Some Advice On Talking About Suicide

By Jim Marsden, Reboot.io

A few months ago, a friend of Reboot sent us an email with the subject line “Re: Some advice talking about suicide” after he had learned that a co-worker and member of his team had taken his life. Nothing prepares you for these moments (how can anyone be prepared when suicide happens to someone at your company?). But the question lingered heavily in his email: How do you lead a team through into the post-suicide life? What follows is our response to his question, in hopes that it provides some guideposts should you find yourself facing a similar situation at your company.

When facing a sudden loss on the team to suicide, getting support to process the range of feelings that arise is key.

First things first: If you are the one leading the charge in this effort for your team, you need to be sure YOU have support. Be sure you’ve got someone to talk to. Don’t hesitate to reach out directly to grief counseling, therapists or a coach.

Secondly, the team will need to process their terror and grief — and the whole range of feelings that are wrapped up in that. Consider bringing in a grief counselor. Additionally, both HR and the leadership should make sure that the individuals on the team have access to counselors, coaches, and/or therapists. Processing grief and suicide is something to take seriously.

When it comes to leading a team through and into the post-suicide life, every company’s situation is different. While there may be different ways to best support yourself and the team in moments like this, here are some broad brushstrokes of what can be helpful for yourself and your team going forward in an overly simplified chronological order.

1. In the near term, it’s about supporting the grief process, loss, and the wide array of emotions that can be present at any given time. Some helpful things to keep in mind:

  • People will need safe, non-judgemental environments to share and express whatever they’re experiencing.
  • It’s helpful to give voice or otherwise give an outward expression of the feelings moving through at this time.
  • Feelings are not needing to be rational! A whole range is possible, including: guilt, shame, and failure; a relentless drive to ask “why?”; anger and resentment; and a sense of stigma (that others may judge or assess oneself in a negative way) resulting in diminishment and possible isolation of oneself, or a need to withdraw from others.
  • It’s helpful to share stories. Sometimes the same story may be shared multiple times. This is fine and part of being human.
  • Often, during this period, the best kind of listening is simply “listening to hear” rather than “listening to respond.” “Listening to hear” is to be there for the other person to listen, acknowledge, witness and connect without needing to otherwise act, fix, address, mend, etc.
  • There is no timeline for grieving.
  • Frequent communication during this time is vital within the team. The communication during this time helps us to be connected as human beings. If we’re pushed too much towards “performance”, we’re likely to experience isolation within and across the team.
  • This is a time of experiencing endings, which includes honoring the person and other experiences that have come to an end.

As a leader of the team through this process, it’s possible to get so caught up in the “doing,” and being busy trying to ensure that your team is getting the best support it needs, that you can lose touch with your own experience. It happens to many, and it’s done with best of intentions — but it can have painful and isolating consequences for yourself, and undermine your efforts to be there for your team. Your ability to feel whatever comes up and to ask and receive support for yourself during this time will help ensure that you can be your best for your team.

2. Supporting the team during the period of time between the sense of loss and the clarity of “life beyond the suicide” is a transition time. There’s likely to be a period of time that’s before the “new normal” and after the intense time of grieving and mourning the loss. This might be thought of as “after the Endings” but before the “New Beginning.” It’s a time for the team of being in-between these two places.

During this time, for some, there will be a continued mourning. Many on the team will be seeking meaning and purpose in the day-to-day work. Emphasis is best placed on the near term goals and results, rather than longer term aspirations. This time period can feel uncertain and ungrounded to some. Being clear about what actually matters and speaking frequently together as a team for check-ins (such as “red, yellow, green”), and to discover common ground, is reassuring and developing strength for the last phase.

3. Life beyond the suicide will become the “New Normal.” This comes as the team/organization has mostly moved through the grieving and is gaining a collective understanding of the “new normal.”

Clarifying purpose, meaning and mission of the team can be a helpful way of bringing forth a new team solidity in a way that acknowledges the experiences the team has been through. It may be helpful to identify and discuss metaphors for “who we were” and “who we are now.” We can’t “think” our way into this stage, but instead, we come through the experience of the earlier two stages and “experience our way” into this stage.

Give yourself some elbow room to lean into the grief and loss that is present. Most transitions like this fail due to pushing too quickly to move beyond this critical phase and the inattentiveness to experiencing grief and honoring endings.

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