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Grieving in the Wake of Suicide

I've heard it said that death is a wound to the living. I have a vivid picture of that in my mind from the day in my office when I sat with a young widow whose husband had taken his own life just two days prior. The depth of agony in her eyes as she (literally) screamed, "Please take this pain away," is something I will not soon forget. She curled up in a fetal position on the couch and wept fiercely. As much as I wanted to take away the pain, I knew I could not. Death by suicide is by far one of the most difficult to grieve. The unanswered questions that take up residency in the soul of the survivor are unrelenting. The unresolved pieces of the puzzle often turn into guilt, "If I had just..."

Suicide is often considered a socially unspeakable loss. Because of this stigma, it can paralyze the survivors leaving them without the support they desperately need. When survivors come to me for counseling, they are often carrying a shadow of shame mixed with grief; I see it in their face, and I hear it in their words. It is as though they are walking a tightrope between anger and breathtaking sorrow.

We need to be the community that reaches out to those who have lost loved ones to suicide. We need to move toward them and offer what we can to provide support, just as we would if the death occurred by any other means. We should not focus on the why's or how of the suicide; is it that which keeps us from reaching out. We should focus on the survivor who may feel alone, judged, and fearful. Regardless of how the death occurred, the loss is heavy, and it is cumbersome and they need our underpinning.

Accompanying someone to the place of healing is a privilege. The survivor needs courage and perseverance to look inside their hurting heart. Often, at the beginning of grief, courage and perseverance are missing...they just are. Most of one's energy goes to putting one foot in front of the other, pushing through the day to day functioning and doing their best to survive sometimes one minute at a time. Look for these places to lend hope and support.

If suicide has touched your life, recognize that this loss is part of your life story that needs to be told; this is where the healing begins. If you are reading this as someone who has not been affected directly by suicide, know that someone in your life and/or community most likely has. If you discover this to be true, be open and supportive to letting them share their pain, confusion, and questions. If needed point them in the direction of professional help if you see the symptoms worsening.

In the aftermath of suicide, a counselor can provide a safe place to let the story unfold as they fill the gap and give words to the unspeakable. They can extend the bravery required to imagine life in the future without their loved one. They can figuratively lift and support the griever when their perseverance is depleted. Professional counselors can assess the grief and measure the healing.

We all need to work together to prevent suicide, absolutely. We need to be aware of the signs and not be afraid to ask questions. If it occurs, we need to surround the hurting ones with love and understanding. Don't be the one who stays on the sideline and watches, be involved, be courageous, be present.

Grief must be externalized to heal. Your task in mourning is to pay the respect and time it deserves; this brings integrity to the deep loss that is yours. -Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Brenda Stutler, LMHC, GC-C

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