How do you grieve after a suicide?
One person in Ireland died by suicide today.
One person in Ireland will die by suicide tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Some days, there will be more than one until, at the end of this year, the total will top 500.
My concern here is what happens the survivors; families, neighbours, friends and communities. This aftercare of the bereaved by suicide is called Suicide Postvention.
Is their grief worse than any other grief?
It’s a common mistake to compare sufferings. It’s what leads people to say things like ‘it could be worse’, when, in fact, it can’t be worse for the survivors.
I’ve never met a bereaved person who felt better about their own pain after hearing of another’s pain.
To be brutally honest, comparison is how we reduce a person’s pain to a size we can handle.
Could we also forget the idea of ‘consolation’. If we can accept that no consolation is possible, it will reduce our anxiety about what to say.
Saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ isn’t meaningless or useless. It’s been said by generations of Irish people in similar circumstances and it means exactly what it says on the tin. We are sorry for their pain.
We’re not foolish enough to think this phrase will remove their pain but we do believe that our presence and concern may help them bear it. Suicide Postvention is about helping people to grieve well and healthily.
How is suicide bereavement different?
Sudden death, by accident or illness, is a reality for many people and we expect them to be shocked. Who can see a child off to school in the morning and accept that this child will never return? It is normal for people to suffer shock and shock acts like a anaesthetic for the mind; it shields us from the enormity of what has occurred.
The shock of a death by suicide can be complicated by specific factors. Some people are so shocked by the violent manner of the death that the horror of it becomes a stumbling block to their grieving. They may need help to face this before they can proceed.
Others may see the suicide as an act of violence against themselves; a ‘slap in the face’ or an act of rejection. We should also remember that it’s not so long ago that many considered a death by suicide a mortal sin that excluded the dead from consecrated ground in this life and Heaven in the next. The bereaved may feel shamed and tainted by such a death and refuse to speak of it within the family and with friends and neighbours.
That kind of omerta can be a huge burden for family members who want to acknowledge the reality and express their grief.
There is such a thing as a bereaved person. There is no such thing as a family bereavement. Each member of the family has a unique relationship with the dead person and must have the freedom to grieve that person in their own way.
Sometimes, neighbours and friends are equally uncomfortable with a death by suicide and, sadly, this can cause them to join the conspiracy of silence or simply withdraw.
It is always important to speak of the dead.
If this gives rise to painful emotions then, the more it does so, the more opportunities are given to the bereaved to express their pain and deal with it. Giving families the chance to express their grief is the gift we bring when we visit; why else would we come?
Priests and ministers of religion have a very important role at this time. I know of many clergy who appreciate that their presence and solidarity with the bereaved family can help to ease any sense of shame in themselves and renew their hope for the well-being of the one they have lost. Sensitive clergy also put much thought and preparation into religious ceremonies at this time. They are careful not to glorify the dead person but to reflect dimensions of them the bereaved have become blinded to in the glare of suicide.
After the crowds have disappeared back to their own lives, those who were also close should come closer. An already existing bond of friendship gives us the right and obliges us to do whatever we can to help.
But, the ‘being there’ and not ‘what we do’ that matters.
Any sudden bereavement, like bereavement by suicide, changes the landscape of our lives. Many people express their rejection or fear of their new reality through anger. That anger may be directed at the most innocent targets; even at the helpers and the dead person. It’s not easy being a lightning conductor but it can be a great service to the bereaved if we allow and ‘earth’ their anger rather than try to suppress or be alienated by it.
Similarly, raging against the dead is not something we should be scandalised by. It’s been wisely said that we only truly rage against those who truly matter.
A profound sadness is often part of the grieving process. The bereaved may lapse into long silences, in which case, it is best to sit in silence with them. It is possible that some sadnesses may devolve into depression where the bereaved may speak negatively about themselves or question whether that have any reason to go on living.
They may need professional help at this point. Any talk of their own lack of motivation for living or a desire for death should be taken seriously. Again, this is where we would consider the involvement of a mental health professional.
The question most frequently asked by the bereaved is: ‘Why?’ That question often cloaks other questions; ‘was it because of something I did or failed to do?’ Was in not enough for him?’ ‘Was I lacking or neglectful in some way?’ The only person who can answer those questions is the bereaved person. Some people never find an answer to their ‘Why?’ The real question for them is ‘What do I do now?’ The answer to that is that they must face their reality, feel their pain and express it in anyway they want to. Over time, most people spend time in the ruins of their old normal salvaging the parts of the relationship that matter most and using them to construct a new normal.
We refer to those people as survivors.
Survivor, from the Latin ‘survivo’, means to ‘live above’. That doesn’t mean that survivors reject their reality but that they refuse to be identified by it. To put it simply, they come to realise that there is more to them than their tragedy. Survivors learn to live well with their loss. Part of this ‘living well’ may be the forgiveness of the dead. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. In fact, remembering is an important part of the grieving process because we have many memories of the dead person other than those of their suicide.
As it is with us so it is with them, there is more to them than their suicide. Forgiveness may be coming to accept that the dead did not end their own lives to harm ours but because they could not live with the pain of theirs.
There is a poem I quote at seminars and talks and it has one particularly powerful line: ‘The dead do not want us to die’. I explain that anyone who loves us wants us to have life and have it to the full. And that love doesn’t die at death because it that was the case why would we grieve? The best monument to those we have lost is a life lived in love.
We have seen in the tragedies of Buncrana and California how communities can come together to support those grieving a tragedy. Communities are the scaffolding that keeps us intact until such time as we can stand unaided. They come with warm hearts and welcoming ears and their listening is the poultice that draws bitterness from our hearts. Their message is simple: ‘We cherish you, you are not alone.’
Those bereaved by suicide need never feel alone in their grief.
There are many bereavement support groups like Bethany where the bereaved will find welcome, warmth and support. There are many organisations, like Console and Living Links who are there to provide professional support for those bereaved by suicide. And there are neighbours and friends who are willing to help the bereaved in whatever way they can.
Lives lost remind us of how precious are the lives of those who remain.