I recently completed a training course at The Center for Loss and Life Transition on how to support suicide mourners. I'm a subject matter specialist, an educator, so I don't provide counseling or therapeutic support. My goal is to responsibly connect educators with grief support resources. I feel equipped to relay a small part of the foundational understanding of suicide grief support that I learned from Dr. Alan Wolfelt, as it relates to guiding a compassionate response for educators. Therefore, you cannot read this entry and be qualified to counsel a suicide mourner. Rather, you will learn a selected segment of information about suicide grief, and how to begin to nurture a grieving student and family as a caring companion when they return to school following a suicide death. Here you will find information on where to access additional national and local support for child and family suicide mourners.
The Societal Stigma of Suicide
Every death is very painful. Death by suicide carries a societal stigma that very often disenfranchises the mourner. Suicide is a complicated death. It is sudden, traumatic, unexpected, and premature. In some situations the survivor is traumatized by witnessing or discovering their person who died. The question of ‘why’ is pervasive, and it's on everyone’s minds. People are frightened. Often the mourner is abandoned by friends and family; people don’t know what to do or what to say, so in response they avoid the mourner.
“As a result of fear and misunderstanding, survivors of suicide deaths are often left with a feeling of abandonment at a time when they need unconditional support and understanding. Many people suffer alone or in silence.” (Wolfelt, 2014)
Ways Educators Can Support:
There are some things we can do responsibly as non-counselors to try to provide the most caring and qualified support for student suicide mourners and their families. If at all possible, talk with the adults caring for the child before he returns to school to offer your support, and try to learn what he knows about the death. You do this so you may partner with his primary caregiver, so you do not over-share, and so you can extend the kind of support his parent or guardian desires for him to happen at school. This gesture is an opportunity to reach out to the student's primary caregivers to create a partnership. When you feel it is appropriate, share access to local bereavement support resources. If you're able to model natural expressions of care and outreach, and not allow the stigma of suicide to impact your level of grief support, you will teach others to do the same. And you will offer hope to this unique mourner.
1. Educate yourself about suicide grief.
Helping a Suicide Survivor Heal:
2. Try not to be afraid to talk with the mourner about their person who died.
The AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) offers these manageable ways to actively support and communicate with a suicide mourner. These suggestions are general, but you may modify them for children, taking into account the child's appropriate developmental level.
-Reach out. Be there. Your very presence will be comforting and reassuring.
-Follow the lead of the person who is grieving. Some survivors of suicide loss find it helpful to talk about the details of the death, share pictures of their person who died, cry, or express their intense emotions. Others prefer not to.
-Listen with your full attention.
-Don't be afraid to ask about their person who died or to say their person's name. It hurts so much more when no one talks about the person they lost.
-Offer to help with specific tasks. Instead of saying, “I’m here if you need me” or “Tell me what I can do to help,” ask, “Can I help by…”
You can access the full pdf from AFSP here:
3. Familiarize yourself with- and be ready to share -local and national grief support resources.
Alan Wolfelt taught me that grief support is anchored in humility. I am critically aware that I have only just begun to learn about suicide grief support, and I tread softly and carefully as I relay teaching points. What I know is that in grief support we must be brave. We cannot be afraid to talk about it, even if there has been a suicide.
“Talking about the person who died is like holding up their love story.” (Wolfelt, 2014)
I hope this begins to help you and the children you serve if there is a death by suicide in your school community.
Copyright (2014) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.