Suicide grief is different.

Suicide grief is different.

It is no surprise that following the death of my brother by suicide, people didn’t know what to do or how to respond. I remember in one instance that on telling a very close friend of the suicide of my brother, his response was, “Well that was stupid wasn’t it?” So if the pain of the loss wasn’t enough, now there is a question mark over his level of intelligence? There were many others that offered awkward, superficial platitudes, some that just looked at me with big, wide eyes and a panicked expression and others that simply got as far away as possible. At the time, I resented the inability of those around me to provide comfort in my pain, but over time I realised that my pain was so intense, I may have been reflecting an energy that could have been intimidating for some.

Suicide pain has an energy all of its own. Without minimising the grief associated with any loss, particularly the loss of life, death through suicide comes with its own special type of grief. It’s the grief that comes from both mental and emotional pain, as not only do we have to come to grips with what, but also the inevitable questions that are associated with why.

When somebody dies from an explainable cause, whether it is sickness or maybe an accident, though traumatic, those that are left behind can rationalise what happened. There seems to be a clear reason as to the probable cause of death and though we may not like it, we at least understand it. When it comes to terminal illness, you generally have time to say your goodbyes, mourn the impending loss or celebrate a life well lived. In the case of an accident, as tragic as it is, we can understand the events that led to the accident occurring. In these cases, the individual involved has had the choice of living or dying taken out of their hands. Circumstances have transpired to bring about the outcome.

Not so with suicide. The main issue that anyone bereaved by suicide is the fact that the individual concerned made a choice. A choice that leaves behind so many questions that need answering, so many misunderstandings, so many unexplained conundrums that the emotional grief takes on a form of mental anguish as well. This mental anguish has an intensity to it that can manifest itself for a period as anger, bitterness, resentment, hostility, regret or blame. This intensity may direct us to push people away, respond in a way that is out of character or lash out at those that are around us. All of which can culminate in people no longer feeling that they can express themselves clearly, when in our company. As unfortunate as this is, it can result in damage to seemingly stable relationships that have significant tenure and intimacy.

For those that are trying to support an individual bereaved by suicide, here is some simple advice.

  • We are not OK and we are not coping. We are experiencing emotional and mental pain that will not go away for a long time.
  • Do not be put off by behaviour that is out of character because coping with suicide will change a person forever. For a period of time, we will not be the same person.
  • You don’t need to take that pain away, you just need to understand it and allow us to be. In the same way, we don’t need you to do anything but be present.
  • Your support needs to be unconditional and for as long as it takes.
  • You don’t need to ask permission to help. If there are defenses, they are feeble at best and easily overcome. Your help is appreciated, though you may not feel recognised for it. We have other things on our mind.
  • Simple kindness is the easiest and most valued kind of support. Any gesture will be valued, regardless of the type or size.

For those that are already doing these things, thanks. For those that have supported someone bereaved by suicide, thanks. For those that showed compassion, empathy and love, your impact is more profound then you realise. Let’s not wait to have the opportunity to display these characteristics. Bereavement is over-rated and prevention is much more powerful. Suicide prevention starts with these characteristics being shown to someone that you feel is in need. Reach out to those around you with a view to changing the life of someone in a meaningful way. It could mean that we no longer have to worry about those awkward conversations, after the event.

Layne Stretton
Roses in the Ocean Board Director

The impact of suicide changes who we are

The impact of suicide changes who we are.  For those that have a lived experience of suicide one thing is for certain, you will never be the same person again. Many times I have been told by those that share this experience, that the introduction of suicide into their world altered the perceptions of their lives in a profound and irreversible way. The once shy teenager, the stoic mother or the amiable and emotionless father became an altered reflection of the identity that they had spent so long building and propagating. Many have said that they no longer recognise the person they are. Some have said they lost all sense of where they fitted into the world that they had created or that they no longer felt an ability to navigate what was an easily navigated lifestyle, prior to the lived experience. Partners have expressed that the person they married is no longer the same person and their sense of social capital (what they get from the relationship) has been altered in a very real way. In nearly all cases, there has been a profound identity shift in the individual that has been influenced by generally debilitating action from the one they love.

