“There is a no grief like the grief that does not speak.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This week marks National Suicide Prevention week and Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide touches us all; in our communities, our workplaces, our families. One way or another, everyone is impacted.
At the same time, suicide is a subject that is avoided. Talking about death is uncomfortable for many people; Openly discussing suicide is even more taboo. Survivors of the deceased are left floating in a limbo of hushed voices, secrets, gossip and half-truths. How can loved ones begin to sort through the tangled web of grief after suicide if those around them cannot acknowledge the nature of the loss in the first place?
As a counselor that has worked with families touched by suicide, I have been honored to sit with them in some of these fragile and sacred moments. They have taught me that those who survive the suicide of a loved one have specific needs in their grief. These families have allowed me to learn, and to pass on to others touched by suicide these lessons.
- Acknowledge the loss. Look the elephant in the room in the eye. Say their name. Know that you have a right to grieve, no matter how a person dies. Ignore people who tell you otherwise. Let yourself be comforted by those around you who honor and remember your loved one.
- Celebrate how the person lived. Suicide is one moment in a sea of hours, days, weeks, and years. No person’s life should be defined by one moment, particularly in the case of suicide. You have a right to share happy memories, and to remember the whole person, weak and strong, bright and dark.
- Avoid judgmental language. “Committed” is a word that is frequently used to describe crimes, adultery, and sin. Suicide is none of these things. No one writes an obituary stating a person “committed cancer” at their death. We usually read that they battled bravely, and “died of cancer.” We should offer the same dignity to our loved ones who struggled with suicide, and learn to say they died of suicide.
- Recognize that no one person or event is responsible for this death. People are quick to try to blame suicide on a specific cause or person, a bad break up, bullying, mental illness, addiction, trauma or family problems. A single drop of rain in a storm does not cause a flood; many tiny elements must combine. Human beings are complex creatures, and we never truly know what has caused a person to end their life.
- Feel what you need to feel when you need to feel it. Grief is not neat and tidy, and it does not move through orderly stages. In the case of suicide, it is particularly messy. Anger, worry, fear, guilt, and questioning are normal in any loss, and may be even more profound during grief after a suicide.
- Get support. There are many resources available for families: ways to raise awareness, connect with other families and communities touched by suicide loss, education about suicide, and memorialize a loved one.
While treated quietly and hushed, suicide is never silent for those who knew and loved someone who lived and struggled with unimaginable pain. As a community, we must embrace survivors, and help them to find a voice in their sorrow.
For more information, check out suicide awareness events being held throughout Maine, the U.S. and the world:
Blythe Edwards, LCPC
Clinician, Public School Counseling Program