Bereavement due to suicide

Seeing the body or not being able to do so

Some of the people we talked to had seen the body of their friend or relative quite soon after the person had died because the suicide had occurred at home. Jacqui, for example, had found her husband’s body in their own home on the day he died. Arthur found his son in his garage. He called an ambulance.

When people die by suicide away from home, a relative or friend may be asked to identify the body. The police had asked some people to go to the hospital mortuary to do this. It was usually a traumatic experience, though people’s feelings varied. Some people said that they just felt numb (also see ‘Finding out’).
If an inquest is required, the coroner has temporary control of the body. The body cannot be released for the funeral or memorial service without the consent of the coroner. The body will be released when the coroner is satisfied that the medical procedures necessary for determining the medical cause of death have been completed. This usually takes a few days, but sometimes longer. During this time the coroner’s officer can arrange for family and friends to see the body. Relatives can see the body as often as they want before the funeral. Some people were pleased that they went every day. Others said that they were glad they had been prepared by the coroner’s officer or friend for what they would see because it was not what they had been led to expect from seeing TV dramas.
No-one who went to see the body of the person they had loved said they regretted this decision although some found it upsetting, disturbing or shocking. Some people chose to go privately, without telling others.
Margaret pointed out how important it is for the staff to be helpful and understanding about the needs of people who have been bereaved.

Jenny went to the hospital to see David, feeling incredibly upset. She was glad that she had a friend to show her exactly where she had to go when she arrived at the hospital. She was met by the coroner, who was very calming, helpful and sympathetic.

Many people said that seeing the body in the hospital mortuary or at the undertaker’s chapel of rest had helped to convince them that the person was really dead. People found it hard to believe that the suicide had taken place (see ‘First reactions’). Melanie said that when she saw her husband’s body she shouted, “Wake up.” 

People often said they were glad they had been to see their loved one’s body because they wanted to say good-bye. Helen, for example, said that she sat with Charlotte for fifteen minutes, saying good-bye, and that this for her was more important than the funeral.
Some people said that they had wanted to touch the person who had died. One woman, for example, touched her son, and kissed him and told him that she loved him. Jane and Maurice stroked and combed their son’s hair. Jacqui tickled her husband’s chin, felt his bristles and his beard. She also made sure that Mike was dressed the way she wanted him to be dressed for the funeral (see ‘The funeral or commemoration). Margaret held and smelled her daughter’s hair and was glad to see she had beautiful painted finger nails.
People also said they were glad to see that the person who had died looked so peaceful. Susan, for example, said that after her son died the one consolation she had was that Barry seemed to be at peace. It looked as though all his anger, stress and worry had gone.
However, some people were unprepared for the way people may look or feel after death. Melanie, for example, said she was unprepared for how cold her husband was when she kissed him. Marion did not recognise her husband when she first saw him at the mortuary. She said that his body did not bear any resemblance to him at all. Amanda said that her son did not really look as he had looked when alive. She rearranged his hair. Linda was upset that her daughter looked so pale and lifeless.

Some people took the children to see the body of their mother or father. Marion, for example, took all her four children, aged 10 - 22, to see their father. It was difficult, but she says that with the benefit of hindsight she would do it again. She thinks that if the children had not seen their father, their fantasies might have been worse than reality.

Stephen prepared his young daughters as well as he could for what they would see when they went to the chapel of rest. He also explained how Gill might feel if they touched her.

A few people knew that the person who had died had been disfigured or mutilated. Dave and his wife were advised not to see their son except for his hand. Even though they had only seen part of his body they were glad to have seen him and felt it was important. Susan saw Rose immediately after she died but she did not see her again because of the way she died (see ‘Finding out’). Susan bitterly regrets that it was not possible for her to see her daughter’s body lying peacefully. She says that this is a terrible sadness for her.
Steve was not allowed to see his sister’s remains after her death. He found it hard to accept that she had died. He wishes he had been given the opportunity to see her body in spite of her terrible injuries. He is upset that he was not given the choice.

Some people did not want to see the body of the person who had died. A woman who decided not to see her father after his death knew that his body would have been “hardly recognisable” and she did not think he would have wanted her to see him in that state.

Lucy’s partner had been struck by a train. She did not feel she needed to see his remains. She wanted to remember him as a healthy living person.
Last reviewed July 2017.


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