By Karen Letofsky, Executive Director and Alex Shendelman, Program Manager, The Survivor Support Program, Toronto
Over the years we have encountered an incredibly diverse group of survivors. The family, friends, co-workers and others living in the aftermath of a suicide loss are united by a similar experience. In relating their experiences, though, they have also shared very unique perspectives on what it means to heal after someone has died by suicide.
Sharing Grief Experiences
When we first meet survivors it is often through learning about the loss from them. We join their journey and continue to share their experiences even many years later. Some of them have updated us on their situations months or years after and a number have returned to offer peer support. In the sharing of their grief experiences, a number of significant themes have emerged.
Navigating Through Uncertainty and Vulnerability
Survivors of a suicide loss meet us at a time when their lives are being turned upside down by the sudden, violent death of someone they knew intimately. There is very little that is predictable at that point. There is uncertainty as to what will happen next for themselves or others around them. They, or those they know might be at risk as well. There are also questions about the level of support that is available to them. For those reasons, and others, survivors experience a sense of heightened vulnerability. As well, the person they knew acted in a way that makes very little sense. In seeking to understand the suicide, they come face to face with the circumstances of the death. That will often undermine their identity, sense of purpose and hopefulness.
Finding Ways to Cope
Despite enormous challenges, survivors eventually find themselves adjusting to this period of increased vulnerability. They will draw on ways of coping they had used before or experiment with new ones. As an indicator of tremendous resilience, they adapt to triggers, day-to-day stress, reduced support and the ups and downs that accompany grief. In a period of gradual, even uncertain recovery, survivors of suicide loss will often adjust expectations and hope for manageable indicators of movement forward.
Re-visiting the life of the person who died takes on extraordinary meaning over time. Survivors try to incorporate a more balanced perspective—acknowledging both how their loved one lived and how they died. In doing so, survivors are able to stay connected to the deceased in a way that is safe and meaningful. Survivors acknowledge that their lives are changed after the suicide. Periods of vulnerability interact with changes in personal growth and adjustments in identity and perspective on what matters in life. It is not unusual to encounter survivors who take on causes as a way to find meaning.
It is important to acknowledge the journeys taken by survivors after a suicide loss. The road travelled after a traumatic loss is an evolving experience that incorporates both tremendous vulnerabilities and modest movement forward. Survivors draw on deep wells of courage, resilience and ways of coping in an effort to adjust to a life-altering event. While learning to adapt, they are often willing to incorporate memories of the deceased into a newly formed perspective on the person’s life and on their own. As they move further along on that journey, there is an ever-growing sense of hope and optimism that they can survive.