JUST a few weeks ago, I received a letter from a person who has been a reader of my column for many years. This person was deeply concerned for a number of his friends who were experiencing great difficulty in coming to terms with the suicidal death of a young farmer in their area. Consequently, he asked if I would be willing to address how family and friends might best survive a loved one's suicide.
Sadly, every year in rural Australia many people are committing suicide, and each suicide leaves an average of six survivors. Grieving the loss of a loved one is painful enough, but as a suicide survivor you face a more complicated grief because you must also deal with the fact that your loved one chose to die.
It is hard to believe life can ever be normal again, but there is hope. Because, although you are changed forever by such a tragedy, life can once again have hope and meaning. Naturally, when someone you know and love has ended their own life, you may feel stunned and troubled by the powerful reactions you experience. Sometimes you might feel very angry at your feelings or at other people around you. Sometimes you may feel like dying too. It is only natural that some very confusing and emotional times can be expected and you will need support.
What becomes of these intense, relentless feelings? They usually diminish as months and years pass, although some residual feelings may remain unresolved. Recognising how best to accommodate and cope with these feelings can help you advance the healing process.
When we experience the suicide of a relative or close friend, talking and sharing with people who love us lightens our burdens and the pain becomes less intense. In fact, survivors of suicide need to let others know that talking about suicide is essential to the healing of the powerful emotions that merge and explode in the initial aftermath of losing someone who has chosen to take their own life.
Survivors often feel numb, or deny that their loved one committed suicide. Sometimes they go to great lengths to persuade themselves that the death was accidental or the result of a murder, even in the overwhelming evidence that it was suicide. On top of this, many survivors experience the emotions of guilt, fear, anger or a sense of personal failure. These feelings may cause some survivors to become depressed or be overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Sometimes this depression will skew their perspective and distort their thinking and when they reach this point, they need professional help.
Perhaps, like the person who asked me to write about coping with suicide, you too are struggling with how you can comfort a suicide survivor. If so, I'd like to provide you with a list of things to do and things not to do to comfort survivors.
My 'Do List' is simple: Give them all the understanding and love that you can. Give them your time. Be there for them as often as you can. Let them talk about whatever they are feeling or thinking, and to express their grief. Offer ideas but not advice, and let them decide what they want to do and when they want to do it. Pay attention to brothers, sisters and grandparents during the funeral and for months following the funeral. Listen when they want to tell you about the special talents and qualities of the loved one who committed suicide.
My 'Don't List' is also simple: Don't assume you know best, or know how they feel. Don't make comparisons to your own loss of parent, child or friend who did not die by suicide. Don't tell them how they should feel, or try to change their feelings. Let them feel whatever they are feeling, whenever they are feeling it. Feelings are personal and individualised. Don't tell them this was God's will or preach to them. They will draw strength from their own faith, if that is important to them. Don't change the subject if they want to talk about their lost loved one. Don't point out the fact that they have other children, if the loss was a child. Children are not interchangeable. And don't add to their feelings of guilt by pointing out things that could have been done differently.
Obviously there are many more Do's and Dont's that I could share with you, but space does not allow me to list them. If you would like a more comprehensive list I'd be happy to send that to you. But for now, I sincerely hope that these thoughts I have shared with you today may have provided you with some skills to cope with suicide, as well as being in a better position to being a friend to a suicide survivor.
One more thing: If you or someone you know is grieving because of the suicide of a relative or close friend, then I want you to know that help is available. And if you would like to avail yourself of this help, I encourage you to write to me for a free copy of a small booklet titled "Surviving A Loved One's suicide". My address is PO Box 1540, Albany WA 6331. Or you may contact me by phone/fax on 98 418 418 or emailing email@example.com