When suicide enters our world
By Mark Kaufman, MSW, LICSW, JFCS Counselor
Suicide is unfortunately more common than many think. We hear about it often – but suicide is hardest when it strikes close to home.
I met Jim when I was a young teen, growing up in a rural area of Ohio. He came from the South, was really engaging, and wore a cowboy hat. He was traveling with the harvest and working, seeing the country. I thought Jim was really cool and looked up to him – I always looked forward to seeing him at social occasions in my community. He came the next several summers and I always enjoyed connecting with him. After a while, we lost touch. A few years later, myself a young adult, I found out he had completed suicide. Despite the distance of several years and states, this hit me hard. Jim was someone I identified with. Suicide had entered my world, challenging my understanding of life, and of death.
So it is with suicide. With other deaths, we hold on to memories, look at pictures without doubts. When someone completes suicide, it is common to look back and wonder if our friend was really happy that day at the mall; if our sister was faking it though the holidays and silently suffering; if our life with our father was a lie. We often have new doubts – our very view of the world gets challenged. For some, this leads to redefining our relationship with the person who died. We also second guess our interactions and blame ourselves for missing any clues that may now seem clear, which could have alerted us to keep them safe. While there may have been clues, and we may be able to learn how to recognize them, we are still not responsible for their death.
People often talk about suicide as a selfish act, emphasizing the choice of the person to complete suicide. What we have come to realize is that while individuals are responsible for their own actions, there is evidence to suggest that the perception of viable choices is often limited by the cognitive symptoms at play in a suicidal crisis. For example, depressive thinking can lead to impaired problem solving skills and skewed self-perceptions. Suicide attempts are most often made with the intent to end pain, not life per se, so this problem-solving function is a key piece to the limitation of one’s choice.
As a result, death by suicide is often stigmatized. People talk about loved ones as “losing their battle with cancer,” dying from complications from diabetes, of old age, but “commit” suicide. There has been progress with reducing stigma regarding suicide, but we need to improve how we reach out to families stung by suicide in an ongoing way. I choose to use the expressions “completing” suicide or “attempting” suicide. The purpose is to build empathy; the same empathy we would express to those whose loved ones died in ways that leave fewer questions.
So how do we reach out to families and friends who have lost someone to suicide? I think part of the answer is to look within ourselves and start with how our own empathic responses change when the death is due to suicide. I think we tend to shy away from reaching out due to our fear of betraying any of our judgments. Perhaps survivors of the suicide are struggling with their own feelings of judgment, and are even feeling guilty about that. They may be angry at the person who died. They may be worried that they too will be judged, or ignored.
Often, the way I approach people who are hurting is to stop guessing and just ask. So much of what people wonder is what the right thing to say might be. Even we therapists don’t always know the right thing to say. When in doubt, don’t say, rather ask: “I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. What do you need?” If they need to talk, this is a great invitation to talk. If they need a meal, they can let you know. It also communicates empathy and that you are not assuming that you know what they need. Avoidance of talking about the suicide, however, is often noticed by survivors who crave support and empathy.
The grieving process is not neatly packaged and time-limited. There is a tendency for people less directly impacted by the death to move on and forget about the needs of the survivors long before the survivors are ready. The need to talk may come up at any time, meals may be needed as well. Anniversaries of the death, holidays, and birthdays often are good times to check in and ask again, as is the case with other deaths.
Mark Kaufman, MSW, LICSW
I have a Master’s Degree in Social Work from University of St. Thomas and St. Catherine University. I have 10 years of experience in mental health, working with adults with anxiety, depression, severe mental illness, and chronic illnesses. I have always been interested in how people think, and this ultimately has led me to working with people in therapy. I love walking with people through problem solving and self-discovery. I believe in the importance of collaboration in finding healing, personal growth, and solving problems. I use this perspective with my clients as they navigate the challenges that led them to work with me. We explore how previous problems were dealt with and how that problem-solving process applies to current challenges, how one’s thoughts impact one’s feelings, and explore new and old experiences and the emotions surrounding them.
JFCS’ counseling services include individual psychotherapy for adults, adolescents and children, couples therapy, family therapy, play therapy, parenting coaching, grief support and more. Our services are confidential. We accept most insurance including Medicare. For more information call 952-546-0616 or click here.