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?

3 Stages of Survival: Moving from Victim to Survivor and Beyond

Following the trauma of domestic violence people are often identified as victims. Victimhood is only one stage in the recovery process. The stages aren’t linear, they don’t proceed in a straight line. I often tell the people I work with that progress is often one step forward two steps back. The following identifies the various stages of survivorhood: victim, survivor, and thriver.

Stage 1: Victim

Victimization by a domestic violence (DV) perpetrator often leads a person to feel worthless and incapable. Domestic violence is about controlling another person and depleting their sense of power. Control and power over another person can take the form of physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse.

People who are victims often have low self-esteem, feel a sense of shame and worthlessness, and may not feel that they deserve nice things or that they deserve to be treated respectfully by others. Victims may be hypervigilant, always expecting a threat, and feel guarded. People in the victim stage of healing often feel alone, selfish, numb, damaged, confused, and hopeless. It’s common for perpetrators to isolate victims from friends and family. Isolated, lonely people with low self-esteem are easier to control and maintain power over.

Victims of DV are often afraid to tell their stories for a number of reasons. They may fear that their partners will retaliate or be fired from their jobs. Victims may believe that their stories are not worthy of sharing. It is also common for people in the victim stage to feel overwhelmed by their past as they come to recognize the struggles they have endured. DV victims commonly have difficulty setting healthy boundaries and find themselves wrapped up in drama and unhealthy relationships with toxic, unsafe people. Victims tend to put their own needs last and often have difficulty communicating in ways other than being passive or sometimes passive-aggressive. Victims tend to believe that suffering is just the way things are and have a hard time finding joy. Victims also frequently turn to substance abuse or codependent relationships to help them feel like they are doing okay.

Stage 2: Survivor

Once a person begins moving away from unhealthy and violent relationships with an abuser, they can begin reflecting on their experiences in a safe environment. As they recognize the struggle they have survived they begin searching for reasons why this experience happened and how they can heal. People in the survivor stage view themselves as both wounded and healing and begin gaining a sense of hope. A grieving process may take place as the survivor comes to terms with the different losses that have taken place.

Survivors are often eager to tell their stories and want to talk about all the aspects of their experience in their attempts to heal. Support groups can be a great help for people in the survivor stage since they want to share their stories and hear others’ experiences as well. Survivors begin learning ways to set healthy boundaries and explore what is safe or dangerous in their relationships. Through their curiosity and sharing of experiences with others, survivors begin identifying patterns, which can become goals to begin changing. Change takes time for survivors and doesn’t happen overnight or in a matter of weeks. Whereas victims tend to believe that suffering is normal, survivors begin gaining a sense of hopefulness and relief as they see a journey leading them forward.

Survivors also learn to laugh again. They have a healthy sense of humor and can find moments of joy. Instead of needing substances or codependent relationships, survivors can begin regulating their emotional pain and may seek out therapy to explore the new and uncomfortable feelings that have been numbed or disregarded before. Survivors begin learning about a wider range of emotions.

Stage 3: Thriver

Although many people feel satisfied reaching the survivor stage, others believe that there is still more to go on their journey and these people become thrivers. People in the thriving stage have a sense of gratitude for this new found life that seems to be overflowing with miracles and wonderment. Instead of feeling isolated, thrivers feel a sense of connection with others and the universe. Thrivers have healthy connections and are both independent and interdependent. Thrivers have a sense of pride in their ability to care for themselves. They live in the present moment and understand that emotional pain passes and can be learned from.

Thrivers set healthy boundaries with others and protect themselves from toxic people but are also capable of living with an open mind and heart. Thrivers place their own needs first as they recognize that helping others requires care for themselves first. Thrivers create peace instead of chaos and find joy around them. They use healthy humor and feel a range of positive and negative emotions which helps them feel alive and genuine.

Each of the first two stages takes time move on from and some people feel quite content and happy living life in the second stage. Some people experience great difficulty moving from victim to survivor stages and even become more comfortable staying in the victim role. The victim role offers familiarity. Oftentimes when I meet with survivors of DV who have entered into what seem to be healthy relationships, they describe feeling fear and confusion because they don’t know how to cope with a healthy partner and it feels scary. Survivors have often learned a number of coping skills during the victim stage to get through a violent relationship and learning to be in healthy relationships can require learning or building on a whole new set of skills. Reaching out for support is common for survivors and many of them turn toward family and close friends.

More can be found on these stages in the book: Surviving Domestic Violence: A Guide to Healing Your Soul and Building Your Future by Danielle F. Wozniak, PhD, and Karen Allen, PhD.tree-338211_1280

Inspired by the daily prompt: Survival

Leslie Morgan Steiner Describes Her Experience with Domestic Violence in this TEDTalk

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Here is a 2013 TEDTalk by Leslie Morgan Steiner on her experience as a domestic violence victim and survivor. She encourages everyone to “talk about what you heard here, abuse thrives only in silence. You have the power to end domestic violence simply by shining a spotlight on it.” She encourages everyone to recognize the signs of abuse and to talk about it with their children, coworkers, friends and family. She asks her listeners to create a different view of survivors as “wonderful, lovable people with full futures” and not blame them for the abusive situations they’re in.