Data analysis of the experiences of families of suicide victims revealed 25 formulated meanings. These were collated into 5 themes and 11 theme clusters through a process of tying them with similar meanings (Table 2).
Theme 1. shock and confusion
The fact that a loved one suddenly died of suicide has disrupted the daily lives of families of suicide victims. Everything was mixed up in the face of a great tragedy. The families felt more confused by the incomprehensible reasons for the suicide.
Theme cluster 1. an irresistible disaster
Participants were stressed by the confusing situation of sudden bereavement and experienced adverse physical reactions such as insomnia, urinary disorders, tremors, and memory loss. They could not easily believe or realize that their loved one abruptly committed suicide and wanted to deny their death. Even though the family thought that they had done their best when they looked back on their lives and did not do anything bad enough to be punished in this manner, their anger soared because they could not accept the reality of being subjected to this tragedy
“My child died, and I felt weird. I have strange thoughts, I can't sleep... I was shaking again today. I also experienced incontinence and couldn't take care of myself today. I think it's because my body is so shocked. In other words, I cannot believe and accept what has happened.” (subject 7).
“If there is a god, I'd rather get sick or have some kind of an accident and break my leg. Because this is an insurmountable problem; I feel a lot of anger, anger…I just need to live, I just need to live.” (subject 4).
Theme cluster 2. a vain death
Participants thought that the deceased, who inflicted pain and sorrow to the surviving family members without realizing that they were loved by their family, was selfish. Families were often angry with the deceased; they were often weighed by the reason of the suicide. Though the victim’s pain disappears when they commit suicide, the surviving family members are angered at having to live in greater pain. They think about why the deceased chose to commit suicide and feel sorry that it was a vain choice, not a matter of value enough to control life.
“If my child thought of us, he wouldn’t have done that. I thought our baby was selfish. Honestly, I tried countless times to die. I didn't commit suicide because of my daughter and husband. My kid just let go of everything. I'm so angry about that. It's so sad that he didn't know that we loved him so much.” (subject 2).
“My wife ran two stores, so she couldn't close them, and was in debt... Later, she took out a lot of loans. I don't think that kind of situation is the reason for this suicide. I don't understand how she committed suicide even if it was a little difficult situation. She didn't leave a will. Ridiculous, It's embarrassing.” (subject1).
Theme 2. pain of loss
The suicide of a family member instantly changed the daily life of the bereaved family into one with difficulties and pain. They thought that the wound would remain throughout their lives and that they would not overcome the grief of losing the deceased. They thought they could not fathom the victim’s pain or protect them. Therefore, they blamed themselves and considered themselves sinners because of internalized self-stigma.
Theme cluster 1. a desperate longing
Participants suddenly recalled the memories they had with the deceased during their lives and were obsessed with these memories. They did not consciously recall the deceased, but when alone, they soon missed the deceased and returned to their state of pain again. They were heartbroken by the fact that they could no longer see the deceased, hear their voice, or smell their odor; this was the most painful experience for the bereaved family members.
“If this event hadn't happened... In the past, my son took us to a famous soup restaurant in Changwon. He said that Mom and Dad, you have to wait in line and eat. I thought that my son can take me anywhere. It's something he can't do anymore now. If there's anything I don't know, my son taught me everything to make me comfortable. I didn’t know how to use a cell phone. My son taught me everything. He was better than a teacher for me.” (subject 6).
“Even if I forget it, when I enter the house, everything returns to reality. Even if I go outside and have fun while talking and having a cup of tea, it’s too futile when I come home.” (subject 5).
“I miss my son so much. The hardest thing is that I can’t see my son again in my life. I had raised my son carefully. I still sometimes think that he will come out of his room. It seems like he will come back from the academy and say, I'm home. Now, I can't see him anymore, and the fact that he's not in this world is the hardest thing.” (subject 4).
Theme cluster 2. blaming oneself
Participants remembered the time they spent with the deceased, regretting that they were not able to prevent suicide. Before the suicide, the deceased behaved differently than usual and exhibited warning signs of suicide, but they confessed that they could not stop it because they were not aware that it indicated suicidal behavior. Families continued to recall actions they thought were indifferent toward the victims. They condemned themselves, thinking that they missed the opportunity to reverse victims’ death, and the suicides were their fault.
