Suicide bereavement support groups - a lifeline of hope

People who have a lived experience of suicide loss hold a mirror to each's other pain, helping cope better
Suicide bereavement support groups - a lifeline of hope

The quantity and quality of understanding support you get during your work of mourning will have a major influence on your capacity to heal. You cannot — nor should you try to — do this alone. Drawing on the experience and encouragement of friends and fellow grievers is not a weakness but a healthy human need.

Alan Wolfet, Understanding your Grief

Suicide grief is disenfranchised grief. This simply means that it cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, socially supported and validated. As suicide is still regarded as a taboo, a death by suicide has no social acceptability. Because of the 4S surrounding suicide — stigma, shame, secrecy, and silence — most survivors of suicide loss experience social isolation and insensitivity.

The complexity of suicide translates into the complexity of grief after a suicide death. During the early phase of my own bereavement after suicide, I felt no one understood my predicament. Naturally, how could they? Because it is a non-normative death, conventional yardsticks about grief and mourning cannot be automatically transposed. Despite people’s well-meaning intentions, I felt they “did not get it.” Worse, I sensed an empathy deficit in most people as they too were bewildered by a tragedy that had no precedent in most of their lives.

But  I serendipitously discovered an online Suicide Bereavement Support Group (SBSG) - Grief Relief for Survivors of Suicide Loss. It was an answer to a felt need. Impressed by their comprehensive ground rules — especially the one which stated that it is a closed group and membership was based on the lived experience of suicide loss — I stepped in. A peer-led initiative, the group is moderated and led by Linda Marshall Leroux, a survivor of suicide loss herself.

For the first time, I felt I was not alone. Meeting virtually with others who had been bereaved by suicide gave me hope and strength to move through the horrific loss and move forward. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to grief and grieving, knowing how others deal with their loss inspired and humbled me. I not only received but also gave.

For instance, one of the members was sharing about the first anniversary of her partner’s death by suicide. In retrospect, my response as someone who had been bereaved just eight months back astonishes me. I wrote, “Thank you for your searing honesty and authenticity. Ever since I lost my husband to suicide, every day has been a challenge… one step forward… one moment… one day at a time. Yes, the first year is incredibly challenging. Am told it takes at least three years to accommodate the loss into our lives. Meanwhile, we keep at it… keep on moving on… we learn not to push the river … but flow where it takes us…”

In another instance of serendipity, a couple who had lost their younger son to suicide discovered SPEAK (the suicide prevention initiative I set up last year) and reached out to me. That was also the beginning of the SPEAK Suicide Bereavement Support Group (SBSG). As the name implies, an SBSG is a forum or a platform for family members, friends, colleagues or mental health professionals who have lost a significant other to suicide.

The focus is on survivors of suicide loss; not on the victim. Critical issues jointly explored by group members in a safe, supportive, and non-judgemental space typically center around enabling members to develop/build their resilience. This allows members to process grief mindfully and develop a set of coping strategies that will enable them to rebuild and transform their lives through tragedy.

What does a suicide bereavement support group look like?

Suicide Bereavement Support Groups can be online, offline or both. They can be either peer-led or professional-led (usually by a mental health professional). In my experience, I find peer-led support groups more effective as there is no substitute for lived experience. Although each suicide is different and each person impacted by suicide loss grieves differently, the unifying thread in the group is the lived experience of traumatic grief.

Survivors of suicide loss share a unique bond. While each of our situations is unique, we are knitted together by similar feelings, thoughts, questions, and stages of grief. SBSGs provide a rare opportunity to meet and interact with others who know what traumatic bereavement feels like.

The multiple benefits of an SBSG include the following: It counters isolation, creates a safe supportive space, restores trust, offers inspirational role models (peers who have meaningfully dealt with the tragedy), empowers and inspires hope. An SBSG is a non-hierarchical space. Everyone’s experience is equally valid and members are heard, seen and acknowledged.

The three core tasks of an SBSG are providing comfort (acknowledging the pain and being respectful of vulnerabilities), encouragement (normalizing and validating the experience), and education (modeling healthy coping skills and strategies) for members.

Is a support group the same as therapy?

It is important to remember that an SBSG meeting is not a therapy or counseling session - individual, group or both. An SBSG is an important component in postvention services for survivors of suicide loss. The focus is on enabling and empowering the survivors of suicide loss to rebuild their lives and anchor the elusive ‘new normal’ in their lives. The moderator encourages people to share their struggles with grief, their coping strategies and the group offers the collective wisdom of access to resources, support, and encouragement through shared experiences. The moderator needs to be particularly sensitive to sharing of the manner of death as this could potentially be traumatizing to others. In such instances, individual sharing is encouraged, followed by a referral to a grief counselor or trauma therapist, if necessary.

Some of the common issues discussed during an SBSG meeting include the following: Myths and misconceptions about suicide, surviving suicide grief (what to expect), coping with depression and anxiety, shame and guilt, children’s grief, coping skills and strategies, professional support, building resilience and rebuilding one’s life.

There is no rule of thumb which specifies at what stage a bereaved person can join a support group. That said, a commonsensical approach would be to wait for at least a month after bereavement. Of course, the decision to seek support depends on the individual’s choice. Families and friends can share with them the availability of such services.

Despite the innumerable benefits, initiating and sustaining a Suicide Bereavement Support Group (offline and online) continues to be a huge challenge. The stigma of suicide makes it difficult for survivors of suicide loss to ‘come out’ and seek support. Until we mainstream informed conversations about suicide, such initiatives will continue to be the proverbial blip on the radar screen.

Dr Nandini Murali is a communications, gender, and diversity professional. In April 2017, she established SPEAK, an initiative of the MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, Madurai, to change conversations on suicide and promote mental health; and Bounce Forward, an initiative to help people heal and transform through loss.

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