THE TOUGHEST question to ask Jill Winters is: 'How many children do you have?' Her son James killed himself when he was 34. If she says she has two children, she feels she is denying his existence. If she says she had three but one died, more searching, and unwelcome, questions may follow.

Eight years after her son jumped from a third-floor window, Mrs Winters has finally stopped blaming herself for his death. The sense of liberation has been, she says, remarkable. But it has taken her a long time to accept what happened and to feel at peace with herself again.

The families of those who have committed suicide have to cope with feelings of distress which go far beyond normal grief. Unlike other deaths, suicide carries with it a heavy social stigma. Those left behind may see it as a violent statement that the love they provided was not enough. Families can become ensnared in a hopeless search to find out why a child, or a parent, felt so desperate; there are profound feelings of guilt to cope with.

'When it happened it was completely unexpected, although looking back I could see it was on the cards,' Mrs Winters recalls. 'We were devastated by it. We were numb to start with. We found it very difficult to talk about; there was a feeling of isolation.'

Her husband came to terms with their son's death better than she did. 'I felt that I hadn't done the right things, that I had been a terrible mother,' she says. 'I wished I had done everything differently. I kept looking for ways that I could have prevented it. I took full responsibility.'

Mrs Winters went to a group for bereaved parents but felt out of place. 'These were people who had lost their children in the normal way. I didn't feel I was one of them,' she says. 'Suicide didn't seem acceptable.'

James was unmarried and had been a solicitor. A psychiatrist had been treating him for schizophrenia. Mrs Winters now realises she was not responsible for his actions. 'I think he was finding life so difficult and stressful that he could not stand it any longer. He was afraid of having another breakdown.'

There are 4,000 suicides each year in Britain: in periods of recession, with increases in redundancies and mortgage arrears, the trend tends to be upward. Other major factors in suicide are thought to be depression and alcoholism. And, although the sharpest rise in suicide rates has been among men under 25, it is still much more common in later life, with 60-64 the most crucial age for men.

Support agencies are waking up to the fact that families bereaved in this way often need specialist help. Cruse, the national bereavement care group, has set up a number of support groups specifically for families of suicide cases and plans to establish more.

Forbes Craig, a former nurse and now a counsellor with Cruse, says that while all familes feel loss on the death of someone close, with a suicide there is 'the intensity of the feelings, the inherent violence, the statement being made that whoever is left can't help any more.

'If it's a natural death we can take it because we all die. But when it's suicide there is a whole history of culture against it.' Suicide was only decriminalised in 1961, she points out. She says that there is no time-limit to when someone who has experienced a suicide might need help. One woman sought help 19 years after her mother killed herself.

Ruth Hampton, the Scottish director of Cruse, had a close friend who committed suicide many years ago. 'The experience lives with you for years and years,' she says. 'I can still see her now as clear as day. In the end you have to realise that you can't be responsible for other people.'

Further information on suicide bereavement groups from Cruse, Cruse House, 126 Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey (081-332 7227).