“My wife had been lying at home for a month or two before her death. She said she had no appetite, and she didn't eat. If I think about it now, I should have taken better care of her. She said she wanted to take a break, and said it would get better after the break. I just thought so and didn't pay much attention to her. I knew she was having a hard time, but I didn't know she would do that. Why didn't I know it? I regret my behavior.” (subject 1).
Theme 3. disconnection in interpersonal relationships
Participants were deeply wounded by the attitudes of those who comforted them; these families lived alone, fearing social prejudice against suicide. They wanted to hide the suicide incident from people and/or were reluctant to express the grief of loss outwardly. The surviving family members confined their social contacts within their bereaved families and cut themselves off from society.
Theme cluster 1. comfort left by wounds.
Participants were hurt by acquaintances who deprecated suicide, saying that the surviving families do not need to waste money and time at the funeral, and it is shameful to report a suicide in their surroundings. They were displeased with the pitiful attitude of others, who acted as if something unspeakable had happened. Far from consoling the desperate family members, acquaintances treated the death of the deceased as a bystander; this was embarrassing and stunning for the surviving family members.
“An acquaintance living in Namhae told us that there is no need for a ritual such as a funeral. But when his son committed suicide, he properly arranged the funeral. I heard that he had paid 100 million won to the temple and worshiped the Buddha. He told us not to waste money on mourning the dead, and everything was useless.” (subject 2).
“After a long time, I met someone, and she looked at me with a pity. It was more hurtful than comforting. When someone's parents die, people don't overreact. But when my child died, she asked me ‘are you okay?’. It made me more uncomfortable. So, I just don't want to contact people unless they are very close. Such attitude is uncomfortable. The death of a parent or a child, it can all happen. We may experience both. I can’t stand people reacting specifically to my son’s death. It's confusing when I think of myself as someone who should be comforted like this.” (subject 5).
“After my wife died, I thought that relatives or acquaintances would unilaterally comfort the remaining family members. Some people told me how hard it must have been for my wife to commit suicide. Those words hurt us while we were depressed.” (subject 1).
Theme cluster 2. the stigma of a being bereaved
Participants were conscious of the negative evaluation of suicide in Korean society and feared that they would be known as bereaved families. They could not cry openly and had to hide their feelings because they could not prevent the suicide of their closest family member and felt ashamed that they were living their lives after the death of the deceased.
“It was rumored that my son's friend informed the school about the suicide. Other than that, no one knows. Neighbors living next door don't even know this. My son became a sinner, and we also became sinners. People may say that our daughter belongs to a bereaved family. In Korea, if someone commits suicide, it hurts their family.” (subject 2).
“It would be okay if I had died, the older one. I can’t talk to anyone about my child’s death. Is this a good thing? Even now, I don't cry at home because I'm afraid people will find it out. I cry, but I don't make a loud noise.” (subject 7).
“I don't meet anyone.” (subject 3).
Theme 4. reality of wanting to give up
The bereaved family thought they had lost the “present” they had with their family and the “future” that they would experience over the next days. They lived extremely helplessly in a reality where hope was lost; they also wanted to escape this painful reality by committing suicide by following their deceased family members.
Theme cluster 1. acceptance of suicide
Earlier, the participants thought that suicide was a frightening and terrifying thing that had nothing to do with them but could happen to anyone easily. However, now, the participants think that it could be their own fate. After the death of their family member, they were able to understand the suffering of the deceased, who had no choice but to consider suicide as an escape from suffering as they could not live with the pain. They felt themselves close to committing suicide and experienced thoughts of wanting to die.
“In the past, when I heard news of celebrities’ suicide, I used to think, ‘Why did they die?’ However, after my wife’s suicide, I can understand how one could commit suicide. I thought my wife must have had a hard time. I was afraid of committing suicide and dying, but after my wife's death, I thought I could die too.” (subject 3).
