Grief After Suicide – Part 1

Coping with the loss of someone you care about is one of life’s biggest challenges, especially if that loss was due to suicide.  Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming.  You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness.  The pain of grief can also disrupt your physical health, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. These are normal reactions to significant loss.  But while there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.

While experiencing loss is an inevitable part of life, there are ways to help cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief, and eventually, find a way to pick up the pieces and move on with your life.

  1. Acknowledge your pain.
  2. Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions.
  3. Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you.
  4. Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you.
  5. Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.
  6. Recognize the difference between grief and depression.

Grieving is a highly individual experience; there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.  How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and how significant the loss was to you.  Inevitably, the grieving process takes time.  Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving.  Some people start to feel better in weeks or months.  For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief.”  These stages of grief were based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness, but many people have generalized them to other types of negative life changes and losses, such as the death of a loved one or a break-up.

  • Denial:“This can’t be happening to me.”
  • Anger: Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  • Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
  • Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  • Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

If you are experiencing any of these emotions following the loss of a loved one due to suicide, it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that you’ll heal in time.  However, not everyone who grieves goes through all of these stages—and that’s okay.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal.  In fact, some people resolve their grief without going through any of these stages.  And if you do go through these stages of grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you “should” be feeling or which stage you’re supposed to be in.

Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns.  In her last book before her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief: “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.  They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss.  Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”

Instead of a series of stages, we might also think of the grieving process as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows.  Like many roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning, the lows may be deeper and longer.  The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss.  Even years after a loss, especially at special events such as a family wedding or the birth of a child, we may still experience a strong sense of grief (Hospice Foundation of America).

In Part 2 of this series of articles, we will talk about grief symptoms and how to take care of yourself as you grieve.  In Part 3, we will talk about what to do when grief doesn’t go away and seeking support (including professional help, if necessary) to help you through the grieving process.

If you’re struggling with your emotions and would like to chat, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org/ and we will be glad to respond.  If you are having suicidal thoughts yourself and are in crisis now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800) 273-TALK (8255).

Knowing is (only) half the battle . . .

When you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ve heard a lot . . . I mean a lot . . . of old sayings.  Kids my age grew up playing with the little green “Army guys,” and when the G.I. Joe action figure (we don’t call them dolls!) came out in 1964, he became one of the most popular toys of all time.  And then came the animated series a few years later, and during every episode you would hear G.I. Joe say, “And now you know.  And knowing is half the battle.”

Which is a good thing to remember – that knowing is only half the battle.

I believe this is a really important principle to understand when it comes to combating first responder suicides.  We can know that:

  • An average of 12-14 police officers die every month by their own hand
  • More firefighters die by suicide each year than the total number who die on the job
  • Suicidal thoughts among EMTs are 30 times the national average
  • Corrections officers are at a 39% greater risk than the general public
  • 911 dispatchers are impacted by the same stresses that affect those that work on the front lines every day

We can even know their names.  And I don’t intend for this to sound disparaging toward organizations out there who have made it their mission to track the number of suicides and to publish the names of those who have died in this manner in an effort to honor their memory.  It is certainly a laudable effort, and it does bring some satisfaction to the family members who are left behind.  But knowing is only half the battle.

We can know that organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation have done studies and have developed policy statements and have made recommendations for departments to follow.  There is much greater recognition nowadays that there is a stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment and that departments must be more proactive in protecting from all of the hazards of the job, including the stresses that often lead to suicidal thoughts and suicide completions.  Now we know . . . but knowing is only half the battle.

I believe that once we know something is a problem, it is a serious sin to not try to do something about it.  That’s why we have started the #CallForBackup Suicide Awareness and Prevention Campaign.  Based in recent research, and built from the real stories of real people who have been impacted by suicidal thoughts themselves or the suicide completions of others, this program provides first responders and/or their family members the information necessary to recognize the signs and symptoms of job-related stress, especially as it relates to suicide, and also provides them with strategies that will enable them to become more resistant to stress, and better prepared to handle the stress of a traumatic incident on the job.

If you are struggling with the stresses of the job and just want to chat with someone to help you understand what you’re experiencing, message us at m.me/callforbackup.org/.  Our peer support team members monitor these pages regularly for messages.  If you are in crisis now, please call someone to be with you, and then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)-273-TALK.  It’s time to call for backup!

Why Police Officers Consider Suicide

Early in 2017 Humanizing the Badge conducted a survey that included responses for 3,892 police officers or former police officers.  About 41% of those responding indicated that they would consider suicide as an option under at least one of the following conditions:

  • Loss of a spouse, life partner, or child as a result of death
  • Loss of a spouse, life partner, or child as a result of divorce or separation
  • Diagnosed with a terminal illness
  • Responsibility for the death of a partner/colleague
  • Killing someone out of anger
  • Feeling isolated or alone
  • Being accused of sexual misconduct
  • Loss (or fearing the loss of) job due to being convicted of a crime or facing incarceration
  • Loss (or fearing the loss of) job due to receiving a mental health diagnosis

In addition to those who admitted they would consider suicide as an option, 43% said they have personally known an officer or former officer that has completed a suicide.  Over 78% said they are personally aware of a department or agency that has lost an officer to suicide.

If you are struggling with the stresses of the job and would like to reach out for free, confidential support, please send a message to our Facebook page at m.me/callforbackup.org/.

IF YOU ARE IN CRISIS NOW – PLEASE CALL 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255), or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  It’s confidential, free, and available 24/7.

What doesn’t kill you . . . is still killing you.

