Survivors of Suicide - Part Two
By Peggy Sweeney Rainone
Let us recap information that was shared in Part One. We enumerated three categories of suicide survivors:
· individuals who have seriously contemplated suicide, but have not completed suicide
· people who have attempted suicide, but did not die
· children and adults whose loved ones completed suicide
We discussed many of the warning signs (red flags) which may indicate severe depression or plans of suicide:
· withdrawing from family and friends
· feelings of hopelessness followed by cheerfulness because they have “found the solution” by deciding to end their life
· excessive alcohol/drug abuse
· verbal hints of suicide which may be coupled with giving away favorite possessions
· changes in mood, hygiene, or eating and sleeping habits
In addition, people who are in a severe depression may feel that they have lost complete control of their lives, doubt their self-worth or usefulness, and are unable to rationalize solutions to their problems. For example, they may have recently finalized a divorce, have financial problems, are coping with the death of a loved one, or have had to move away from family and close friends. Children may reach their decision to end their life because of physical or emotional abuse, ridicule or shunning by peers, feelings of abandonment by a parent through divorce or death, or an overwhelming sense of failure.
Men and women in emergency services and public safety have additional uncertainties that can compound feelings of distress and despair. They are placed in life-threatening situations and witness human injury and death. They may have become injured or disabled as the result of their hazardous job and believe that they are no longer useful to their department or have a purpose in life. They may be struggling with a seemingly senseless death of a fellow officer. However, their co-workers appear to be adjusting to these same situations with apparently no problems. No one talks about the incident or the feelings they have inside. He or she assumes that everyone else is coping with the stress; hence, something must be wrong with them. Rather then asking for help (they may be perceived as weak), they will turn these feelings and thoughts inward or they may seek the “comfort” of alcohol and drugs. As each new incident or struggle occurs, they slip deeper and deeper into depression.
When someone dies, it is always difficult for his or her family members and friends to journey through grief. But when someone has completed suicide, the trauma of the death compounds the emotional devastation. These survivors must not only cope with grief but with the stigma that surrounds a death by suicide. This stigma began many centuries ago, when the Catholic Church took a strong stand on the issue of suicide, labeling it a mortal sin—an unforgivable sin. The Church believed that only God had the right to take a life; therefore, the act of suicide went against the laws of God. Other churches agreed with this opinion and banned family members from participating in church functions. They were disowned and shunned by the people of the community. They were outcasts. Their church and the people they needed the most, their friends, turned their backs on them. Our perceptions of suicide, fortunately, have changed somewhat over the years, but many people still consider suicide a weakness in the person and condemn their actions and ignore the needs of the family. My personal opinion is that God is a loving and forgiving God. He views our lives based on a multitude of deeds (good and bad) and does not determine our punishment based on one single action alone. The family and friends, the survivors, need our love and support, not our condemnation.
Two of the most difficult issues in coping with the grief of suicide are guilt and anger. Survivors constantly question why the person chose to take their own life. Was there something they themselves did that prompted this decision? Why didn’t they ask for help? Why didn’t they realize what was happening before it happened? The lives of the survivors become fragmented as they search for answers that never come. Even when they may have a clue to why the death occurred (a suicide note), they still cannot understand what was so wrong in this person’s life that they chose suicide. It is an endless game of questions with no answers. Survivors must realize that there will never be a definite answer. They must relinquish this quest and focus on healing their broken heart. Most suicides, in my opinion, happen due to an accumulation of events, rather than one particular incident. Please bear in mind that your loved one did not kill himself/herself because of anything you did or did not do; said or did not say. They were in a very deep emotional pain and wanted to end that pain. In order to end that pain, they had to take their own life. They did not do it to hurt you; they did it to end the pain.
Life is like a puzzle, intricate, with many pieces. Each piece of the puzzle must be fashioned in a certain way to be joined to other pieces to make a complete picture. This puzzle takes a lifetime to finish. Every day, another piece of the puzzle is shaped and designed to blend with the others. When a suicide or other death of a loved one occurs, it is as if our puzzle is tossed in the air, the pieces scattered. As we begin to rebuild our puzzle (our life), we realize a vital piece is missing. An empty spot in the border of the puzzle will always remind us of the piece that is missing. We become frustrated and may lose interest in completing this puzzle. All of the pieces are not there. It seems as though our puzzle, our life, will reflect someone who is not complete. You are so wrong. Grief and the healing process provide us the opportunity to redesign this puzzle. You must learn to fashion and blend other pieces to accommodate the missing puzzle piece. You must direct your focus on life, your family, and on living in spite of your loss. You must learn to love and laugh, and remember the happy times. You have a choice and your choice is life and loving.
The reason I feel so strongly about suicide education and prevention is because I am a survivor of suicide. I know the depths of the emotional pain of depression and the physical toll that depression can have on a person’s body. I will always be indebted to my best friend, Gretchen, who reached out her hand to me and would not let go until I was strong enough to walk alone into the light of a new day. I will never allow myself to go back to that place, yet the memory of that pain enables me to help others. We, who are stronger, must always be ready and willing to help our brothers and sisters who are struggling with emotional pain. We must lend them our strength and be their ray of hope.
There have been several articles written that address the physical health of law enforcement officers and firefighters. Efforts are being made to improve their quality of life. In addition to the prescribed physical exams and medical tests, I believe that departments and administrators must realize the importance of programs on stress management. Many departments have implemented trainings of this type to assist their officers, but far too many departments have not. It is a known fact that stress influences a person’s susceptibility to heart attacks, strokes, and other medical problems. Without programs on stress, and debriefings to cope with traumatic incidents, we are going to continue to see public safety and emergency response professionals dying as the result of physical illness, suicide, or substance abuse. It is time to stop ignoring these problems—they will not go away.
· This is Survivable by Sondra Sexton-Jones (husband’s suicide)
· Dancing with the Skeleton by Kristen Derrek & Joy Johnson
· Suicide Survivors’ Handbook by Trudy Carlson
· Suicide of a Child by Adina Wrobleski
· Lost and Found by Beryl Glover (daughter’s and brother’s suicide)
· My Son, My Son by Iris Bolton (young son’s death)
· The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burus (Help for people who are depressed)
· Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You by John Grobol
· Help Me, I’m Sad: Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Childhood Depression by David Fassler & Lynne Dumas
· Suicide: The Forever Decision by Paul G. Quinnett (for those contemplating suicide).
Peggy is founder and president of HUGS (How to Understand Grief Seminars), a volunteer firefighter, mortician, and bereavement educator. She develops and facilitates workshops on coping with loss and trauma for professionals and families. Grieving Behind the Badge is a training program she has designed specifically for public safety and emergency response professionals. Peggy is also the founder of Halo of Love, a support group for bereaved parents, and CHAT (Children Healing After Trauma), an educational program for children, school counselors, and educators. You may contact her through her website at:
©1999 Peggy Sweeney Rainone