Grief After Suicide – Part 2

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.

While loss affects people in different ways, many of us experience the following symptoms when we’re grieving.  Just remember that almost anything that you experience in the early stages of grief is normal—including feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious or spiritual beliefs.

Emotional symptoms of grief

Shock and disbelief – Right after a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened.  You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened, or even deny the truth. When someone you love has died, you may keep expecting them to show up, even though you know they’re gone.

Sadness – Profound sadness is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief.  You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, or deep loneliness.  You may also cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable.

Guilt – You may regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do.  You may also feel guilty about certain feelings you have had either before or after the person has died.  After a death by suicide, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent that suicide, even if there was nothing more you could have done.

Anger – Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful.  You may be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you and your family.  You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you.

 Fear – A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears.  You may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure.  You may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own emotional stability, your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.

Physical symptoms of grief

We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Lowered immunity
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Aches and pains
  • Insomnia

Take care of yourself as you grieve

When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself.  The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your energy and emotional reserves.  Looking after your physical and emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.

Face your feelings. You can try to suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever.  In order to heal, you have to acknowledge the pain.  Trying to avoid feelings of sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process.  Unresolved grief can also lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.

Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way. Write about your loss in a journal.  When you’ve lost a loved one, you may wish to write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get involved in a cause or organization that was important to your loved one.

Look after your physical health. The mind and body are connected.  When you feel healthy physically, you’ll be better able to cope emotionally.  Combat stress and fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising.  Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood artificially.

Try to maintain your hobbies and interests. There’s comfort in routine and getting back to the activities that bring you joy and connect you closer to others can help you come to terms with your loss and aid the grieving process.

Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.”  Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment.  It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry or not to cry.  It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.

Plan ahead for grief “triggers.” Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings.  Be prepared for an emotional wallop, and know that it’s completely normal.  If you’re sharing a holiday or lifecycle event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person you loved.

This information and these tips will be helpful for most people, and most people have enough natural resilience that a new sense of “normal” will come with time.  Grief, however, can be a very complicated thing, and some people need additional help to get better.  In part 3 of this series, we will talk about what to do when grief doesn’t go away, and where to go for additional help and support.  Meanwhile, if you’d like to chat with someone, message us at m.me/callforbackup.org/ and one of our specialists will be happy to connect with you.  If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts and are in crisis now, please call someone to be with you, and then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800) 273- TALK (8255).

 

 

 

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.