Suicide is a crisis that will not blow over. The feeling of loss is inevitable; the void of death is permanent. How can we cope in the face of such a crisis?
20-year old Emily chose death. The reasons were hazy to her family. Her 12-year old brother had lost a sister who he had considered his best friend. Her mother was too devastated to search for a reason while her father locked himself in his study for many days. Jilted and homesick, Emily had been alone when she acted.
Suicide devastates the circle of people that have lived, worked or in any way known the victim. Families break down, children and friends undergo depression as they tackle with the loss and the search for reasons why such a step was chosen. Individuals cope differently with some wanting to be vocal and others preferring to stay behind closed doors in the effort to cope. Some people struggle with the pain while others seem to overcome it and return to life as a means of coping. This can lead to conflict within families with different coping mechanisms in evidence. Nothing can help the intensity of feelings that overcome family members and loved ones. Time is believed to heal the pain. The reality is different, secrecy about the reasons for the suicide, the inherent guilt and the absence of open communication between the affected individuals can lead to a lasting sense of loss with a depressed ability to return to life.
Monroe and Kraus (2005, p. 203) consider the existence of communication and support within families as determinants for the capacity to cope with the crisis. This is brought out by a family that avoids references to a ‘dead’ member to save each other from the pain of the memory.
Emily may not have been fully cognizant of her action and the impact at the time, a possibility that dawned on her family over many sessions of therapy. Her parents would recreate the events of the days before she fell, had it been a suicide at all? They would question a variety of possibilities and explore the death from different angles. The absence of answers and the continuous wrangling increased the sense of loss and hurt each member differently. If only I had been with her or if she had chosen to stay with us or if the boy had not or why didn’t her friends … were never-ending cycles of thought that engaged the minds of the family and worsened their feelings and ability to cope.
It was painful and Emily’s brother suddenly found himself mature beyond his years as he tried to cope with his mother’s depression and his father’s morose silence. Isolated and confused at first, he avoided conversation until friends and relatives. Well-meaning friends and relatives got together to be with the family in those stressful moments. Therapy, continuing support from friends and relatives and the young boy’s efforts helped the parents to see that there was responsibility and life to be managed.
Let us consider the impact of communication and shared grief. The initial loss may lead to a variety of reactions but once the initial phase is past, that is once any one of the members of the family wants to talk, it is helpful to sit together and talk. Rather than save each other from the memory of loss, it is better to share the pain of feelings held within. If the process is too painful, seek professional help for the family as a whole. The discussions may be never-ending, they bring no answers but it helps each individual in the family in many ways. The family may cry together as they discuss the loss, they open up about their feelings and helped strengthen the bond between them. When Emily’s friends and parents come to visit them, they may talk about old times and share little snippets that bring up memories of the girl. Yes, there would be tears all around but the family was together and knew they could count on external support.
A time arises when the family is able to make a reference to the dead person and though there are latent feelings of sadness, life has gone on. It is better to communicate and share the feelings of sadness instead of avoiding it. Over time, the ability to discuss the life that has ended and even enjoy positive memories about times spent together increases the ability to bond. Anecdotes that bring a smile to the face or references to lessons learnt from the person during the lifetime make it possible to recall that the life had seen positive moments and happiness.
The absence of this support and vocalization can have a devastating effect on the family. The mother’s depression could have turned her suicidal and created a spiral of suicidal thought in the minds of the others. The father’s silence could have led to strained relations within the family. If the boy had chosen isolation, important family processes and bonding would never have occurred and the family would have come under strain of survival.
Hewett (1980, p. 96) believes that religion can be soothing with explanations about the movement of the soul after death and reassuring the family that their child is in good hands. Further, the acceptance of a higher force in the storm of emotions after a suicide helps the family to return to living positively. The involvement of the community and professionals to help the bereaved family allows for better coping and mutual support.
Suicide is a crisis that will not blow over. The feeling of loss is inevitable; the void of death is permanent. The importance lies in the ability of the affected family to move on while being together after the crisis.
Hewett, John (1980). After Suicide.WJK Press.
Monroe, Barbara & Kraus, Frances (2005). Brief Interventions with Bereaved Children. Oxford University Press.
Editor Sondre Risholm Liverød