon as possible.

Being there when it matters most

We normally receive around 40% of our referrals from the Metropolitan Police through a system called Real Time Surveillance. This Thrive LDN system means we can reach out proactively to bereaved people within days or weeks of their loved one’s death.

“This service was exceptional in helping me process what had happened and how to move forward” – Rachel, Suicide Bereavement Service Client

Is the service open to all?

Our focus is on supporting people who are recently bereaved (although we accept people at any stage).

  • If you live in SE London and are struggling with having lost someone to suicide, the service is open to you.
  • We are available to people of all ages who can engage in talking-based support, including young people.

What can clients expect?

We see each person individually – we provide support that is focused on your needs.

This could be:

  • One-to-one support. This very flexible and is built around each person’s needs – everyone needs different things when they’ve been recently bereaved. For some people, there might be a lot of immediate practical tasks, while others might just want a regular space to talk and get emotional support from a professional. On a practical level, we can offer support with anything from registering the death and organising the funeral to dealing with the financial impact and the inquest process.*

If you are further along in your bereavement journey, we offer:

  • Peer Support. Our support groups provide a space to meet and connect with people who can relate to the experience of losing a loved one to suicide.
  • Bereavement Counselling. A deeper exploration of certain emotions, particularly where someone feels stuck in being able to process what’s happened.
  • Walk and Talk groups – a space for people to connect in an informal way without a regular commitment.

*The emotional support we offer at this stage is not therapy, but a space to be listened to without judgement, to explore emotions in the here and now and learn more about the grieving process. Most people access this support for up to 6 months, but there is no set time limit or number of sessions.

Do people bereaved by suicide face different challenges to those bereaved by other types of death?

There’s a phrase I’ve heard to describe the experience of bereavement by suicide: “Grief with the volume turned up”.

Emotions like regret, shock and guilt could happen after any bereavement, but losing someone to suicide is an especially painful and confusing way to lose someone.

Other common emotional experiences include trauma, unanswered questions and thinking about what ifs.

“It took me a good few years to work through my feelings about the death… (but) in coming out of the depression I finally began to truly be myself and stop feeling so isolated and detached”Winston, Suicide Bereavement Service Client

There are also practical challenges which can arise with any sudden death, such as the absence of a will or funeral wishes. In England, any death considered to be unnatural will be referred to the coroner. If they decide to carry out an inquest, it can take a long time to conclude and cause distress to family and friends.

Are people bereaved by suicide at greater risk from mental ill health?

Sadly, there is evidence to suggest this.

In a University of Manchester study of 7,000 people bereaved by suicide in the UK, over a third of respondents reported mental health problems following the death. Women were more likely to report a deterioration in physical health and increased use of prescription drugs, while alcohol use and illicit drug use were more common among men. Three per cent had been hospitalised for mental illness following their loss.

Does the stigma around suicide negatively impact on the lives of those affected by it?

Based on my conversations, I think stigma still has a significant impact.

Due to stigma, some find those around them:

  • Don’t want to talk about the person who has died
  • Avoid the bereaved person more than they would someone who’d been through a different type of bereavement.

“Stigmatising attitudes still exist about suicide, for example, that it is selfish or that people who attempt suicide are attention-seeking; however, I think this is changing” Amy Kirk-Smith, Service Manager, Suicide Bereavement Support

Some people may feel they have to – or may choose to – keep the way the person died a secret, which can make it more difficult to talk openly about what has happened.

An example of this is with children: when someone dies by suicide, people may not want or may not know how to tell children what really happened.

Expert guidance suggests that children should be given truthful information in an age-appropriate way. There is helpful information about this at Child Bereavement UK and Winston’s Wish.

What are you hoping for the client to have achieved by the end of the support period?

We aim to normalise people’s reactions, help them understand what they’re feeling and connect them with others.

We support people through the extremely difficult period immediately following the death and help them find ways to manage going forward.

Ultimately, we hope that through accessing support, people will:

  • feel more resilient
  • find ways of coping that work for them.
  • feel more able to face life without the person they’ve lost.

Every day we see from people who’ve used our service that it’s absolutely possible for life to be fulfilling and meaningful after suicide loss.

Our Suicide Bereavement Service is here to help you in the aftermath of loss, offering one-to-one emotional and practical support.

To access this service, please visit the South London and Maudsley NHS Suicide Bereavement Service page. We accept both self-referrals and professional referralsas well as referrals for children.

If you prefer you can:
Call: 07933 393 397