You've probably read or heard the startling and sad news: Americans are killing themselves at rates not seen in 30 years. In April, a federal report from the National Center for Health Statistics, showed the overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. The specific statistic that shook me? The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, jumped by 63 percent. It was even steeper for aging, white women. It was an 80 percent increase for that group!
News like that would normally flow over me--just another headline in a never ending buzz of news--but it turned personal, fast, when I got word that a former colleague of mine took her life.
I was told of her death, in whispered tones, as if there was some kind of scandal surrounding her desperate decision. Our society really doesn't know how to deal with suicide. My first thought, naturally, was why my brilliant and wickedly funny colleague ended her life. She had been rocked in recent years by personal struggle and I wondered whether she had tried to reach out to others and whether she had been heard. I wondered what I could have done to help.
I thought about her family and the roiling emotions they were going through. Did they blame themselves for not preventing her death? Were they asking themselves what they didn't see or understand about their loved one?
Grieving a suicide is complicated. I reached out to Minneapolis based grief counselor, Kelly Grosklags for some advice. Kelly is wonderful and wise. She holds monthly public events in the Twin Cities called "Conversations with Kelly" that are sold out and for good reason.
Here's an edited transcript of our e-mail interview.
Cathy Wurzer: Kelly, is the grief people feel after the suicide of a loved one different from other forms of grief you see among your clients?
Kelly Grosklags: Suicide grief certainly has its unique characteristics. Many survivors of suicide can feel intense guilt. They wonder if some how could have prevented the suicide. Additionally, there can be shame and stigma associated with this type of loss. My clients have felt judged or dismissed when they speak about their loss. This can lead to isolation.
Some suicides are quite violent and the survivors may never get the opportunity to view the deceased so they struggle with the reality of the death. Moving through life again can be difficult because people can get stuck in shock after this type of loss.
Cathy: How hard is it to heal from such grief?
Kelly: Each grief is unique, and most grief lasts a lifetime, it just changes in its intensity. We certainly hope to eventually see the intensity diminish with the passage of time. One of the reasons suicide grief is unique is that survivors were not allowed to say goodbye and it is a sudden death. The inability to have that time to say things left unsaid, ask for forgiveness, forgive or express love can certainly impact the bereaved's ability heal and move forward in their lives.
Cathy: What are the steps suicide survivors can take to work with their grief?
Kelly: It isn't so much about steps or stages as it is about awareness and acknowledgment of the loss. Whenever possible, survivors benefit from tuning in to all the feelings, just notice them, not judge. I work with people to feel justified in the expression of their sadness, anger, resentment, confusion etc . It is important that the bereaved from a suicide loss be open about the loss. Be honest about how your loved one died. Some healing options are to work with a trained grief therapist, attend a grief group specific to suicide loss, seek support at place of worship, schedule regular walks with friends. When I am working with suicide survivors we work through the shock to deal with all the emotions from regret, guilt and anger. It's important to facilitate some type of ritual where the bereaved have the opportunity to have their voice heard and "say goodbye."The pace is also important in grief. Not rushing is essential.
Taking the time needed helps to alleviate set backs, and foster authentic healing that is sustainable. The "healing goals" would be to surrender what cannot be changed and forgive eventually, all while reaching out for support when needed.
For more information about Kelly's events, please visit her website: http://www.cwkonline.net/
By the way, Kelly and I are planning a great event for August. Stay tuned for details!