Thursday, February 25, 2021

Suicide Loss and COVID-19 Loss: Accompanying the Grieving


With over half a million deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and 2.5 million worldwide, we are living in a world of grief. This tragic loss is finally being acknowledged with national memorials and moments of silence. “Remember those we lost and those we left behind,” President Biden said this past week.

Grief radiates out from its source to encompass many. Each COVID loss could affect dozens of people in a family, friend circle, workplace, and community, just as each suicide loss has been estimated to bring major life disruption to about 18 people. With 47,511 American suicides in 2019, that means some 855,000 more people dealing with grief after suicide. The data are not yet in for 2020 but anecdotal evidence suggests that suicide rates may have risen due, in part, to stresses of the pandemic.

Like suicide loss, COVID loss is a type of traumatic loss that may involve PTSD-type symptoms. As with suicide, deaths from COVID often happen suddenly with no time to say good bye. Likewise, survivors may feel guilt for not having been able to prevent the death or for not realizing the gravity of the person’s condition. They may even feel shame in some communities, believing that COVID or suicide taint the family name (for example, among women in Japan). Those with COVID loss may have the additional burden of having been separated from their hospitalized loved ones and prevented from gathering for in-person funerals and memorials.

With recognition that the bereaved are secondary victims of COVID, organizations are forming to bring COVID loss survivors together for mutual support. This reminds me of the growth of suicide loss survivors support groups since the 1980s. We cry and rage and cheer each other’s steps forward in small groups; we grieve and hope together at larger gatherings of the suicide loss and suicide prevention communities. We share one another’s sorrow and healing on a path most folks don’t understand.

My entire adult life, I’ve felt compelled to reach out to the grieving. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time mourning my parents, who died when I was 19 and 26 (my father by suicide), and knew what a scary, draining, isolating experience it can be. Or maybe it’s because I got comfortable talking honestly about death and dying in a cancer patients’ family support group at a formative age. In my twenties and thirties, my peers knew little of death, even less of suicide loss. So on the rare occasions when death touched their lives, I tried to talk with them and signal that I understood some of what they were going through and was ready to listen. I started a lifelong habit of writing notes on sympathy cards beyond the usual condolences. I envisioned myself standing at the gate of a mourning grove that others hesitated to enter and welcoming them inside. It felt like my natural habitat.

After my son’s suicide in 2013, I stood at a most fearsome gate. I now realize that I was ushered into a very special mourning grove by fellow suicide loss survivors who surrounded me with love and understanding. I met them through suicide loss support groups and suicide-related gatherings, conferences, and fundraisers—a whole community of people who, for once in my life, shared the mourning grove with me and knew the terrain. That support was life-saving for my husband and me and continues to be restorative, though I visit the grove less often today.

What other survivors did in those groups was to accompany me in my grief. They walked beside me, sometimes with wisdom and help, sometimes with silence and a hug, without pressure or judgement. I try to do the same with loss survivors who I hear about through someone’s referral or meet in person or through this blog, my book, or speaking engagements. I especially want to be there for my fellow mourning moms.

If you are a suicide loss survivor who has never had the gift of sharing time and sorrow with fellow survivors, I urge you to check out support groups and organizations in your local area, many of which now operate online (like general grief support groups). You can find listings of those groups here or here for the U.S. or here for other countries. Even if you avoided support groups in the past, consider that you may be at a different stage now, that groups morph over time as membership changes, and that an online group may actually feel more comfortable.

And if you know any COVID loss survivors, please urge them to check out groups that are forming for people like them, not only on social media platforms like Facebook (COVID-19 Loss Support for Family and Friends) but through mental health organizations, grief organizations, and hospice groups. You can find some resources here or at local organizations (for ex., in NYC and L.A. areas) here and here. I will post more as I learn about them. 

For those who are mourning both suicide loss and COVID loss at this time, what a heavy burden that must be. Please be gentle with yourself and practice some form of self-care every day.

One more resource I just learned about that may be helpful to anyone who is grieving: the Artists' Grief Deck. Check it out for stunning original images by international artists along with helpful messages and practices for the grieving.

No one need suffer alone in the mourning grove.


  1. Dear Susan, I felt that I ought to seek some support here in the UK which has been difficult in view of the pandemic. I too lost both my parents at a young age (and my second husband after a very short marriage) but nothing like this. I expected others to respond to my traumatic loss in the way that I do but people find it difficult and it has taken me this long to accept that. That said it has also reinforced my friendship circle whilst some relationships will have changed forever and I don’t know if I will re engage with some. We walk this path in many ways alone but held by those who love us. Thank you for holding our hand With love Roslyn

    1. Dear sister in pain, Roslyn,
      Don't hesitate to write any time, I cannot guarantee that I will be always helpful, Susan can do this, she did this for me also, but whatever comfort comes from the knowledge that we know what you are going through, even things that would be a scandal to others "outside this dance" as we say in Greece. I'd like to share with both of you a very old , popular greek song about loss, wich is very consistent with the ancient Greek pessimism, but, strangely, it makes my day:

      Είν’ η ζωή μια θάλασσα

      κι εμείς καπεταναίοι
      κι είναι στ’ αλήθεια τυχεροί
      όσοι πεθαίνουν νέοι

      Κάθε λιμάνι και καημός
      κάθε καημός και δάκρυ
      κι είναι η ζωή του καθενός
      θάλασσα δίχως άκρη
      θάλασσα δίχως άκρη

      Πόσες φορές ναυάγησα
      μες στα θολά νερά της
      και χάθηκε η βάρκα μου
      τη μαύρη αγκαλιά της

      Κάθε λιμάνι και καημός...
      Life is like a sea
      and we are the captains
      and the really lucky
      are the ones
      that die young

      In the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus, it is said that:
      Μή φῦναι τόν ἅπαντα νικᾷ λόγον τό δ', ἐπεί φανῇ, βῆναι κεῖθεν ὃθεν περ ἣκει, πολύ δεύτερον, ὡς τάχιστα.
      that means "to not be is the best, but the next best is to go fast where you came from......"
      A grieved father wrote, after the death of his son: Now life will always be less sweet and death less bitter.
      But, to mitigate all this pessimism, i quote here an in script on a bench in Edinburgh, that came as a present to me: (it was on Leith lane, so beautiful) " Weep if you must, parting is hell but life goes on so sing as well".
      That's exactly what i did, two months after Davids death, singing and dancing in my niece's wedding in Edinburgh, Absolutely no one is going to dictate us how we grieve our sons!!

    2. Vassiliki I have tried to reply 6 times - so I hope all my responses all a bit different don't appear at once. Thank you for the sharing this and Greek pessimism is a reminder of our mortality but also how we live on I feel in many ways. Yes dancing is therapeutic as Susan found 13 months after Noah's passing and no one can tell us how we grieve our boys Thank you, it is nice to see the greek script ( a few words I recognise from my Ancient Greek studies years ago but I couldn't begin to translate but I like to see it) Much love Roslyn xx

  2. Thank YOU Rozzy for being part of the blog. It's good to have you checking in with how you are doing on this journey. I agree, as a result of traumatic loss and some people's unhelpful responses, we may have to accept that some relationships will change. Maybe more years down the road, we can re-connect again but I've found it's hard to forget the disappointment and anger I felt back when the grief was fresh and I really needed their support. I hope you find some support there in the UK. Have you tried Suicide Bereavement Support Partnership,