This past weekend I was honored to have been able to provide a workshop at the AAS Healing After Suicide Loss Conference. I am always humbled when I speak to fellow survivors of suicide loss, and this event was no different. I am especially grateful to the American Association of Suicidology for putting the conference on.
Per participant request, I am providing a written version of the workshop I facilitated at the conference, below. There are links to resources within.
If you are new to suicide loss, or if you are looking for resources for suicide loss survivors, or if you just need more resources or reminders at any time during your journey - this information is for you.
✔ We started the workshop with a mindfulness activity, focusing on the five senses:
This is just one of many different grounding exercises you can try. If you want to learn more about mindfulness skills, Mayo Clinic has a good article, here:
See how mindfulness helps you live in the moment.
Mindfulness, grounding and/or meditation exercises are very helpful when we feel overwhelmed, panicky, or when we begin to ruminate about trauma and loss. If you prefer guided exercises, you can find numerous videos on YouTube:
Meditations focused on grief recovery
✔ A quick recap of myths about grief:
Myth: We get over grief.
Truth: We learn to live with grief. We come to terms with grief. We make room for new joy, new love, but we don't get over the old love or memories.
As the first year went on, I described it like this: The grief felt like a boulder inside of me, it was heavy and it took up most of my emotional and mental 'space.' As time went by, the grief didn't go away, but I got stronger and better able to hold the boulder. I grew in my compassion and empathy. I grew around the grief so I had more space. As one year turned into two, I had more moments of joy, more moments of love, more moments of comfort. I have never gotten over the grief. It will never be ok that this is the way that my mother and John died, but I can address the injustice by caring about others and letting them care about me.
Myth: There is a timeline for grief.
Truth: We will grieve in our own time. We will process as we need to. We will have many feelings, none more important than another. We may work through one feeling, and then return to it again, later. All of this is ok. All of this is right. Processing grief is about love that doesn't end, it is about sifting through memories, happiness, and sorrow. It is a wholistic process requiring hard work from us, physically, mentally and emotionally. It is ok to take time with all of this.
Myth: We are bad, weak, broken, or selfish for not letting go of the person we lost.
Truth: One thing I have heard that I wholeheartedly agree with, is that we move forward with greif, not that we move on from having had grief.
Podcaster Nora McInerny gave a great TED Talk about the concept of moving forward. She is not a suicide loss survivor, but she has dealt with significant loss and her talk is fairly universal.
✔ The truth about the stages of grief:
These stages are widely accepted as the primary emotional states we work through when grieving. However, it is important that we remember that grief is not linear. Sometimes we are hard on ourselves because we think we should be following a template for grief. Sometimes other people are hard on us because they think our grief should look a certain way. Personally, I think the stages of grief should be called the 'states' of grief. These are things we feel, but not during any particular stage. It is normal to go forwards or backwards between states, it is common to be in more than one place at a time (ie, angry and depressed).
✔ Practice self care:
Whether you want to or not. Whether you think you deserve it or not.
My fellow survivors of suicide loss deserve to be cared for. You deserve to be cared for.
You know best what works as self care for you. My list of comforts include chamomile tea with honey, apple sauce, jello, ice cream, and soft pajamas.
Here are some suggestions for self care that you might try.
- Buy coloring books and drawing paper and a nice set of colored pens or pencils.
- Even if you aren't hungry, eat comforting foods. Chicken soup, graham crackers, or jello. Whatever you do, eat something.
- Stay hydrated. Consider cutting down on caffeine, which can contribute to heightened anxiety. Drink water, tea, ginger ale, and lemonade,
- Remember that alcohol is a depressant. When we are grieving, it tends to make us feel worse rather than better.
Personally, I struggled a lot with tending to my grieving body. I relied on a lot of external comforts. Here are some things that helped me. Maybe these suggestions will be helpful to you as well.
〰 Weighted blankets. 〰 Body pillows.
〰 Sleeping with a stuffed animal.
〰 Sleeping with a clothing item or other (soft) reminder of the person you have lost.
〰 Holding onto something that smells like the person you lost. (I purchased a stick of his favorite deodorant and would take the cap off whenever I needed to feel as if he was right next to me.)
