Loss of a Loved One by Suicide Is Like Experiencing a Brain Injury for a Senior
Losing a loved one to suicide is an experience that will forever remain etched in the hearts and minds of those who have had the unfortunate experience, and highly challenging for a senior. It can be an incredibly traumatic event that can cause long-lasting psychological scars and grief that can be incredibly difficult to process and overcome.
The impact of suicide on those closest to the person who has passed away is often described as similar to experiencing a brain injury. This certainly appears to be the case in seniors who experience the loss of a family member by suicide. In many ways, it’s true – the lack of closure, the feeling of guilt or regret, and the confusion caused by the sudden death can all lead to profound changes in how a person processes emotions, perceives reality, and interacts with others.
The sudden nature of losing someone to suicide can leave family members feeling like they are in shock. They may find themselves unable to fully comprehend what has happened until much later, if ever. This is because their brains often need time for neuroplasticity – the ability of our brains to adapt and change over time – to kick in. This process helps us break down complex experiences into smaller pieces to process them more readily.
Suicide Statistics in the United States
Thousands of people in the United States take their own lives every year, leaving behind devastated family and friends. Suicide is a major public health issue, and understanding its contributing factors can help inform prevention strategies. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 48,344 suicide deaths in the United States in 2018. According to this data, suicide is the country’s 10th leading cause of death overall. On average, there are 129 suicides per day.
Suicide is most common among adults between the ages of 45 and 54, while those 85 years old or older have the highest suicide rate at 17.2 per 100,000 individuals. The suicide rate has seen a sharp rise in recent years; since 1999, the rate has increased by over 30 percent, with notable increases across all age groups since 2008.
The majority of suicides occur among men. Seventy-nine percent of deaths by suicide involve men compared to 21 percent by women. The rate of suicide death among males was three times higher than that for females in 2018—20.2 per 100,000 males compared to 5.3 per 100,000 females. The most common methods for both sexes tend to be:
- Firearms – 45 percent
- Hangings/suffocation 40 percent
- Poisoning/intentional overdoses – 8 percent
Certain populations are particularly vulnerable to suicide due to social or economic factors; for example, American Indian or Alaska Native individuals experience the highest suicide rate at 14 per 100,000, followed by non-Hispanic white individuals at 13 per 100,000. Rates vary widely among states, from a low of 6-7 deaths per 100,000 people in Washington D.C., New Jersey, and New York to highs as high as 25-30 deaths per 100,000 people in Idaho and Montana.
Suicide is a complex phenomenon with no single cause but multiple contributing factors, such as mental illness, relationship problems, or substance misuse. Other risk factors include:
- Access to firearms or other lethal means
- Media portrayals glamorizing suicidal behavior
- Traumatic experiences such as physical or sexual abuse
- Isolation and loneliness
- Financial strain
- Medical illnesses such as cancer or chronic pain
- Living alone
- Lack of social support
- Feeling socially isolated or disconnected from society
- Stigma surrounding mental health issues
- Being exposed to someone else’s suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Certain religious beliefs that forbid seeking help from outside sources like mental health professionals
Although anyone can become suicidal under certain conditions, some steps can be taken preventatively, such as removing access to firearms from homes where someone may be depressed or have suicidal thoughts, talking openly about feelings with friends, family members, coworkers, clergy members; building strong connections with supportive people; getting prompt, professional help if symptoms worsen; learning coping skills for dealing with life stressors; becoming involved in activities that bring joy like volunteering, learning a new skill, participating in physical activity; setting realistic goals and expectations which can provide purpose and meaning. Ultimately it is important to remember that seeking treatment when needed is not only okay but vital for reducing the prevalence of suicide within our communities.
One such effect of neuroplasticity is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Those affected by suicide are particularly vulnerable to this disorder as they face a range of emotions that often don’t fit into specific categories, such as sadness or anger. Instead, survivors must grapple with blame, guilt, shame, confusion, and loneliness which can be very difficult for some people to manage without professional help or support from family or friends.
Other effects of losing someone close include depression, which can manifest through feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing, leading an individual down darker paths if not managed effectively. People who have experienced loss due to suicide also struggle with social isolation due to their inability or fear of interacting with others after experiencing such trauma. Loved ones and professionals alike need to recognize these possible symptoms for individuals grieving from suicide loss to find healing through sharing experiences within supportive networks.
Survivors may also feel disconnected from their own lives due to what feels like “brain fog” caused by the intense emotional energy associated with processing trauma-related events following a death by suicide. This phenomenon appears when overwhelmed individuals go into autopilot mode, which leads them to disconnect from reality while they take their time rebuilding their sense of identity post-loss. Feelings linked closely with brain fog include withdrawal from activities previously enjoyed, difficulty concentrating on tasks at hand, difficulty forming meaningful connections with others, and feeling emotionally drained all the time even when there seems nothing in particular wrong with them externally speaking, according to neuroscience experts associated with Harvard Medical School Health Publishing Group.
In conclusion, it is important that anyone affected by losing a loved one understand that their situation is unique. It will take time for them to heal emotionally before moving positively from such a tragic event. Still, it’s not impossible to give enough support internally through personal reflection and external sources, including friends, family, or an experienced therapist.