Suicide--Grief & Traumatic Stress
Rev. Terryann Talbot-Moses, M.DIV., B.C.E.T.S., B.C.C.C.

Suicide—the very nature of the word expresses negativity. Suicide, according to Wikpedia comes from the Lain sui caedere meaning “to kill oneself” Thus the word “suicide” means “the act of intentionally terminating one’s life.” This negativity also comes with an element of judgment. Just recently in a conversation with a colleague, of suicide, they said, “it is often an unspoken indictment.” The negativity of meaning along with the element of judgment often compromises survivors trauma over what has happened and the traumatic stress that accompanies them. This couple with the “stigma” of suicide makes for an abyss of darkness and the move to “get on” with life.

While I had thought that we had moved forward in the area of the stigma surrounding suicide, I was quickly reminded that we have not moved forward. I accompanied a family to the morgue to see their loved one who had died. As the coroner spoke to the family and explained the reasons that could have led to their loved one’s death, the family begged the coroner to rule out suicide. The coroner had explained that the deceased had taken a number of “soma” a drug that is a muscle relaxant, and the effect of that drug alone could have led to her death. This made me stop and think once again of the stigma associated with suicide.

This article will detail a suicide that occurred, the stigma involved, intervention provided and the need for continued work in dealing with survivors of death by suicide. When a suicide occurs it not only affects family and friends of the victim, but additionally emergency personnel, hospital staff, funeral directors, clergy and the surrounding community. Survivors are not only left with a death and unanswered questions, they are left with the stigma and avoidance of dealing with the issue at hand. In this article I will detail an experience, the stigma and traumatic stress associated with suicide. This experience highlights not only the stigma that surrounds this subject, but further, shows our avoidance in dealing with suicide and not even wanting to give it a name. I thought that the horrific events of September 11, 2001, with people falling from the Twin Towers would break down some of these barriers, yet I have not, in reality, experienced much change.

I had been working with a person who had survived a suicide attempt. She had cut her wrists, however, was discovered by her spouse and lived. It was at this point that I was asked to provide intervention. While never feeling totally adequately prepared for the “real thing” I began asking questions and uncovering signs that led to the attempt. As she progressed, she was willing to seek intervention, however that became a smokescreen for what would follow. As we began moving past the critical stages, the diligence of family and friends lessened. In what appeared to look like good therapeutic intervention the fateful day came. While family had not even remembered their was a weapon in the house, the victim found a .22 caliber handgun and shot herself. This time the suicide was completed.

While I had visited her regularly on a weekly basis, I did not see the “tell-tale” signs coming. I further was not exempted from shock when I learned of her completed suicide. I was in the hospital visiting a critically ill patient, when I went to the nurses station and was told, “Did you hear that Jane (name changed) killed herself.” I reeled at the news. I did not want to believe it. I had just walked past her house. I wandered around aimlessly. The shock rattled my being.

Again, I provided intervention to the family and we attempted to make sense out of the senseless. She did not leave a note. The family groped for answers. In addition to traumatic shock they dealt with their own feelings of grief coupled with “what do we tell people.” I tried to bring them an element of normalcy and stability as they dealt with a traumatic experience.

I encouraged the family to call it was it what was, a suicide. The “why” was an unknown. They were in an abyss of darkness. Not only were they confronted with death, but death by unnatural cause—death by one’s own hand. In naming what had happened let them know that her death had meaning. Yet, that was not the feelings of people in the church community.

This victim’s father and mother-in-law were members of the congregation of which I was pastor. They were not just nominally associated with the church, they were very active members of the church. The event occurred on Friday and I felt compelled to address it in my sermon on Sunday. These people were sitting in the congregation. They were looking for comfort and healing at a very uncomfortable time in their lives. Avoiding the use of the word suicide would have been insensitive to the family and an avoidance of the tragic occurrence in the community. Yet, in the midst of all the trauma, grief and crisis, I was confronted by congregants and chided for my mention of the word suicide from the pulpit of the church. In an attempt to bring hope, comfort and healing to a hurting, grieving family and community, I found myself in the midst of conflict.

I myself felt abandoned. I could only imagine what the family felt. The impact of suicide was indeed in the headlines of the people in our small, rural community.

The Impact of Suicide

As mentioned earlier, the impact of suicide not only affects a family. The effects of this incident rocked a community—a community that involved emergency personal, hospital staff, funeral director, pastor, church community and the community-at-large. I was not prepared to hear the news. Congregants would have preferred not to hear the news or deal with the matter before them. The news of this event brought me to my knees. My first thought was “how could this be?” Next came questions. “Why did I not stop at her house that day when on my way to the hospital? What went wrong? What will her family think of me? Did I do enough? What made her so desperate to take her life?” The array of “whys” continued.

