Living in the wake of suicide
Updated: Jul 17, 2019
After looking at the facts and figures behind suicide (Elderly suicide), now we turn our attention to what happens to those left behind by the suicide of a friend or loved one.
Christopher Lukas knows first-hand what it is to lose not just one person close to him from this cause of death, but several; his mother, an ageing aunt and uncle, and a life-long friend since childhood, followed years later by his brother too. He started writing about suicide as a therapeutic activity for his own benefit and soon realised he had something to offer others whose lives are irrevocably changed through a suicide in their own family or close social circle.
His book Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide (Jessica Kingsley, 2007), co-written with Henry M. Seiden, is his account not only of his personal experiences but of those he's interviewed over many years in similar, though fundamentally unique, circumstances.
The conclusion he reached after silence shrouded his first loss – that of his mother when he was a child – and subsequent deaths was that the 'bargain' of silence is never worth it. Families may feel that not speaking about such a death avoids reopening wounds, will hasten recovery, lessens the risk of social stigma from those around them who are uncomfortable with any discussion of such matters but, he says, it is never a good idea.
Sorrow which is never spoken
Is the heaviest load to bear
Frances Ridley Havergal
Grief that makes other joys in life impossible
Suicide is described in this book as 'the kind of grief that makes other joys in life impossible'. The fact that the dead person 'renounced all possibility of help from them' leaves survivors, sometimes, feeling 'quite worthless'.
Leo Tolstoy said 'Silence will not cure a disease. On the contrary it will make it worse.' Yet so many families resort to silence as a coping mechanism in the face of pain. 'The bargain of silence is a family's solution to the anger and blame members feel toward one another, and the guilt they feel about themselves,' writes Lukas.
Yet he points to how, in the case of a bereaved husband or wife, for example, research shows that 'shame and guilt… denial, concealment and refusal or inability to talk about the suicide… sharply limits the bereaved spouse's opportunity for catharsis, for activity checking distorted fantasies against the realities of the suicidal act, for clearing up a variety of gross misconceptions, or for dealing with and eventually resolving the irrational guilts and particularly the angry reproaches felt towards the person who committed suicide' (Cain and Fast, 1966).
Responding to life
He advocates talking therapy, leading to an ability to 'respond' to life in new ways after a suicide. 'Responding is not the same as forgetting about what happened… it is learning not to feel responsible for the suicide; and it's the ability to feel good about yourself. Responding takes time; all survivors discover that… feelings of despair, depression, anger and guilt may continue… In seeking help, earlier is better than later. It is normal to feel these painful feelings, and helpful to express them. You should not feel you are "losing it" if you are acknowledging these feelings, and you should by now realise that many many others have also shared these feelings.'
The value of talking
In describing the value of talking therapies, of the sort which, arguably, Anna Chaplaincy provides as well through its gentle spiritual accompaniment, people can be helped to move beyond pain and numbness to be enabled to respond more fully to life once more.
'Each time you talk about a painful experience, there is a little change,' Lukas writes. 'It's almost as if the experience is like a kaleidoscope: each turn permits the elements to realign themselves. If the turn is allowed, there's some reorganisation, some give, things feel a little better. There are tiny transformations. You are able to shift into a more comfortable mode, so that you feel less despairing about the same reality.'
The book concludes with a list of helpful organisations in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, plus a comprehensive bibliography.