With approximately 30,000 suicides happening each year in the US, countless people are grieving the loss of loved ones who have taken their lives. The grieving process is different to those who have lost a spouse, father, sister, or friend to cancer, heart disease, or a stroke. Many “suicide survivors” are left to process their emotions in private because the topic of suicide is still so taboo in this country.
One great resource is the Grief Support Services of the Samaritans of Boston. They recently conducted an interview with Dr. Jack Jordan on the topic of grieving a loved one who has committed suicide. Dr. Jordan is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and Wellesley, Massachusetts, where he specializes in working with loss and bereavement. He is coeditor of the 2011 book Grief After Suicide (Routledge) and the Clinical Consultant for Grief Support Services of the Samaritans of Boston (www.samaritanshope.org), where he is helping to develop innovative outreach and support programs for suicide survivors. I have obtained permission to reprint the interview here, specifically for Psych Central readers.
Q. Your book notes that “suicide survivors” can include people who are not on close terms with the deceased. Can you explain?
A. Immediate kin are the most likely to be affected, but it’s not just them. It could be a next-door neighbor who saw the person every day. Or a subway train driver could be traumatized after someone jumps in front of a train. Or a high-school student may have had no personal relationship with another student who died by suicide, but may have somehow identified with that person. In general, a survivor is anyone who felt responsible for the death or for not preventing it, or who was deeply and negatively impacted by the death.
Q. How is grief after suicide different from other kinds of grief?
A. It depends on what aspects of grief you’re talking about. After any type of death, there is a yearning for the deceased. After sudden death, there is shock or disbelief; people have trouble accepting the reality of the death. After a sudden, unexpected, violent death (such as a homicide or suicide), people focus on the horror or trauma of the death. There is a preoccupation with, “What did my loved one go through during their final moments?” But with suicide, there is a whole struggle with, “Did they know what they were doing? Why did they choose this? Didn’t they know how much this would hurt me?”
Q. How does the stigma that’s associated with suicide affect suicide survivors?
A. Many societies have ostracized, shunned, or punished the family of the person who died by suicide. In the developed world, that’s beginning to be replaced by social ambiguity. As mental illness becomes increasingly destigmatized, people may not condemn someone who died by suicide, but suicide creates much social awkwardness. Many people hold back because they don’t know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. For example, they may wonder if it’s okay to mention the person’s name or use the word suicide. Also, survivors can self-stigmatize because of their own guilt and shame. So it becomes a vicious cycle. People don’t know what to say or do, so they avoid the “elephant in the room.”
Q. Your book discusses research suggesting that support groups for suicide survivors may be particularly helpful. Why do you think that is?