You’ve heard the old expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” right? And if that fills your head with the music from the Kelly Clarkson song, I’m sorry. As an officer, you may have told yourself that because you survived a close call on a difficult arrest you’re stronger, or that because you went home and the bad guy didn’t after an OIS you’re stronger, or because you haven’t buckled under the pressure of the job like others have you must be stronger. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a nice sentiment, but it’s not altogether true. It’s still killing you . . . just more slowly.

Based on longstanding research, we already know that people under stress tend to consume too much caffeine, have problems with alcohol, have poor spending habits, don’t sleep well, and eat an unhealthy diet. This has resulted in what have been termed the “diseases of civilization” like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Chronic stress has been linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

It’s the suicide link that concerns me, and should concern everyone in law enforcement. Research shows that people diagnosed with stress response syndrome (often the result of chronic stress) were 19 times more likely to complete a suicide than individuals without that previous diagnosis. For the past 5 years, at least 12 to 15 active police officers each month have died by their own hand, and that can likely be attributed to the effects of chronic stress or some trigger event that has resulted in those officers suffering from stress response syndrome.

Where can help be found? According to the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, studies show that first responders are often resistant to seeking mental health treatment, and our own research at Humanizing the Badge reveals that the greatest barrier to individuals reaching out for help is the stigma associated with the need to talk to someone about what they’re experiencing. This is where effective peer support programs come in. Peer support has emerged as the virtual “standard of care” for first responders, and has proven to have a greater rate of compliance and fewer incidences of withdrawal from care as compared to traditional mental health approaches.

Our innovative #CallForBackup Campaign for Suicide Awareness and Prevention is designed to teach first responders how to help themselves, and how to help each other. The goal is to teach people the skills necessary, in an environment of trust and mutual support, to help each other through the daily struggles of the job, prevent the tremendous buildup of chronic stress, but to know when a referral is necessary in the best interests of the health of their team member.

If you’d like more information about this training program, or if you are struggling and just need to check in with someone, please send a message to our Facebook page at m.me/callforbackup.org/.  If you are having suicidal thoughts and are in immediate crisis, please text BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  All assistance is free, confidential, and is available around the clock.

Helping Someone with Suicidal Thoughts

One of the most common laments of family members and colleagues of someone who completes a suicide is that they “should have seen it coming,” and “I wish I could have helped.”  Here are some essential things to know so that you may be more effective in helping someone with suicidal thoughts.

Be familiar with acute risk factors.  There is a long list of acute risk factors, including recently divorced or separated, recent excessive or increased substance abuse, and recent suicide attempts or other kinds of self-harming behaviors.  If the individual expresses a great deal of anger or describes aggressive behaviors, has become isolated or withdrawn or has had a recent psychiatric hospital stay, that is an indication of a greater risk.  If the individual describes himself or herself as being a burden to others, feels trapped, or believes there is no reason to live, there is an increased risk of a suicide attempt.

Listen for information about possible recent trigger events.  If something has happened recently that has caused this individual to feel shame, guilt, or humiliation, these may trigger an increase in suicidal thoughts.  Also, look for signs of recent legal or financial problems as this will often precipitate thoughts of suicide as a means to escape the consequences of such things, especially if the individual believes that a life insurance payout will solve the problem for the survivors.  Also, do not ignore any mention of a recent exposure to suicide – a friend or family member, or even another police officer that has been reported in the media.  This is a significant trigger event.

Know the most common warning signs.  Has this person been talking or writing about death and/or suicide recently?  Even if a person makes vague statements about suicide, remember it is a myth that those who talk about suicide never actually do it, and this is a warning sign.  What about changes in personality, or poor performance at work?  Other common warning signs include getting affairs in order by writing a will, giving possessions away, calling someone “out of the blue,” seemingly to say goodbye.  And a very important warning sign is that the person has suddenly gone from very sad to suddenly very content and peaceful.  This is usually an indication that the decision has been made.

Be willing to ask the tough questions without hesitation.  Here is a list of those tough questions that must be asked:

  • Are you thinking of killing yourself? Be blunt.  Use the word “kill.”
  • How long have you been thinking about killing yourself?
  • Do you have a plan to kill yourself? Get specific information about the plan.
  • Do you have the means to carry out the plan? Remember, every police officer has this.
  • Who is going to find your body and clean up the mess? That may be something the individual has actually never given any thought to.
  • Is there anything or anyone to stop you? There may be religious beliefs, thoughts about people left behind like spouse, children, even pets.

Get someone else involved.  A person is perhaps less likely to attempt suicide in the presence of another person, so getting someone else involved is a logical step to take.  Consider the level of suicide risk in making this determination.  This individual may be a family member, especially if the suicidal person simply needs to talk through his or her issues with someone close.  In the case of law enforcement officers, the local department may have peer support people or a chaplain who can respond and assume control of the intervention.  Remember, if a suicide attempt is imminent, someone needs to be there to get the suicidal person on the line with the suicide prevention hotline or get them to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.

Get agreement that the individual will seek professional help if indicated.  First, never just end a conversation with a suicidal person in the hopes that he or she will not make an attempt to complete the suicide.  Before you conclude, you must get agreement that no attempt will be made, and that the person is able to identify by name who he or she will call if the suicidal thoughts become too intense to control.  And finally, help the person identify a local mental health professional that can be contacted as a resource if the risk of suicide is at anything but the lowest level.  That resource may be the EAP contracted by the department or city, or it may be someone from a directory of professionals in the area.

If you are reading this, and you are struggling with suicidal thoughts yourself, don’t try to walk that path alone – call for backup.  Reach out to us by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/.  IF YOU ARE IN CRISIS NOW, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800) 273-TALK (8255).