Please note that this article originally published in early 2012.
On June 25, 2011 Comfort Zone Camp, in partnership with the Samaritans and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, provided a specialized one-day program for kids and teens who had suffered the loss of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver to suicide. Twenty-five brave campers showed up bright and early at the Shore Country Day School in Beverly not knowing exactly what to expect. Many did not want to be there, and most were apprehensive.
Grief after a suicide is very complicated and messy. After any loss, adults and children need to be in a safe and gentle environment to feel and to express the tough emotions. Healing requires the permission to tell your story and for the ability to integrate the loss into your life. Suicide makes it almost impossible to find a kind, supportive place. The story often seems too horrific to tell and it is difficult to make any sense of what happened. I often think it would seem just as logical to a family if you told them that their loved one moved to Mars; suicide goes against how we are wired. It is not something we can comprehend.
When a person dies by suicide, there is no chance to anticipate or prepare. Many times people had no clue that their loved one was even struggling. It often blindsides them, leaving them completely off balance. After someone dies by suicide, I see a huge rock fall from the sky destroying the home and community of all the people touched by this death, and not only do these people need to rebuild but first they need to chip away the rock before they can even start to recover.
Suicide deaths are traumatic and are many times violent making it hard to tell others. Survivors do not want others to judge their loved ones or question their relationship with the person. They can become very protective. Also often not everyone knows that the person died by suicide, so it can all be very secretive and confusing.
After a suicide, the survivors are left with many unanswered questions, important pieces of the puzzle missing. They desperately to create a narrative that will explain why the person took her life. They become private investigators leaving no stone unturned, studying phone bills and their loved one’s behaviors, and interviewing anyone who had contact with their loved one to no avail. There is never a satisfying answer that solves the unknowing. Survivors relive events leading up to the death. The “what if’s” haunt them. They live with the “would haves, should haves, and could haves” causing much anxiety and guilt.
Survivors begin to doubt themselves. If this person could take his life without me knowing, who else do I know who is suicidal? Why didn’t she think she could come and talk to me and let me know what was going on, wasn’t I a good friend? Parent? Daughter? Brother? This can bring on feelings of anger. Didn’t this person know how loved she was?
There is also can be a great deal of shame when someone you love dies by suicide. People in the community hear rumors, make assumptions and judge not only the person who died but the people who loved that person. Suicide deaths are often very public and most people do not understand most people who take their own lives suffer from diagnosable mental illness. People do not take their lives because they had one bad day or because they had a weak moment. It does not happen because someone breaks up with them or they lost a job. People who die by suicide don’t want to die they just need the pain to stop.
For both adults and children who have lost a loved one to suicide, it is important they find a space where they feel safe and supported. They need room to investigate and ask the hard questions, slowly at their own pace, realizing that the answers they stumble upon will never be enough. Survivors of suicide need to learn more about mental illness and unlearn the myths that surround suicide. It can help tremendously if they know that this grief holds some different responses and feelings than other losses. To hear, that they are not the only ones reliving the events that lead up to their loved ones death, questioning what they did and what they did not do, and slowly come to a place of acceptance. An acceptance that allows them to trust they did the very best they could and that love is not part of the equation. The person they lost was loved and loved them, the disease just won.
Adults and children who lost someone to suicide need to find ways to remember the whole person. The way someone dies should not define his or her life. It is a part of their story but it is far from the whole story. And the thing that most survivors say is the most helpful in their healing is to be around other survivors. This community of support allows them to remember their loved one, talk about the complex emotions, be in a safe environment where they can ask the tough questions, and see that they are not alone.
Days like Saturday, June 25, 2011 are so vital and so incredibly powerful. For children and teens to be at a one day camp, in the same room with other children who also lost someone to suicide, was an amazing gift. The ripple effects will continue allowing each camper new opportunities to trust and to heal. No one was judging them, caring adults and peers were not afraid to ask them about their feelings and experiences, and they were allow to celebrate the life of the loved one, not get stuck in how that person died. It normalized the death and it gave them a voice, and sense of community and hope. One camper’s evaluation says it best, “This is the best I’ve felt since my father’s death – Thank You.”
The one day camp was so powerful and so effective that a second camp has been scheduled for March 2012. As long as children and teens face suicide losses, they will need this kind of safe place to share, heal, and grow.
If you ever feel that you are in danger of harming yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255). The hotline is staffed with caring individuals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Special thanks to Kim Kates, Director of Grief Support Services for Samaritans. Samaritans’ goal is to reduce the risk of suicide and increase awareness about suicide prevention throughout the Greater Boston and MetroWest areas. For more information, please visit www.samaritanshope.org or call one of their 24 hour helplines at (617) 247-0220 or (508) 875-4500.