✔ If you feel stuck, use 'radical acceptance' in order to move forward.
The concept of radical acceptance is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy suggesting that while pain is inevitable, suffering is not. It applies to grief in that we can use radical acceptance to move forward, even when we feel pain. There is a significant difference between the traditional definition of acceptance, and the concept of 'radical' acceptance.
Traditional acceptance - not as helpful:
It happened, I can’t change it, I need to stop being affected by it.
Radical acceptance - more helpful:
It happened, my heart is broken, I will never be the same, this will always be a part of my life. AND I can survive this. I can move forward. I can have a future.
Radical acceptance is important because it circumvents any debate we have in our head about our right to heal. With radical acceptance, we acknowledge what has happened, we remind ourselves that our feelings are valid, and we give ourselves permission to heal, regardless.
Much of moving through grief has to do with giving ourselves permission to be exactly where we are.
✔ Recognizing complicated grief syndrome:
Experts suggest that during the first six months after a significant loss, grief may feel particularly intense and overwhelming. After six months, if symptoms of grief are incapacitating, then complicated grief syndrome may be occurring.
Personally, I think we have to be careful about diagnosing complicated grief, primarily because it implies that there is a timeline for grieving. However, if your symptoms of grief match any of the following, you may need professional help in order to move forward.
- Being stuck in a painful stage or feeling for a period of time longer than six months.
- Focus on little else, other than the loss.
- Suicidal ideation of your own.
- Prolonged and intentional isolation.
- Unresolved guilt or self blame.
- Blaming others, uncontrollable anger, or rage.
- Intention to injure or or harm yourself or others - physically or emotionally.
Remember, you do not deserve to be further punished for your loss. Please reach out for support. And if you are feeling suicidal or compelled to harm yourself (or others) - please seek help immediately.
✔ Healthy vs. unhealthy expressions of anger:
Remember, anger is a normal, important, and healthy response to grief. Even anger that doesn't seem logical. Allow yourself to be angry. However, in order to work through those feelings it is important to express anger in healthy ways.
Healthy responses to anger can include:
- Yelling (in a safe place).
- Crying (also in a safe place).
- Writing about your feelings in a journal or in letters you don't send.
- Telling trusted friends or family how you feel.
- Talking about your anger in grief support groups.
- Seeking help from professionals.
Unhealthy responses to anger can lead to more pain on your end, and potentially for others as well. Some unhealthy responses include:
- Yelling at other people. Especially other people who are enduring the same loss.
- Telling a living person that they are to blame.
- Telling mutual friends/family that a living person is to blame.
- Fantasies of retribution/vengeance.
- Being angry all the time, at almost everything, for a prolonged period of time.
- Feeling the need to hurt or humiliate someone else.
- Feeling an urge to self harm or being suicidal yourself.
✔ Differentiating between acceptance and denial:
Achieving a place of healthy acceptance is an important goal of recovery. We can't change the past, we can't bring back people or situations that we have lost. With acceptance, we will be able to participate in a safe, peaceful, and even joyful life.
Acceptance can be fleeting, especially at first, and that is ok. With time and support, you will find more peace than when your loss is very fresh.
Sometimes though, denial can be confused with acceptance. Denial and shock often serve to regulate a system that can't yet process tragedy, and as a temporary coping mechanism, this is ok. However, prolonged denial or repressed grief can have both physical and emotional consequences.
Healthy acceptance could include the following:
Feelings of optimism.
Hope for the future.
Allowing yourself to experience sadness.
Talking to others about your loss or about the person you've lost.
Advocating for suicide prevention causes.
Participating in support group and encouraging others who are newer to their loss.
Resuming activities such as employment, social events, hobbies.
Doing volunteer work, assisting neighbors, reaching out to friends, helping others.
Conversely, denial can include the following:
Not believing the loss occurred.
Not believing that you are affected by the loss.
Telling yourself that because you feared the loss might happen, that you were fully prepared.
Not talking about the loss.
Feeling confused about circumstances.
Underlying feelings of guilt or shame.
Frequent unexplained headaches or gastrointestinal distress.
