Navigating Loss After Suicide

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On July 20, 2017 I found myself, along with hundreds of thousands of other music fans, shocked, saddened, and heart broken by the death of Chester Bennington from the band Linkin Park. I spent a lot of time crying and as I’m writing this post I’m still mourning the loss of one of my favorite musicians. For the past 17 years I’ve been singing along with Linkin Park while making dinner in the kitchen, driving around in my car, running, and when I attended their concert at the Gorge in George Washington in 2014. Their music has been a part of my daily life, and my world feels different without Chester in it.

As I watched fan and media reaction following Chester’s death, which was determined to be a suicide, I started noticing the suicide hotline number being shared (which is provided below), I saw fans sharing stories and posts on depression and addiction related to suicide, and I saw fans coming together in support of each other, the band, and Chester’s family, to help us all get through a terrible moment in our lives. People rallied together to support each other.

As a mental health counselor I feel compelled to provide information about ways people can successfully navigate the loss of someone after a suicide. This post focuses primarily on survivors healing after a completed suicide. For a post I wrote about suicide risk factors and warning signs click here. The current post provides resources and encouragement for ways to care for yourself if you’re a survivor of suicide loss or if you have been exposed to or affected by someone else’s suicide.

USE YOUR SUPPORT NETWORKS AND COMMUNITY RESOURCES

Research shows that, following a suicide, people find help through different forms of support that include both informal and formal avenues during their healing process. Informal supports are people like friends, relatives, spouses, partners, siblings, parents, neighbors, colleagues, and extended family. Formal sources of support include mental health counselors, clergy, primary care physicians, and even funeral directors.

In addition to people in your support network, using resources in your community can be helpful too. Survivors of suicide loss report they have found healing in the following ways:

  • attending suicide-specific bereavement support groups
  • reading books on suicide and grief
  • talking one-on-one with other suicide survivors
  • utilizing pastoral counseling
  • contacting advocacy organizations
  • taking prescribed medications

USE THE NATIONAL HOTLINE NUMBER

This is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline mentioned earlier: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It is free, confidential, and available 24/7. The website has resources to help yourself and ideas about how to help someone you know if you think they’re struggling. There is also information on safety planning and help for different groups such as LGBTQ people, Veterans, youth, Native Americans, and those who are deaf and/or hard of hearing.

BE AWARE OF YOUR FEELINGS

After a suicide, those left behind often have a number of mixed feelings as they deal with the grieving process. Depressed mood, trauma, guilt, anxiety, high levels of distress, grief, shame, isolation, shock, denial, and anger are all common. If you notice that you continue feeling sad, lose interest in your favorite activities, feel worthless, lose your appetite or have sudden weight loss, eat more than you usually do, can’t concentrate, lose energy or motivation, can’t sleep, sleep much more than you normally do, or have suicidal thoughts, seek out professional help to determine whether you may be experiencing symptoms of depression. Talking about your feelings with another supportive person can create a feeling of solidarity and connection that can help you heal. Being mindful about what exactly it is that you’re feeling can help you decide how best to care for yourself. You may need different things if you’re feeling angry versus if you’re feeling sad for example.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

After experiencing a loss it’s important to continue caring for yourself so you stay healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally.

  • Eat healthy food. Sometimes grieving people overeat because of stress or stop eating due to loss of appetite, take care of your body by keeping nutritious food available.
  • Let yourself cry if you need to, tears can be our body’s way of letting us know we care and that something or someone matters to us.
  • Get help from your formal or informal supports for negative feelings that linger on too long or that interfere in your daily life.
  • Do things that feel good and nurturing to you like walking in nature, taking a warm bath, or reading.
  • When you’re ready, engage in activities you enjoyed before the loss of your loved one.
  • Feelings may be difficult to put into words, try expressing your feelings through art, music, and writing.
  • Avoid trying to numb your feelings with alcohol or substances since these can worsen your situation.
  • Spend time with others to prevent isolation.
  • Give yourself permission to be happy.
  • You may feel something different every day, take care of yourself one day at a time.

Whether you have been indirectly exposed to someone’s death by suicide or have been directly affected and are bereaving the loss of a close friend or family member, there are helpful ways to navigate the loss. It is not necessary to feel isolated and alone in your experience, or, to borrow from Chester’s lyrics, it’s not necessary to “feel cold and lost in desperation.” If you’re someone having suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Please allow me one more quote from Linkin Park’s most recent album in which Chester sings:

“who cares if one more light goes out in a sky of million stars, it flickers, flickers,who cares if someone’s time runs out if a moment is all we are, we’re quicker, quicker, who cares if one more light goes out? Well I do.”