Naming Suicide and Confronting Mortality

The chiding of the congregants in response to my use of the word suicide in my sermon left me in a quandary. If we as a healing, spiritual community could not wrap ourselves around a family in traumatic crisis, how would we expect others to? When a suicide occurs it does not merely affect a victim. It affects a whole family and a community as well. There is a lack of understanding and sympathy in many arenas which only increase the pain, suffering and grief of such a difficult occurrence. Families are often “left alone” as they struggle with the suddenness of their loved one’s unexpected death. These feelings of alone ness were recently expressed by a mother whose seventeen-year old son hung himself. While people attempt to be well-meaning it is often seen in acts of “doing” and not “presence.” People bring food to the home and call at the funeral home, however, they never really acknowledge the family’s pain and grief. They are “afraid” to mention the word suicide. It also appears to bring home the reality of fear that this could be me or a member of my family.

Confronting mortality is difficult. This rocked my world and confronted me with just how fragile life is. It further left me helpless and without words. I realized that before I could deal with the family and the larger community, I had to address my own emotions, needs and feelings. As I realized what I was going through, I could then offer assistance to a family and community that were experiencing an array of emotions—from shock to peace. As we were able to uncover some of the victim’s feelings of “hopelessness” and “despair” we were able to bring peace, comfort and hope to the family. The depth of Jane’s emotional pain, the act she committed all led to their complicated grief and traumatic stress. By my naming the act for what it was and helping them to uncover questions that needed asked, I was able to lead them to begin the healing process.

Grief of Suicide and Traumatic Stress

Death is the termination of life and while we can explain this when death comes through natural causes—heart attack, stroke, infection, we have an easier time understanding. Death by suicide leaves us with a void, emptiness like traveling through an abyss. It is further compounded by our desire to have answers. We want to be in control and have a difficult time making sense out of something we believe is senseless. In our reluctance to understand the nature of grief suicide brings, it is further complicated by societal and religious stigma. As an “unspoken indictment” judgmental opinions are expressed in religious circles regarding suicide. Some faith traditions refuse to bury victims of suicide because of doctrine and religious dogma.

In all of this we failed to see the victim for who she really were. We cannot understand the nature of their emotional pain, their feelings of despair and their depth of hopeless darkness. Theirs is a grief often held in silence. Then we must turn to the grief of survivors—family, spouse, children, grandchildren, loved ones and friends. The depth of a family’s grief is greater due to societal barriers and avoidance in naming the act for what it is. This circle of survivors are left to make sense out of the senseless and are left with their deepest grief unattended.

In order to help families of suicide we must let them know “it’s okay not to be okay,” as Mark Lerner, PhD. outlines in his book, “It’s Okay Not to Be Okay.” We must realize that their may not be words to speak, but one’s presence is vitally important. I attempted to bring normalcy and stability into a situation that was falling apart and unstable. In my presence, I brought them a shoulder to lean on, encouraged opportunities to talk and allowed them to cry and express their grief as they felt. In my presence I was able to help them with the “what next” issues they would need to deal with. Not only do the survivors have their own feelings and emotions, grief and sorrow, there are also the questions of “why” and the “guilt” that often surrounds such a tragic act. There is all this and we have not even considered the method by which the victim used to take their own life.

As professionals we must seek to put aside our agenda—our opinions and biases—and extend compassion in the form of empathic care and support to the hurting family and shocked community. We must be careful not to express an “unspoken indictment” and remember that we were not walking in the shoes of the victim. We cannot feel their burdens, their stress, or rationalize away their feelings of despair and hopelessness. Standing along side of survivors in their grief and trauma is the most helpful assistance we can offer.

Suicide is as awful and tragic as a terrorist event. For whatever reason such a desperate act was committed, survivors are going to remember that we entered their abyss of grief and journeyed with them extending God’s grace. They are going to remember that we listened and allowed them to vent their feelings, express their hurts and concerns, rant and rave, or just sit down and cry. Extending care and compassion is often remembered through the simple task of being present.

Conclusion

While the stigma of suicide continues, in our hospital and regional trauma center, we are making strides to help people deal with their traumatic stress and grief by normalizing their shock, its horrific reality and humanity’s own mortality. Through addressing the issue we confront its reality as well as to normalize peoples responses, emotions and feelings. We help to bring stability into a very unstable environment. Suicide will always leave a void and emptiness, however, as we break down the barriers of stigma and address in healthy ways the traumatic stress they experience, we will effect healing in survivors life journey.


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