- Friends and family: you need people who are safe for you to be vulnerable with - so you will need to identify who is 'safe.' Safe means they don't try to talk you out of your feelings, they don't give you unsolicited advice, and they don't need you to make them feel better about your loss.
- Professionals: Suicide loss is particularly traumatizing. It is not unusual to have PTSD related to the suicide, especially if you witnessed the death or if you found or saw the body of your loved one. Needing psychiatric help and/or medication is not uncommon. When my boyfriend died, I had such a difficult time managing the pain, I eventually hospitalized myself to address my own suicidal thoughts. I was then in daily therapy for several months.
- Therapists: Therapy and grief counseling can be very helpful, even short term. Ensure that a therapist provides trauma informed treatment. This is important. Trauma informed therapists have had specialized training and experience in helping clients with PTSD to process their feelings. You can find a therapist by asking your doctor, fellow members of a support group, contacting your insurance company, or doing an internet search. Click here for more information on finding a therapist online.
- Your local crisis center: Find out if they offer grief counseling. I was able to work with an individual grief counselor for close to a year, for free, through the Contra Costa County Crisis Center.
Remember, whether they are a friend, a family member, or a professional, ensure that you feel safe sharing your vulnerable feelings with them. Make sure that they listen, they don’t judge, they don’t give advice (unless asked for) or platitudes.
✔ If you yourself become suicidal:
Grief in itself can contribute to suicidal feelings. Having lost someone to suicide adds another layer of risk to survivors of the lost.
We can not lose our own lives because of the loss of the person we loved.
We are loved and needed in this world, just as the person we lost was. But, we have an opportunity to reach out for help and to heal. Take that opportunity. Do it for yourself. Do it for everyone who loves you. Do it for the person you lost to suicide.
✔ Finding a support group:
I also encourage survivors of suicide loss to try out a support group. Groups may be in person, via zoom, some are online. Some are volunteer led, some are moderated by professional clinicians. I have found my ongoing participation in support groups to be a hugely helpful part of my healing.
There are some important things to consider in regard to support groups.
There are generic grief support groups. In these, participants have lost their loved ones in many different ways. These can be very helpful. Because suicide is stigmatized, some loss survivors feel they don't 'fit in.' However, this is not a universal experience.
Overall, I do recommend support groups. Remember, when you join a support group, you may not just be helping yourself, your participation may help others as well. Take care of yourself and find a group that feels like a fit,
- AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) has a comprehensive database of suicide loss survivor groups. You just enter your zip code in order to find local groups.
- Friends for Survival was started by two mothers grieving the suicide losses of their sons.
- Alliance of Hope provides support for those grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide.
- T.A.P.S. serves those who are grieving the loss of a member of the military (actively serving or veteran).
- Local county or city 'crisis centers.' Sometimes you can find this information by dialing 2-1-1. Other times you can find crisis centers by doing an internet search.
- Meetup.com is a site that helps to connect people to others in their area with similar interests. You can do a search for suicide or suicide loss, and see if there are any groups in your area.
- The Compassionate Friends is a general grief support organization that is specifically for parents who have lost children.
- Facebook offers numerous suicide loss support groups, many of which are specific to the type of loss (parent loss, child loss, sibling loss, partner loss, etc.). Do a search for 'Suicide' under groups. My favorite group is SOLOS; Spouse-Partner Loss.
✔ We ended the workshop with a peaceful breathing exercise:
I want to acknowledge that I have provided a lot of information in this post. You may feel overwhelmed or anxious. These are natural reactions and a sign of our nervous system trying to safely process a lot of suicide specific information.
Whenever you are having this kind of reaction, I highly recommend a calming mindfulness activity.
On June 12th, we ended our workshop with a variation of a 4/7/8 'peaceful breathing' exercise. Here is a video that guides you through this breathing technique. The video is less than one minute in length.
I hope this information is helpful to you. My heart is always with my fellow survivors of suicide loss. I am inspired by your bravery, my heart breaks open for the path we are all on, and I join many in the hope that we find moments of peace and a healing journey.
✔ To sum up the workshop:
You deserve support. You do not deserve to be punished with pain.
Honor your grief. Honor your loved one.