Supporting Survivors of Suicide Loss: Postvention is Prevention
by Maureen Pollard,
Emotional Health Editor, KBI Inspire Magazine
Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW is a registered social worker with a private practice in Cobourg, Ontario. Visit her online at: maureenpollardmsw.com
November 18, 2023, is International Survivor of Suicide Loss Day. It’s a day to acknowledge those who are bereaved by suicide and to invite them to gather to share their stories of loss in an effort to find hope and healing together. Grief is painful, even though it is simply a natural response to the loss of someone we love. Suicide loss is painful and complicated because it also involves trauma, and isolation due to the stigma that is still associated to this cause of death.
Postvention is a term that refers to the care that people receive in the aftermath of the suicide death of a loved one. We hear frequently about suicide prevention and intervention, which is great because the more people talk about these topics openly the more people are likely to be able to help someone who’s thinking about suicide. We’re just beginning to hear about postvention, and it’s important, too.
People who are bereaved by suicide are more likely to think about and attempt suicide themselves. Suicide happens in part due to deep psychological pain experienced by the person who died. However, suicide doesn’t end this pain, it simply transfers it to the survivors. This, in combination with the fact that the survivor may believe that suicide is an option now even if they had never considered it before, increases the risk for those who are bereaved by suicide.
When we provide timely and effective postvention for people after a suicide death, we’re engaging in suicide prevention.
What are some ways that you can support someone who has been impacted by suicide?
Ask them how they are doing – and be prepared for the real answer. It’s true that they’re going to be feeling grief and distress for a long time after such a sudden and traumatic loss. When they know that you accept that and that you will still ask them how they’re doing with a willingness to hear the truth – that they’re not doing very well – it can give them comfort and hope.
Let them talk about their person – use their name. The person who died is so much more than their cause of death. People want to talk about their loved one, to say their name and tell their stories, remembering the whole person. It’s okay to tell touching and funny stories of happier times, and to reminisce with the person who is grieving.
Offer to help – think of something specific they might need that you could do. They’re likely to be overwhelmed in their grief and they’re unlikely to know what to ask for when you say something like “Just call if you need anything.” or “Let me know what I can do to help.” Do they have a dog that needs to be walked, a yard that needs tending, children who require care and attention? Think about their practical needs and offer to pick up some groceries, help with housework or invite them for a walk.
Don’t give up on them – grief and trauma take time to heal. It’s not uncommon for someone to experience grief and trauma symptoms for 3-5 years following a sudden, unexpected, and traumatic death such as suicide. Invite them on outings, show up to listen or help, and keep doing so as they gradually adapt to this tragedy and find their way back to themselves in the wake of this terrible loss.