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Supporting Survivors of Suicide

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Maggie Reynolds of Work/Life Connections-EAP explores ways to be supportive to people who have lost someone to suicide. We look at what to say, what to avoid, and how to offer support, along with online resources.

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Rosemary Cope: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast. I am Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections. I am here today with my colleague, Maggie Reynolds, who has a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Denver. She is a licensed professional counselor and a Certified Employee Assistance Professional. Many of us have lost a friend or a loved one, and some of us have lost a friend or a loved one to suicide, but what if you are the person trying to support someone who has a loss through suicide? We can easily find information on what to do if someone we know is suicidal, but caring for and supporting someone who has a loss from suicide can be difficult. The victims of suicide are not just limited to the people who actually do it. Suicide leaves an enduring mark on those who have witnessed it in some way. Maggie, what would you tell our listeners about what to do or say to their friend or co-worker who is struggling with this?

Maggie Reynolds: That is absolutely accurate that we are all impacted by suicide, and I think as most of us know, intuitively, the loss of suicide can feel very different than the loss from an anticipated death, per se. Unfortunately, in today’s world, there is still a decent amount of societal shame and embarrassment that is connected with dying by suicide, but is not necessarily seen as they died from a disease such as depression or a substance use disorder. There is a lot of shame around that. That being said, I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is being nonjudgmental when supporting somebody who is grieving the loss of a suicide. Things that you might want to keep in mind of saying could be, “I heard that so-and-so died by suicide,” so, really acknowledging it, and if you know that is the way that they died, it is okay to acknowledge it, and that might take some of that pressure and embarrassment away from the person, maybe saying, “I’m so sorry to hear about this and I want you to know that I am here to talk to you if you would like,” just letting them know that you are around and you can be present if needed. I think another thing to really remember is to be genuine. Maybe telling somebody that you want to talk about it doesn’t feel realistic to you and you are not comfortable talking about it, that is okay. Maybe you say, “Hey, you know, so-and-so, I am not sure what to say, but I just want you to know that I care,” and that can be enough. Listen. That is probably the most important thing. Listen and be present. It is okay to talk about the person specifically. It is okay to say their name, to ask questions. Oftentimes, people will want to talk about the person who died, to share stories, to allow them to live on in their memory, and play that by ear. That is not always the case, but just kind of feel it out. And finally, if you are wanting to help in some other way than just emotional support and listening, I would recommend being proactive and practical in the ways that you help. Ask the person what they need, and if they don’t know what they need, offer things specifically – “Would you like me to bring you a home-cooked meal? Can I mow your lawn? Can I go shopping for you? Can I take care of your children?” Sometimes people need some ideas around how you could help.

Rosemary Cope: You mentioned not knowing exactly what to say, because sometimes we might be at a loss for words. Are there also things that we probably shouldn’t say in our discomfort of trying to find the right words? Are there things we might avoid saying to people?

Maggie Reynolds: Yeah. There definitely are things that might not be the most beneficial. First of all, I would say, don’t stress out too much about it. I think just being there to support is most important. And I would try to avoid certain problem-solving or cliché phrases, such as, “I’m sure you did all you could for them,” because that might not be the case and this person might really be struggling with some self-blame, and that might not be the right response, and we don’t want to assume anything. Similarly, I would avoid, you know, “They are in a better place now.” We don’t know what their religious beliefs are of afterlife or what have you. “I know how you feel.” I would probably avoid statements like that because we don’t know how this person feels. Unless you have experienced a similar death by suicide, you probably truly don’t. And then also, saying things such as, “This can be left in your past, you can move on,” or “How can I help you move on?” I would avoid things like that simply because there is no timeline on grief. We know that grief can last a long, long time, and it might last the rest of this person’s life, and so, encouraging them to move on before they are ready can often bring out defensiveness and frustration in people. And I do just want to mention that I know “committing suicide” is a common term we use in our society these days, and I think the mental health profession is trying to move away from that term because there are such negative connotations with “commit.” So, if you think about it, using terms such as “died by suicide” or “death by suicide” can be a little more soft and appropriate.

Rosemary Cope: Are there certain emotions, Maggie, which we should be aware of when someone is grieving as a result of suicide?

Maggie Reynolds. Yeah. Emotions can run the gamut, and I think there are the common emotions that one experiences with grief that are sadness, doubt, shock, even anger, and I think there are some additional emotions that are common with death by suicide – guilt, blaming yourself (I could have done more), blame of others (someone’s else’s fault that they died by suicide), and, I think, even relief. Sometimes we feel relief when someone dies and dies by suicide. This person may have been suffering for a long time, and I just encourage you, in supporting the person who is grieving, to acknowledge and support any and all of the emotions, because they are all fair and real, and their expressions of emotions could run the gamut, so just allowing them to process that death in their own way.

Rosemary Cope: And if one of our listeners would like even more information, are there any online resources that you might recommend?

Maggie Reynolds: There are. There is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and that can be found at afsp.org, and that is some great resources for the bereaved and those who are supporting the bereaved, and there is a tab that says, “I have lost someone.” That would be a great resource. In addition, there is the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which is found at actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org, and these have some great workplace resources for managers or supervisors who are trying to support a workplace who have experienced a loss by suicide. And then there is also the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, which is a local organization, and that can be found online at tspn.org. Then, lastly, I would just like to emphasize the importance of taking care of yourself. We oftentimes forget the people who are grieving and bereaved, but also, we can forget the people who are supporting those that are bereaved. We forget our own limits as we are supporting those. So, keep in mind what you need to take care of yourself throughout this process, whether it be seeking support from family or friends, or maybe it is seeking support from a professional as well.

Rosemary Cope: Great advice and information. Thank you.

Thank you for listening. Please feel free to leave us any comments on this wellcast by clicking the “Add New Comment” link at the bottom of this page. If you have a story or a suggestion, please email it to us at health.wellness@vanderbilt.edu, or you can use the “Contact Us” link on our website at healthandwellness.vanderbilt.edu.

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Posted on Friday, September 15, 2017 in Wellcasts, Work/Life Connections and tagged , , ,

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