How to survive suicide of a loved one

Special to The TribuneNovember 8, 2012 

More than one million people worldwide will commit suicide this year. Approximately 30 will be here in San Luis Obispo County.

The devastated family and friends they leave behind will experience a wide range of reactions, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP):

• Shock, numbness, disorientation or trouble concentrating.

• Depression, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, intense sadness and lack of energy.

• Anger toward the deceased, another family member, a therapist or themselves.

• Relief, particularly if the suicide followed a long and difficult mental illness.

• Guilt, including thinking, “If only I had ...”

The AFSP explains that these feelings usually diminish over time as survivors develop their abilities to cope and begin to heal. Many survivors struggle to understand the reason for the suicide. They replay their loved one’s last days and wonder where they could have intervened.

Statistics show that 90 percent of suicide victims have diagnosable psychiatric disorders at the time of their death, the most common being depression or bipolar disorder. Just as people die from heart disease or cancer, they can also die as a consequence of mental illness.

Psychologists Bob Baugher and Jack Jordan, authors of “After Suicide Loss: Coping With Your Grief,” write: “Once a person has decided to end his or her life, there are limits to how much anyone can do to stop the act. ... In fact, people sometimes find a way to kill themselves even when hospitalized in locked psychiatric units under careful supervision. In light of this fact, try to be realistic about how preventable the suicide was and how much you could have done to intervene.”

To address the needs of local survivors, Hospice of San Luis Obispo County will participate in the 14th Annual International Survivors of Suicide Day on Nov. 17.

A two-part workshop begins at 10 a.m. when the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention presents an educational video about coping with suicide-related grief. A Q&A forum hosted by Hospice SLO counselor Anthony Huffaker will follow. (People who are unable to attend the screening can stream the DVD portion online at The second part of the program begins at 1:30 p.m. and consists of an Art Therapy Workshop lead by Anne Kellogg.

For more information or to reserve your space, call Anthony Huffaker at 805-544-2266.

Coping advice from suicide survivors:

• Decide how to tell other people. The topic of suicide is fraught with emotional angst. Survivors are unsure how to announce their loved one’s death. Honesty is usually best in this situation. Simply acknowledge that your loved one died by suicide.

• Tell others what you need. Many people don’t know how to respond following a suicide. They may sincerely want to help but feel awkward bringing it up. Take the initiative and talk about the suicide. Share appropriate details. Discuss your current psychological state. You’ll get the support you need, and they’ll feel more comfortable in their assistance.

• Reach out. Be with friends. Attend church. Join a support group at Hospice. Avoid the tendency to isolate yourself. You need emotional contact more than ever.

• Grieve as you see fit. Each person grieves in his or her own unique way. For instance, some may want to visit the cemetery every day, while others find it too painful to go at all. You know what you need and when you need it. Follow your internal map.

• Expect unexpected emotions. Waves of sadness or despair may arise long after you thought you were past them. Be patient. They’re normal responses to grief.

• Rethink celebrations. Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays can be especially challenging. Decide whether you want to continue with the previous traditions or create new ones better suited to your needs.

• Seek spiritual counsel. You may find personal solace with a trusted member of the clergy or mystical guide. Even if you weren’t religious before the suicide, you may find that you’re comforted by it now.

• Explore the arts. Keep a journal. Write poetry. Take up painting. Weave a blanket. Artistic creativity may provide an outlet that’s unavailable through other avenues.

• Take care of yourself. Schedule a check-up with your doctor. Cut back on your workload. Take naps as often as necessary. Relax in your backyard. You’ve experienced an emotional crisis. Allow yourself time to heal.

• Know that you’ll recover. Eventually you’ll start to enjoy life again. It’s not a betrayal of your loved one. It’s a clear sign you’ve begun to heal.

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