“A suicide kills two people, Maggie, that’s what it’s for.”– Arthur Miller, playwright, After the Fall, 1964. (Act 1)
A suicide has many victims. Those around the deceased in their final days will likely all be deeply affected, as will you, the suicide prevention counselor.
Mourning a suicide is not like mourning any other sort of death. This variety of grieving has many unique features. The emotional damage is more profound and more complex than that resulting from a natural passing. The difference lies in the guilt those left behind may feel, the culpability and shame associated with another’s death:
- “I should have kept in touch…”
- “If I’d only taken the time to…”
- “”What if we’d…?”
- “Why the hell did I say that to him?”
Suicide is still something of a taboo subject. In the past, it was even more taboo. It remains unmentionable and stigmatized in many cultural communities you may end up dealing with. The suicide’s entourage may themselves feel a social stigma for being associated with such a tragedy. The remorse, the recriminations, the shame can tear apart the survivors. Many a family has been destroyed in the witch-hunt for scapegoats…
Many myths and prejudices can quickly reappear in the wake of a suicide:
- “The whole family’s nuts…”
- “It gets passed down from generation to generation, everyone knows that…”
- “I don’t want my children playing with his brother. He might be…”
Mourning a suicide is incredibly, intensely painful. The bereavement process can be far longer than for a natural death. There are specialized resources available for the families of suicide victims. Groups exist to help survivors deal with guilt: guilt over not having done enough; guilt over being the one left alive…
Don’t let pain linger on inside. Reliving the moment will paralyze your life. Writing from a dark, foul prison cell in 1896, the Irish writer Oscar Wilde wrote an open letter of apology to his friends and his public entitled De Profundis (Latin for “from the depths”). In it, he explained:
Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralysing immobility of a life every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern…
For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow… It is always twilight in one’s heart… And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again tomorrow.
Group encounters allow a mourner to break what Wilde called the “paralyzing immobility of a life centered on the one moment you live again and again.” Wilde was in jail: but there are many prisoners in this world who aren’t trapped in any jail of human construction.
You who were close to a suicide victim can easily become a prisoner of the moment in time when someone you cared about took their own life – and a bit of yours as well.
As a counselor, it’s vital to not downplay or trivialize events. Suicide prevention continues after someone has taken their own life – now your job is to prevent suicides from within the entourage.
You may forget that you yourself may well be part of that immediate circle. It’s a lot easier to prevent further suicides if you’ve already integrated yourself into the deceased’s crowd. And whether or not you’ve become close to that crowd, don’t forget that you have to go through the mourning process, too.
Book excerpt from Quebec Suicide Prevention Handbook (2014), Éditions TNT
Suicide Prevention Hotlines:
Québec: 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553). CLSCs can also help you.
Canada: Canada Suicide Prevention Service 833-456-4566
U.S.: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).