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Suicide Postvention

A Guide for Early Responders Supporting Survivors Bereaved by Suicide

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Early responders play a vital role in supporting people who have lost someone they care about, someone they know who has died by suicide. Suicide loss is profoundly different than otherloss and grief in that it is a intentional act that can have crippling effects for the family, friends and other survivors.  Suicide is recognized as an important public health problem and a major source of preventable deaths worldwide. (WHO, 2009) 

Many people die each year by suicide… it is a complex, multi–faceted problem leaving some survivors who have a loved one die by suicide with their life as they knew it changed forever. Suicide can affect survivors in many life areas including having biological, psychological, social and spiritual impact. Research shows those closest to the person who died by suicide are themselves vulnerable to self harm including substance abuse. Survivors may be at 40X greater risk of suicide themselves because ofthe suicide loss. (LivingWorks Canada, 2006)

Supporting a Survivor of Suicide Loss

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When helping a friend or family member that has experienced the death of someone by suicide or homicide:

Don't be surprised by the intensity of their feelings. Sometimes, when they least expect it, survivors may be overwhelmed by feelings of grief.

Accept that survivors might struggle with explosive emotions, guilt, fear and shame--all well beyond the what is experienced with other types of death.

Be patient, compassionate and understanding. Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judgment are critical helping tools.

Familiarize yourself with the wide spectrum of emotions that many survivors experience.

Allow your family member/friend to experience all the hurt, sorrow and pain that he/she is feeling at the time.

Respect the need to grieve. Because of the nature of the death, it is sometimes kept a secret. If the death cannot be talked about openly, the wounds of grief will go unhealed. The grief experience is unique, so be patient. The process of grief takes a long time, so allow your family member/friend to proceed at his/her own pace. Use the name of the person who has died when talking to survivors. Hearing the name can be comforting, and it confirms that you have not forgotten this important person who was so much a part of their lives.

Avoid simplistic explanations and cliches. Cliches can be extremely painful for a survivor.

Be aware of special occasions. Survivors may have a difficult time during occasions like holidays, anniversaries and birthdays.

Support groups are one of the best ways to help survivors of suicide. In a group, survivors can connect with other people who share the commonality of the experience. They are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories as much, and as often, as they like. You may be able to help survivors locate such a group. This particular effort on your part will be appreciated.