Experiencing the death of a friend or loved one is difficult. Whether the death comes without warning or after a lengthy battle with illness, navigating the grieving process can be challenging. However, it can be particularly challenging for those who’ve lost someone to suicide. A suicide death has a ripple effect that can shake a community, especially a tight knit one like the military.
Suicide loss is traumatic and can result in a range of reactions. Dealing with these reactions in a timely manner can help prevent them leading to more serious psychological health concerns. In this article, learn to identify some of the common stress reactions to suicide loss, healthy ways to cope with the loss, the role military leadership plays in community healing, and resources for additional support.
Common Reactions to a Traumatic Event
Reactions to a trauma like suicide can be immediate or delayed. It may take you or others in your community days or months to show signs of stress. The first step to moving forward [PDF 477KB] is to recognize your stress responses to the traumatic event. Some emotional and physical stress reactions [PDF 570KB] include:
- Experiencing shock or disbelief
- Feeling angry or irritable
- Feeling sad, helpless, or numb
- Having nightmares
- Losing your appetite
- Experiencing headaches, back pain, or stomach problems
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Wanting to be alone
Ways to Cope and Recover Post-Loss
Once you’ve identified your stress reactions, you can begin to cope with your loss in a healthy way. Below are some tips to help you, your family and your military community cope with the loss.
- Maintain your normal routine. Wake up and go to sleep at your regular time. Stay consistent with your mealtimes, work schedule, and other activities.
- Take care of yourself. Focus on doing healthy activities like eating well and exercising. Avoid drinking alcohol and using drugs.
- Spend time with your family and community. Connect with friends and family, especially those who are going through the experience themselves. Offer them support.
- Talk to others and accept help. Talk to someone about how you’re doing and what you’re feeling. Accept help when it is offered.
- Give back and help others. Shift your focus to others and volunteer in your community.
Role of Leadership in Suicide Postvention
Individuals who know someone who died by suicide are at a higher risk for suicide [PDF 133KB] themselves. Postvention, the response and support available to those exposed to suicide, can help promote healing and reduce suicide risk. If you are a military leader with command responsibilities, you should be prepared to implement postvention strategies in the event of a suicide. Below are a few strategies:
- Actively listen. Listen to the needs of your subordinates and the family members affected by the loss to determine what each individual needs for their recovery.
- Connect others to resources. Identify affected service members and connect them to supportive resources and/or professional care.
- Provide support. Be understanding and offer comfort to those under your command. Encourage healthy grieving practices and coping strategies.
- Engage family and support networks. [PDF 270KB] Increase communication with service members’ families and support networks. Encourage them to reach out if they become concerned about the service member.
Sometimes you may need additional support. If you notice signs in yourself or a loved one that more help is needed, speak up and say something [PDF 2.7MB]. Reaching out for help keeps you and your military community mission ready.
Where to Find Immediate Help:
Where to Access Resources and Information:
Air Force Resilience. (n.d.). Postvention Tools.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Coping with Stress After a Traumatic Event [PDF 570KB].
Defense Suicide Prevention Office. (2012, May). Reserve Component Suicide Postvention Plan: A Toolkit for Commanders [PDF 1.3MB].
National Institute of Mental Health. (2020, Jan.). Coping with Traumatic Events.
National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Disasters and Other Traumatic Events: What Parents, Rescue Workers, and the Community Can Do [PDF 591KB].
Pruitt, Larry. (2019, Sept. 9). Planning for the Worst: A Commander’s Guide to Suicide Postvention. Psychological Health Center of Excellence: Clinician’s Corner.
Ramchand, R., Ayer, L., Fisher, G., Osilla, K. C., Barnes-Proby, D., & Wertheimer, S. (2015). Suicide Postvention in the Department of Defense: Evidence, Policies and Procedures, and Perspectives of Loss Survivors. RAND Health Quarterly, 5(2):20.