So why is this the case? Apart from the impact of this significant emotional event and the profound feelings of loss and grief, the individual involved no longer sees themselves in the same way. Often the way that they relate to themselves has changed as a result of guilt, remorse, anger, regret and inability to stop the event occurring, often harbouring feelings that somehow they were partially to blame, or were responsible for a contribution to the behaviour. The other impact is the shift in their perceptions of relationships and the way that the new self begins to socialise with the environment within which they operated. Given that their internal frame of reference has been altered, it stands to reason that their behaviour will follow. Carl Rogers (1961) speaks of the fact that all individuals (organisms) exist in a continually changing world of experience (phenomenal field) of which they are the centre. When the world changes, as it does with a suicide experience, so does the individuals reactions to the world in which they live.

Changes occur in areas like humour (things are not as funny), relationships (a desire for intimate and meaningful relationships), faith (an altered view of a higher being or purpose), direction (what do I do with my life from now?), work (no longer gives me a sense of satisfaction) or priorities (things that were important are no longer important) are part of this change. At a basic level, a gap has been created between my new, real self and the person that I feel that I should be, the old me, something that Rogers called incongruence. This incongruence is the reason for a feeling of instability or a feeling that we no longer relate.

Though the initial positives from a shared experience of suicide are very difficult to imagine or recognise, the impacted individual needs to find a new identity, one that is congruent with the new self. This will require commitment, courage and a willingness to change and to be. We can take heart from the words of Rogers and the advice for those that are enduring adversity.

This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. (Carl Rogers, 1961)

Suicide will stretch us, it will challenge us and it will take courage to endure. But a good life will again arrive, giving us an opportunity to launch more fully into a life that has new potentials to be reached.

Layne Stretton
Roses in the Ocean (Board Director)

The Power of a Shared Experience

As we conclude another Suicide Prevention Lived Experience Speakers Bureau program, I find myself reflecting on what it means to have a shared experience? Why do we feel so much more comfortable and safe among others who have lived through a similar experience?

Whilst time on our own is healthy and enjoyable, it can at times be indescribably difficult. Nevertheless there is a place and time for personal reflection and beng comfortable with your own company during the grief process.   Just as important though, and significantly easier in many instances, is to spend time with others who have a shared experience.  Organisational psychologists refer to this as social capital.

Social capital is fundamentally the benefit that a person gets from engagement in a particular social environment.  Generally the membership of that group has a common interest, a purpose and a bond or solidarity around elective belief, ideology or dogma.

Robert Putman talks of two ways of looking at social capital.  The first of these is what is known as bonding.   Putman says, “the shared social norms and cooperative spirit from bonding provide social safety nets to individual and groups to protect themselves from external invasion.”  This is particularly relevant when we look at a lived experience of suicide.  Most people who experience suicide in their lives also experience the “invasion” of beliefs, judgements, behaviours caused by a lack of understanding and knowledge about the experience.

Social capital essentially poses the question, “What do I get out of being involved in this group that I can’t find anywhere else?” When people with a lived experience of suicide come together there is a special connection.  A connection that occurs with the deep understanding and empathy, compassion and honesty, and sense of belonging that comes with a group that they don’t have to justify themselves to or be anything different. No airs and graces have to be put on.  No masks have to be worn.

Through the Suicide Prevention Lived Experience Speakers Bureau, we have the privilege of sitting with, and walking alongside people with a lived experience of suicide as we explore and learn how to share our story.  I say privilege because to be invited into another person’s world, their most personal space, into their memories, some fond and some painful, is indeed a privilege.  When people experience significant trauma in their lives something else happens. A new perspective of what is really, truly important is uncovered. Their is an authenticity that burns brightly and strong bonds are forged quickly.