Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Survivors of Suicide Loss: Healing Through Care and Connection

Saturday November 22, 2014 is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.

In the United States, the latest evidence reports that 40,600 people died of suicide in 2012 and the number has been increasing. More Americans die from suicide than from car accidents. It is the second leading cause of death in college students, and the third leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults.

In the military the rate is even higher. In 2012 more soldiers died from suicide than in combat and as of 2014, the numbers were again on the rise.sunrise

“Suicide is a Personal and Interpersonal Disaster”

These words of suicide expert, Edwin Shneidman, underscore that for every person who dies by suicide, there are families and friends who are left behind facing devastating loss.

Haunted by the question of why, struggling with loss, anger, guilt and shame, their grief is complicated by their inner pain as well as by the stigma and silence of the outside world.

  • As described in the book, The Invisible Front, Carol Graham reports that she was so tortured by the feeling of letting down her son, an ROTC college student who suffered from depression and died by suicide, she contemplated hanging herself the day of his funeral-“I wanted to atone for not being there when Kevin needed me.”
  • Carol Graham and her husband General Mark Graham were advised by Carol’s sister that they should not have a real memorial for their son at their own church– their son had sinned by committing suicide.
  • While most of their son’s ROTC fellow cadets and officers attended the memorial service at a small alternate location, some officers did not – suicide was a sign of weakness.
  • Bev Feigelman, social worker and mother of a young filmmaker who died by suicide, was told that she didn’t belong in a bereavement group–her child had not died of natural causes.
  • A man reported to me that he was a teen when he learned that his missing father had died by suicide. He was left haunted by that secret.
  • The younger sister of a young woman who died by suicide reported fearing that she might have the same thoughts as her sister. She was hesitant to tell her parents as they were already suffering.

When survivors are left alone with this traumatic loss, when they are faced with judgment of themselves and their loved ones in a way that perpetuates shame and secrecy, they get locked into pain and out of life and recovery.

“Postvention is prevention for the next decade and for the next generation.”

One of the most significant risks for a person whose emotional pain has become so unbearable that it feels intolerable, inescapable and interminable, is a family member who has died by suicide.

As much as we have recognized the need to be alert to prevention and intervention for those suffering from the emotional pain of depression, PTSD, bi-polar disorder etc., we recognize the need for postvention– support and care for those who are survivors of suicide loss.

What Helps Survivors Cope and Go Forward?

Care and Connection with family and friends

It is physically and psychologically stabilizing for survivors to feel the support of family and friends, co-workers, and neighbors who can offer compassion and help in some of these ways:

  • Make the contact and continue to check even if at first refused.
  • In the early aftermath, help with practical needs – trauma and grief are disorganizing and exhausting. Dropping off food, lending a hand says more than words.
  • Refrain from asking for explanations.
  • Validate the intensity of the grief.
  • Listen or bear witness to the telling and often re-telling of events.
  • Respect the faith or spirituality expressed.
  • Be aware of the needs of the children and teens to be comforted, to speak, to ask questions. It is ok to say, “I don’t know” but “I’m here to be with you.”
  • Be willing to remember and speak about the deceased for everything he or she was beyond this tragic event.
  • Be willing to remember and connect with the survivor of suicide loss for all he or she is in addition to this tragedy that has occurred.

Professional Help

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Veterans Crisis Hotline 1-800-273-8255

These are valuable for anyone to know and suggest as resources.

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day

  • In addition to providing services, advocacy and research to support suicide survivors and reduce the loss by suicide throughout the year, the American Federation of Suicide Prevention hosts International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
  • It is a day when people who have suffered suicide loss gather around the world at events in their local communities to find comfort and gain understanding as they share stories of healing and hope. http://www.survivorday.org/

Having been present at this day for a number of years, I will say it is a true example of people healing in community. It is what trauma expert, Robert Stolorow means when he says that after traumatic loss people need to find an emotional home to come into the language of their emotional experience—to begin to heal.

Care, Connect and Support Healing