By Frank R. Campbell, PhD, LCSW, and Robyn Kaplan Seidman, MSW, LCSW
Survivors of Suicide Support Groups
Each year, 180,000 people in the United States lose a loved one to suicide. Parents, children, siblings, friends, and spouses are left with complex feelings of grief. They may also be embarrassed by what happened ashamed, guilty, and alone. Historically, many religions viewed suicide as a sin. However, during the late 20th century, thoughts on suicide shifted both religiously and legally. Today, suicide is usually seen as part of an illness related to an individual’s internal struggles.
Many communities have begun coordinating survivor groups. According to the Jewish Family and Community Service (JFCS), groups for survivors of suicide help participants in many ways. They provide a community of support to help manage the difficult grieving process felt by survivors. Participants know they can share their stories and details of their loved one’s death without pressure or fear of judgment and shame. Survivors realize they are not alone and feel less isolated and ashamed by the loss when they attend these meetings.
Groups offered by JFCS, for example, are usually co-led by a social worker and a lay leader who is a survivor of suicide. The lay leader helps participants share openly by example. Lay leaders also demonstrate that a survivor can go on and heal even though their lives are changed forever. As one survivor said, “The group is a safe placeâ€¦to share your feelings without the sense that you are being judged or pitied or that people are uncomfortable in your presence.”
Participants in varying stages of their grieving process attend the group. Those who have recently suffered a loss come to a group hoping for a little relief from the intense pain they are experiencing. Sometimes participants attend a group long after the death of a loved one. They come to revisit their feelings and understand the impact of the suicide on their current lives.
A 28-year-old man in one group, whose father died when he was 13, attended a JFCS survivor of suicide group. When his father died, the man’s mother had told him never to tell anyone outside the immediate family that his father had killed himself. The man respected his mother’s wishes but had recently begun to feel dishonest in close relationships. After the survivors’ session, the man decided to share details of his father’s death with his girlfriend. He was relieved that telling the truth did not change his relationship, as he had feared. He proudly shared the breakthrough with the group the following week.
Professionals who lead these groups say they are touched over and over by stories, such as this one, and admire the strengths of the people who attend their workshops.
The LOSS Team
Most referrals for survivors of suicide groups come from physicians or nurses who share the information when the death is pronounced in a hospital. Unfortunately for many, a hospital is never involved, so that survivors do not receive a referral from a doctor or nurse. Even when resources are available in communities, there is a long time between when the suicide occurs and the survivor gets help. Unfortunately, the survivor may not know about services and those offering the services do not know about the survivors. One study showed that average length of time between the suicide and the survivor seeking an assessment was 4.5 years.
In 1997, a group in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was formed to help survivors of suicide find the resources they need. The group was named the LOSS (Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors) Team. The team is made up of trained suicide survivors and Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center (BRCIC) staff. They go to the scenes of suicide to spread information about resources and to be the breath of hope for the grieving survivors. The goal of the LOSS Team is to let suicide survivors know that resources exist as soon as possible following the death.
Survivors have proven to be important resources at the scenes of suicide. Their volunteer involvement contributes greatly to the entire project. They work as peer facilitators in weekly survivors groups, participate in survivor assessments, serve as members of the agency speakers bureau, and mentor new team members.
Since the LOSS Team began responding in 1998, team members have been recognized for their contributions to the newly bereaved in Baton Rouge. The team is working on changing the legacy of suicide for survivors. In September 2004, a documentary was produced by the Discovery Channel to highlight the stories of several survivors and staff of the BRCIC. The program was created to show what it is really like to get help and reduce the chance of another suicide in the future.
To learn more about resources available, please visit the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center Web site at www.brcic.org