I do too, Chester. Suicidal thoughts can weigh heavily on a person’s mind and death by suicide directly and indirectly affects peoples’ lives every day. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that someone dies by suicide nearly every 13 minutes in the United States every day. I hope that by circulating information about ways to prevent and heal from suicide we can continue finding ways to keep one more light from going out.

Are you someone who has survived a loved one’s suicide or someone who has otherwise been affected by suicide? What have you found helpful in your own healing process after such a loss?

After the Attempt: Parents, Teens, and Suicide

back-1822702_1920Part of my job as a mental health counselor involves receiving calls from parents concerned about their teenagers following a suicide attempt. Parents sometimes call seeking help for their teens and other times they are looking for help for themselves to manage feelings.

A teen’s suicide attempt can significantly impact the whole family. Because there is often a stigma around suicide (a feeling of humiliation or shame) families find themselves wondering how to move forward following the incident. Parents feel unsure about whether they should talk to school personnel, how they should explain their teen’s absence from school or family functions when the teen has been hospitalized, and how to talk about the incident with the other children in the household. Parents call in a state of alarm, often fearful that their teen will try to commit suicide again or to discuss how powerless they felt in the aftermath of the attempt. Teens present for therapy usually wanting to examine ways to not be suicidal anymore.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people age 15-24 years old and results in more than 4,600 deaths every year. My goal in this post is to identify some risk factors and warning signs of suicidal behavior and offer some ideas for getting help.

Risk factors that may increase the likelihood of suicide

These are some of the conditions that may increase the chances of a suicide attempt.

  • Having a mental health condition such as depression
  • Conflict with friends or family members
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Exposure to the suicide of a friend or family member
  • History of trauma, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect
  • Being bullied
  • Having a family history of suicide
  • Previous history of suicide attempts

Warning signs of possible suicidal intention

Although there is no guaranteed method for predicting suicide, the following mnemonic phrase created by the American Association of Suicidology can be used to help identify warning signs for suicide potential. Keep in mind, however, that each person is different and some people with suicidal intentions may not show any of these symptoms.

  • “IS PATH WARM”
    • “I” is “ideation.” Is the teen actively thinking about suicide or expressing thoughts about suicide by saying such things as “I’m going to kill myself” or frequently talking about wanting to die?
    • “S” is “substance abuse.” Has the teen started using alcohol or drugs to cope or have a history of problems using substances excessively?
    • “P” is “purposelessness.” Does the teen think there is no reason to keep living or seem concerned about not having a purpose?
    • “A” is “anger.” Is the teen showing moments of rage or finding anger difficult to control? Is the teen looking for revenge on someone perceived to have caused their problems?
    • “T” is “trapped.” Does the teen talk about feeling like there aren’t any other choices or options except for death?
    • “H” is “hopelessness.” Is the teen negative about themself, others, or the future and seem reluctant to change in positive ways?
    • “W” is “withdrawing.” Is the teen withdrawing from from family, friends, and social interactions or talking about wanting to?
    • “A” is “anxiety.” Does the teen seem more anxious than usual or have trouble sleeping or relaxing?
    • “R” is “recklessness.” Is the teen engaging in life threatening activities without thinking about consequences? Teens do engage in risky behavior as part of this phase of human development, however, do the teen’s actions seem excessively dangerous or represent a change from the teen’s usual behaviors?
    • “M” is “mood.” Does the teen’s mood shift dramatically or excessively? Teens often have mood swings but do the mood changes seem out of the ordinary for the teen’s personality?

Protective Factors, Prevention, and Treatment

While there are circumstances that increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt, there are also conditions that may help protect people from such incidents.

  • A sense of connection with family or social supports
    • Connection with a healthy support network can decrease feelings of isolation
  • Medical and mental health treatment
    • Receiving professional help can add to sense of support and stability
  • Conflict resolution skills
    • Teens with abilities to solve problems may be less likely to consider suicide as an option
  • Cultural or religious beliefs against suicide
    • Beliefs about what may happen to one’s soul following suicide may deter a teen from taking their life
  • *Medication
    • *While medication may be an option to help stabilize moods and emotions, there may be an increased risk of suicide for teens with some medications. Teens may require additional medication management and supervision by a physician or psychiatrist. Parents and teens should be alert and observe any increases in suicidal thinking while taking medication.
  • A suicide hotline is available for those needing someone to talk to immediately. Parents and teens should call 911 in the United States if there is an immediate threat of suicide.
    • Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Counselors, parents, trusted adults, friends and other supportive people are available to you if you are a teen struggling with suicidal thoughts. Help is also available if you are a parent or family member of a teen who has made a suicide attempt. In my work with teens and parents, seeking counseling after a suicide attempt has helped individuals move forward as they process the incident and examine their experiences.