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7 Steps for Healing Suicide Loss



Suicide loss is unlike other types of grief. We face the devastating loss of a loved one and simultaneously also encounter:


  • Surviving a significant trauma

  • Asking “why?”, often without clear answers

  • Thoughts of: “If only _______, maybe this could have been prevented."

  • Family relational strain

  • Facing real or imagined stigmatization from our social support networks

  • We may even question if we could have done more in our relationship with our loved one, feeling a sense of personal responsibility for their choice

It is daunting to face this type of complex grief. We might wonder how we will ever make it through the weeks, months, and years that follow.


Fortunately, there are resources and pockets of support that can offer a sense of connection and compassion for the grieving journey. Survivors may find a bit of hope that, while often unseen, others have traveled this difficult path before us, and can help guide the way.


One of the guides who has blazed the trail is Jack R. Jordan, a (recently retired) psychologist who dedicated his career to supporting the recovery of suicide loss survivors. In his article: “Lessons Learned: Forty Years of Clinical Work with Suicide Loss Survivors”, he outlined the tasks that we face in the process of healing from suicide loss, that can be helpful to address. Below is a brief, summarized version of his key points. To read his full work in more detail, please see a link to his article in the reference list.


What suicide loss survivors need in the healing process:





1. Re-establishing a sense of safety and security in the world.

Suicide loss is a trauma. For many of us, it is the most traumatic experience we will face in our lifetime. For many survivors, the world no longer feels safe or predictable. Suicide can be so shocking that we might feel shaken to our core, with thoughts such as if this could happen, anything is possible. One of the first steps in the healing process is to develop coping skills for managing symptoms of trauma. A skilled therapist can help with this step.


2. Repairing the Imagined Future & Developing A Narrative

A suicide loss turns our world upside-down. The future we had imagined with our loved one no longer exists; We grieve not only the loss in the present day, but grieve the future that we had imagined with them as a part of it. We may even question our beliefs of who we are, who our loved one was, and the way the world works. We might experience self doubt, anxiety, guilt, a sense of personal failure, or other strong emotions.


Jack Jordan shares that an important step toward healing is to “develop a ‘bearable’ narrative of the suicide, one that works well enough (that) the survivor... can obtain some relief from the ‘Why?’ questions and restore a sense of coherence… This usually includes construction of a narrative of the death that embraces the complexity of suicide as a kind of 'perfect storm' of factors coming together (including the intentions of the deceased) that allowed the suicide to happen, rather than just the simple result of one person’s mistakes or failures" (Jordan, 2020).


3. Self-Dosing: Creating Pockets of Relief from the Pain

In the initial stage of grief, we are overwhelmed by our emotions and pain; They run the show in our daily lives. It eventually becomes helpful to develop a sense of control over the grief so that we can choose when and how the intense pain of grief is expressed. This can be done by compartmentalizing spaces and times to allow for these emotions to come up.


4. Developing Social Management Skills

Suicide can cause significant strain in both family and social relationships. Family members often have different needs in the grieving process that can be at odds with one another. One person might need conversations to process, while the other needs space or distraction and finds solace in engaging with activities outside of the home.


Beyond the family, social connections may face relational strain as well. There is no clear road map for how to interact with a suicide loss survivor, and well-intentioned friends may try to offer advice or perspective that is not helpful, and sometimes even damaging to the survivor. Healing in this area may require setting boundaries, discontinuing friendships, or developing assertiveness to share needs with people. Many survivors find helpful social supports in support groups specific to survivors of suicide loss.




5. Repairing the Relationship

"... One common theme for suicide loss survivors is to perceive the death as a rejection, abandonment, or even a betrayal by the deceased... for many people, the death is perceived to be a choice with a critical interpersonal message for the survivor from the deceased about the lack of worth or value of the relationship" (Jordan, 2020). The step toward healing the pain in this area is to repair the relationship with the lost loved one in a positive way. This could mean having an imagined conversation with the loved one, making amends, writing a letter, or finding other ways of staying in communication with one another.


To retain the memory of love's sweetness without letting the pain of parting and loss embitter it is perhaps the greatest challenge for the bereaved heart, and its greatest achievement. (Maria Popova)

6. Developing & Sharing The Story of the Loved One

As social creatures we benefit from having others witness our stories and share in our memories. It is common for the life stories of those who died by suicide to become focused on the method of death, rather than remembering the life. It can be beneficial for us to remember the loved one who died in a positive light- focusing on their interests, contributions, accomplishments, personality, identity, and life story. Sharing memories with one another aids in the grieving process by having social recognition of their life and the value they added to the world.





7. Reinvesting in Life

Following the loss of a loved one to suicide, it's common for the pain to be so great that survivors have a desire to join their loved one in death. A part of the healing process is finding reasons to choose to continue to live, and a reinvestment in life. For many, this involves wrestling with existential questions, like what gives life meaning and purpose.


"A capacity within us remains capable of transcending unspeakable levels of pain and sorrow." -Wayne Muller

Many people who have gone through suicide loss want a checklist to help guide the way through the process. The items listed above, while not a checklist per se, are very helpful areas to explore with the support of a trauma-informed therapist. Focusing on these areas, when they feel approachable, can be helpful in navigating the loss, living in the present, and reimagining a new future.



Reference:


Jordan, J.R. (2020). Lessons Learned: Forty Years of Clinical Work with Suicide Loss Survivors. Frontiers in Psychology, volume 11.


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