Caring for the Complicated Grievers of Suicide Loss
Thanks to Connecting Directors contributing author Emily Gehman for this insightful article!
For many, the holidays bring a certain joy, hope, and optimism for the new year. But for others, when the dust settles, the decorations are back in the basement, and life goes back to another day, another dollar, that joy, hope, and optimism seem to diminish into thin air. And with the mental health issues we’ve faced in the last year — isolation, depression, anxiety, and abuse — you may soon be called on to care for many families who are grieving in unique and difficult ways due to losing loved ones to suicide.
A Different Grief
Suicide grief is a different kind of grief. It’s a complicated grief, fraught with shock, sadness, guilt, anger and confusion. There is no way to prepare for this kind of loss, unlike losing someone to a long illness or old age.
The funeral or memorial service is just the beginning of a suicide survivor’s grieving process.
Harvard reports that every suicide victim leaves an average of six people behind who will struggle to understand the loss. In addition to suffering the loss, shock, and confusion, these survivors will be the ones to make arrangements, speak to the police if necessary, and take care of the deceased’s belongings.
Stigma, shame, and isolation are also part of suicide bereavement. Some religions denounce the act of suicide, making the subject hard to speak about in public. It can be tempting to keep the suicide a secret, but that may only add to the pain and shame loved ones may be feeling. They may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or anxiety in ways they haven’t before
How You Can Help
You’ve likely experienced awkward or even aggressive interactions with grieving family members struggling to remain poised and calm while making funeral arrangements. This is to be expected for any loss, but especially in suicide cases.
Your first and perhaps most important way to care for these families is to listen. Some families may come to you in a haze, unsure of what to say or how to say it. That’s okay. Some families may come with nothing to say, some with everything to say. Make sure they are comfortable and know you’re willing to listen, even if you don’t have all — or any — of the answers.
Be sure to extend plenty of grace and compassion as they begin to process and understand the event and their emotions. Take opportunities to step into their need by reminding them that they are not to blame, and the stigma and shame they are being asked to carry is not for them to bear alone. Let them know that you have many resources to offer as they begin their bereavement journey.
Direct them to resources like:
Encourage suicide loss families to keep talking to each other about the deceased. Tell the good stories, and even some not-so-good stories of the person and remember their life together. Consider giving families a self-care checklist or even a package with self-care ideas and tips, bottles of water, tissues, and healthy snacks. You might even share this Handbook for Survivors of Suicide from the American Association of Suicidology.
A New Year To Care
As we begin another new year, but still experience some of the same concerns from the previous year, be ready to receive families with some deep pain and confusing grief. The mental health issues from the COVID-19 pandemic will take its toll, and we must be ready to meet the bereaved with grace, compassion, and love.