“Not long ago, I went to the beach and saw the ocean water overflow. I just wanted to dive and drown. I felt like I was going to die easily. I think of dying a lot these days. Although, actually, I didn't do that, but I wanted to jump off the 16th floor yesterday. The home owner put a safety net on all windows. Other houses don't have it, but this house has safety nets installed. So, I thought that I chose this house well.” (subject 2).
“Even now, I just think I want to die like my son.” (subject 7).
Theme cluster 2. loss of direction in life
The participants lost their hope and desire to live because of the death of their family members. They were spending their days meaninglessly in a reality that seemed to be trapped in a tunnel with no end. They came to realize the finiteness and the futility of life, and in their deep sorrow, they could do nothing.
“What are you going to do by being alive? I have no reason to live without him. Even so, I'm really trying to eat and live again because I have a fixed-term job at this city hall... My son died, but I want to buy and eat valuable ingredients. Even if I didn't learn anything much, I’ve lived without acting badly to the other people. Why has it happened?” (subject 7).
“There are many times when I'm blank. I also remember making memories with my son a lot, and I keep changing my mind several times a day. I have regrets and resentments, and then I am not just doing anything, day by day. I'm just sad.” (subject 5).
Theme 5. life to live
Participants tried to accept the terrible reality and return to the past. They tried to adapt to the world without the deceased and live a new life in their own way.
Theme cluster 1. burying the pain
As the participants recalled the deceased, they were sucked into an uncontrollable abyss of sorrow; hence, they tried to immerse themselves in work or live busy daily lives. They consciously focused on work and stopped thinking about the deceased, trying not to face pain.
“It's okay when I work. Only when I work. It did not last long. Also, I think where my won will come from, but I forget it when I work.” (subject 2).
“I go to the temple when I have time. When I am at home, I think of my child and feel frustrated. At that time, after bowing, my feelings subside. I have a puppy too.” (subjects 4).
“No matter how close I am, it is correct to distance myself from other people. For now, I'm only talking with my daughter and my husband. I try to train myself harshly and have a strong heart. When a tough thought comes up, I stop it. I work with my mind focused and don't want to think about anything else. If I think of my son, I may make mistakes.” (subject 2).
Theme cluster 2. reconciliation with dark feelings
Participants were reluctant to talk with their families because they thought that their families would be hurt by the loss of the deceased; however, they gradually began to talk about the death of the deceased and their feelings. They tried to accept the death of the deceased with their hearts, while confronting their memories and photos.
“These days, I talk to my children. ‘Why did your mother become like this?’ I also talk about the part where I am struggling. In the past, I didn't tell my kids at all.” (subject 3).
“I want to accept my son's death with my heart. If I'm sad, I cry, and if I want to see him, I look at his pictures. I am doing what my heart tells me to do. I see pictures if I want to see my son, and I cry if I want to cry. My son died. He went to heaven. I would like to accept that fact as it is. That's why I want to see him more now.” (subject 4).
Theme cluster 3. new hope
Even though the whole family had suffered a terrible thing like the Blue Army, they were trying to get out of despair while concealing each other's pain, thinking about the family member who would be more affected. They were anxious about losing another family member, and they tried to take better care of each other. They believe that they have the strength to endure the difficult time because of the surviving family, and the comfort and support they provided each other. They were planning their future careers, holding on to new hopes, and gaining the strength to live again.
“I’m more concerned about child's father than myself. Even that day, my husband sank to the floor. He seems to be okay with his work, but he is hurting a lot now.” (subject 2).
“My husband suddenly lost 7–8 kgs. I’m very worried about him. He only keeps thinking of our dead son. He says he doesn't know how to raise our other child. He says he's doing his best right now, but he doesn't know what to do. But we still have a second child, so we try to strengthen ourselves.” (subject 5).
“When my wife was alive, I planned to spend time with her when I retire, but now, I wonder how I will survive my remaining life? I plan to work more. I thought about starting a company based on what I was doing when I retired. When my son graduates, I plan to get my son a job at my company and work with him.” (subjects 3).