The following suggestions are based on data collected from those bereaved by suicide with whom we have shared, counselled and worked over the last decade or so. We believe however, that the principles apply in all situations of significant loss.
(We are particularly indebted to the courageous people we have met while leading The
Compassionate Friends Survivors after Suicide support group in Melbourne)
The following is a shortened summary of the help guidelinesSUMMARY OF GUIDELINES FOR SUPPORTING FAMILIES FOLLOWING SIGNIFICANT LOSS
- Encourage them to talk over their experiences again and again and again. The cathartic opportunity to talk over their “stories” and have them heard, to begin to express deep and terrible feelings and thoughts, is the beginning of the process of “normalization” in which the person gets into balance such debilitating feelings as those of anger, guilt and of personal failure, and begins to rebuild self-esteem.
- Do not try to take away the pain. Firstly it is impossible. Secondly, that pain is an expression of the importance of what has been lost to the grieving person. Thirdly they cannot deal with the pain unless they are experiencing it. Finally, they want to control the pain, not lose it altogether. Listening to them express the pain helps them control it. The intensity of the pain will diminish with time as the person learns to integrate the loss into their ongoing lives.
- Later, it may be appropriate to provide input, but the first focus is JUST to listen quietly. Later it may be appropriate to provide information from our own experiences, and from the wider world to help the person keep a balanced perspective on the loss. For example, one piece of information we found helpful to us was the perspective that perhaps family and friends would like to support us but did not know how. Perhaps we need to instruct them on how to support us!
- Another support we can give is practical pragmatic hands-on, being-present support – especially early after a death. But again, not before the listening takes place. On the listening side, our data points out that loneliness, alienation from family and friends, fear of life, being overwhelmed at times by the loss, and generally not coping, is experienced by most grieving people. In our view, this means, for a time at least, survivors need twenty-four hours immediate contact support. In our support group, we encourage each person to negotiate with one or more friends, or others, the “right” to call them at any time of the day or night, when the pain becomes too great. This is one task that our group members who are a little further on in their grief are able to offer to newer members. Hands-on support can be anything from cooking a meal and taking it around, to mowing the lawn, to feeding the animals, to paying bills. Whenever possible, try to do things with them rather than for them. This helps them retain a sense of autonomy and a feeling of controlling their own lives, and speeds their movement towards a new life.
- Normal family relationships are hard to maintain following significant loss. Family relationship stresses are not just common, but should be expected as each person begins their own unique way of dealing with their grief. With suicide there is often realistic fear for the welfare of other family members. Help in these instances is often beyond the skills of the average person, (and certainly beyond the resources of close family and friends who are also suffering). So referral is called for. Seek out carefully “vetted” professional or para-professional counsellors that can be recommended.
- One final point about sibling grief. Brothers and sister who have attended our group meetings often say that they felt excluded from the grief and decisions of the family (parents often wrongly try to protect their children). All children have said this was not helpful. It made them feel confused and alone, and prolonged their grief. They want to be more involved in helping to support and hold the family together, more than is often realized by grieving or helping adults. We have often heard adults (parents) express a painful awareness that they have not sufficiently included young children in the re-growth process. This is understandable, as the adults (parents) often only have enough energy to hold themselves together and keep the family at a survival level. This tendency is also, unfortunately, reflected in the wider community, who will support parents and forget that siblings also suffer desperately. We suspect the strong tendency in young people to want to “move on” and focus on the future has contributed to this quite widespread lack of awareness in adults about the intensity of the needs of siblings. Schools can help here, and many now have in place structured crisis intervention programs that can be swung into action when a trauma such as suicide strikes.
- Listen - over & over again to their stories. Hold off from giving advice. Let them express all thoughts & feelings - deep, painful, often bizarre. Enables perspective eventually.
- Early on offer 24 hour support - perhaps up to a year! We encourage a “contract” with (say) a friend.
- Don't try to take away their pain, or rescue or distract them. Let them express it; allow them to stay with the pain. In that way they will learn to control it.. The pain is part of the expression of love or significance. Eventually they will learn to walk beside the pain.
- Provide information. Try to anticipate their needs.
- Grief incapacitates. So early on “do” things. Cook meals, mow lawns, take the dog for a walk, vacuum, shop, keep food in fridge, collect mail, pay bills, wash dishes,…and sit & listen. Move as quickly as possible from doing things for them, to doing things with them. Helps them regain control of their new life.
- Help with friction between family members. Listen; don't take sides; perhaps suggest outside objective listener/counsellor; ensure siblings involved in decisions.
- Accept bizarre behaviour. It usually goes away.
- Be wary of giving advice.
- Support the move back into life - work, involvements, etc., as soon as possible.
- Encourage them to put off major decisions early in grief.
- Within the family, encourage:
- Expression & sharing of feelings & thoughts.
- Discussing expectations of each other.
- Discussing major decisions together.
- Doing some things together.
- Giving each other space.
- Not overloading children.
- Keeping family responsibility roles going. eg dishes etc..
- Regular looking back & evaluating progress.
- Good professional help if it is needed. Do not wait.
- And especially the involvement of siblings in all family decisions (being allowed to help their parents).
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