Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Suicide / Aftermath
Gary Reece, Ph.D.

I am dedicating this blog to those survivors, family members, friends and colleagues who have been affected by a recent Suicide. Suicide is the final act of an individual taken for their own mysterious reasons. It is an act which potentially traumatizes a concentric circle of victims which includes family, friends, and co-workers. It is estimated that the death of one person affects a minimum of 8-10 family, friends and associates. Reactions range from shock, anger, confusion, despair, guilt, sadness, grief, and usually a mixture of all of the above highly complicated, ambivalent feelings. What do we actually know about one of the most complicated acts of violence against not only the individual but also all those individuals who cared about that person?

I feel compelled to write this blog on suicide because there have been several events in the past month which brought to mind my own experience with suicide: two colleagues several years ago. Recently one of my clients had the misfortune to experience the loss of several friends and relatives in a short period of time by suicide, I also had a friend who lost a family member and my son had a friend die of an overdose. There have also been several suicides of celebrities in the past few months. I am also writing about this topic because it is often in the shadows. It is not looked upon as a legitimate source of grief and loss because of the type of death. “We just don’t talk about that it was a suicide!” It is a death that bears a stigma and a degree of discomfort which is hard to talk about. It is often referred to as “Disenfranchised Grief. “Why did he/she do it? Was there anything anyone could have done to prevent it? Did we miss warning signs? These are all common responses of those affected and who somehow feel responsible.

My first response to my friend’s suicide was bewilderment, I remember saying: “I didn’t even know he was depressed.” We belonged to a group who had gone to school together and socialized regularly. So we all met and talked about it, and I had the privilege of reading his journals and talking with his wife. It was an intimate journey which culminated in our group meeting several times also including his wife. I then along with our graduate school held a weekend seminar for psychologists to discuss “The Distressed Professional.” We talked about the very motivation a person has to commit the final desperate act. One wife stood up in the meeting and said “that behind a distressed professional is a “distressed family.” There was a lot of wisdom in that statement. In fact I was so moved by his death that I changed course in my career. I could see myself in his shoes in a few years. My reasons were simple, in my research I found that Psychology is (1) isolating, (2) it is psychologically depleting, and (3) it becomes disillusioning. It is a psychologically draining profession.

Suicide is actually one of the more common deaths in the United States. It covers a broad spectrum of ages, gender, and professions. In 2010 the latest year for data available, there were 38, 364 suicides reported making suicide the 10th leading cause of death. In that year someone died by suicide every 13 minutes. For many years suicide rates have been 4 times higher among men than women. Men usually choose more violent means, such as firearms, other means were poisoning and suffocation. I find it ironic and interesting that we do not see large rallies and marches with people carrying banners saying “help stamp out suicide, find a cure for suicide.”
It is not a glamorous illness.

These are the bare statistics. But they do not tell the whole story. The actual story is found in the lives of the concentric circle of victims who suffer the sudden, shocking trauma of the loss: the aftermath. These are the unseen victims. These individuals are left with a maelstrom of feelings with which to cope: rage, guilt, bewilderment, betrayal, confusion, grief, and the thousand questions about why. I wondered as many do, if I could have done something to prevent Frank’s suicide.

There have been many studies about suicide in an attempt to understand this perplexing problem—looking at all possible variables which could conceivably contribute to such an act of violence against oneself. One author concludes:

It may be concluded from these studies, therefore that the relation between suicide and depression and to a lesser extent Schizophrenia is well established, that the genetic transmission and expression of these conditions is substantiated, but that the expression of overt suicidal behavior in predisposed individuals may be largely conditioned by non- genetic factors. Among these factors a strong one is the suicide of a parent when the individual was young. (Stanley Lessee, What we know About Suicidal Behavior, Pg. 14)

This somewhat clinically detached statement points to the position that suicide has multiple causes, genetic predisposition, life stresses, mental illness, and a family history which often has abuse of children as part of the clinical profile.

Lessee points out early childhood factors with this statement: “Another infrequently recognized determinant of suicidal behavior may be severe punishment in childhood. The child learns to treat himself as others have and to reduce his tension as well as his parent’s anger through whippings.” (Lessee, Pg. 26) We might observe, somewhat cynically, that suicide appears to be strong evidence that the person did not like him/herself. But it is more than that. It is about despair, and an inability to find any joy in life, and a sense of hopelessness and meaningless: the futility of the struggle.

This brings to mind a suicide that was featured prominently in the Los Angeles Times and I discussed it in my book Broken Systems/Shattered Lives. In this case it was a 16 year old boy in foster care who told his teacher he was going to kill himself. She reported it and a Social Worker went to his home and talked to him. She left and he promptly went out to the front yard and hung himself. He said, “I am tired of people hitting me!”

Causes of suicide vary by individuals and groups: Teens, soldiers, the elderly, police, psychologists, house wives and celebrities. Each has its own particular stresses, demands and unique problems. They also have common characteristics, depression, a prior history of mental health issues, life stressors, and a precipitating stressor. There are also usually warning signs but these often go unnoticed by individuals around them.

Imagine the moment, the loneliness, darkness, helplessness, hopelessness, and seeing the world in such a bleak way that you can only see one option. Life feels like it is no longer worth living:
that no one cares, and that to continue to struggle is futile. The decision is one which is terribly destructive and angry, first it is anger directed at the self, and often it is a collective rage against others. Sometimes it is anger directed at a particular person: “it’s your fault, you did this to me.” It is a lonely act, many people fail to complete it because they are ambivalent, when the decision is made, and others often feel relief because they have made up their mind and calmly carry out their plan.

Because of these feelings of despair, we question whether the person was in their right mind;
whatever that means. Albert Camus once said, “Suicide is the only important philosophical question.” But this is a different debate for another time. What I wish to concentrate on are the victims who have been left behind by this sudden and violent act: to sort out the death, to try and make some sense of it, and come to grips with the very complicated grief caused by suicide.

When I have met with family and friends of a person who committed suicide, we try to talk about their feelings and give each other support. They universally express feelings of shock, confusion, anger, guilt bewilderment, and a vague feeling that it was somehow their fault. One wife was very angry because she felt like she was left holding the bag by her husband’s suicide: 4 children, a house, and no income. She now had to proceed with her life, raising 4 children because their father had killed himself sitting in his car in the garage. She and her children had a very long and difficult period in which to deal with their grief and accommodate to the new reality of a fatherless home.

This is an example of the maxim “that the more complicated the relationship, the more complicated will be the grief process. It is easy to get stuck in the anger phase, some have a difficult time getting past denial and idealize the relationship. Others make a shrine to the loved one. The important thing is to realize that suicide is a form of traumatic loss. It must be acknowledged, the feelings felt, the complicated and ambivalent aspects of the relationships must be reconciled, and eventually the victims must relinquish the relationship and rebuilt their lives.
This kind of grief work is difficult. Too many people try to “just put it behind them and go on with their lives. It is best to not try to go it alone. Trauma is not easily dealt with and becomes a roadblock to emotional resolution and resuming some sense of normalcy. Complicated Grief is often the result and you get may get stuck in the grief. Traumatic loss changes your life, sometimes forever. Do not expect to return to normal, as if nothing has happened. Time does not heal all wounds it is the active work of mourning which determines whether or not a person can move on and build a new world without the person they loved/hated. The aftermath of suicide leaves a very changed and often shattered world.

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