Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Coping with Grief, Loss, Suicide


Time seems to stand still for us when someone dies, especially someone we love and admire. When a death is caused by suicide our thoughts become confused and chaotic. We can't understand and we can't go on with our lives until we begin to express and resolve our feelings of grief. Suicide can be understood as a desperate measure to escape problems which seem insurmountable. Often the thought of suicide is planted in someone's mind in their early life. The thought of this escape becomes stronger and stronger as feelings are bottled up and death seems the only possible solution. We must tell ourselves and our families that suicide is a permanent "solution" to a temporary problem. All problems can be resolved unless the individual is dead and then, tragically, it's too late. Commentators sometimes call a death by suicide "successful." Instead use the words "completed suicide." There is no success in death, no peaceful I escape, only an end to an individual life and an end to the hope for resolution of life problems.

We will be more confused when a prominent person commits suicide, especially an individual who occupies a position of trust in the community. We must remember that this individual was a human being like everyone else. In many ways a prominent individual will find it harder to resolve life problems, especially when others look to that individual to resolve problems without recognizing the possibility that even problem-solvers can benefit from assistance with their life issues. Ministers, mental health professionals, police, health-care workers and emergency responders all are human. The suicide rate is actually higher in populations who assume the role of helping others and deny themselves similar assistance. There is a well-known problem of suicide "contagion." Vulnerable people, especially adolescents, will follow the lead of a Marilyn Monroe or a Kurt Cobain. This is why observers of a suicide must permit themselves to seek assistance rather than emulate the permanent end to life problems modeled by prominent individuals.

It is important to honor the memory of individuals we have admired while separating out our comments and feelings about the manner of death. Suicide should always be thought of as an especially tragic mistake because it precludes the resolution of life problems. Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes, but mistakes can be corrected and people can move on as long as they remain alive. Sometimes we find it hard to use the words "death" or "suicide", but it is especially important to do so in the case of suicide. When we talk about death as "peaceful eternal rest" or as someone "passing on" we lose the point of the tragic mistake inherent in suicide. Without meaning to do so we may give our youth a message that death can be attractive like sleep or a painless solution to problems. Children are especially confused about death, and therefore parents should talk with them now about death. There are many helpful children's books about death available in your bookstore or library; this is the time to sit down and read and talk with children to help them understand the tragic finality of death. Above all, observe children's play and let them ask questions to help them cope with this death.

Grief counseling is invaluable in helping us work through our feelings about terrible events and then move on with the hope and promise of our lives. Time does not "heal all wounds" and we can't just "buck up" and go on successfully without at least taking some time for healing. Unresolved grief may be buried within us as we cope with the distractions of everyday life, but take note that it will fester and grow unless it is recognized and treated. The initial reaction to a death is shock, numbness and disbelief. When the reality of the death finally sinks in, feelings of loss, sadness and depression emerge. The pain of loss often turns to anger, and people search for someone or something to blame. Guilt is often very problematic. After a death everyone re-examines their last contacts with the deceased person, wondering what signs they could have missed, wondering what they could have done to distress the individual or what kinds of support they should have provided. It helps to know that this guilt is a normal reaction to a sudden and confusing suicide and that that the responsibility for the death lies solely with the individual who decided to attempt suicide. Console yourself with the knowledge that you would have provided assistance if you would have known about the problem and if the deceased person had reached out for your help. The final stage of grief is acceptance of loss as a part of life. With suicide the learning must also incorporate the fact that suicidal acts are permanent choices and irreversible mistakes with responsibility placed only on the individual who made the choice. As we reach toward the acceptance and resolution stage of grief, empathy and caring for others can be developed as a positive outcome of working through grief.

To aid with our feelings of grief about the loss of an individual we loved and admired, I offer the following poem which is often quoted to help comfort us with the memory of the positive spirit of the person we lost.

"Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow; I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain: I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you waken in the morning hush; I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry: I am not there: I did not die."

This article was written by special request.

Dr. Phillips has had extensive experience in grief and suicide counseling. She developed the crisis and suicide intervention program in the Austin, Texas, public schools and assisted in developing the Suicide Prevention Program for the State of Texas.