I work in the field of suicide prevention and postvention. Every day I work alongside colleagues doing everything they can to prevent future suicides and help in the healing process for those whom have lost a loved one. I help launch LOSS Teams all across the country. I am an author and a licensed therapist doing grief work for new survivors. I am also a two-time suicide-loss survivor myself. My professional life is all about suicide and I am passionate about it.
My personal life; however, is more, well, personal. And there is a reason for that. I am a writer and have shared personal feelings and emotions around the suicide death of my mom but only certain emotions, attitudes, feelings, and experiences. Not because they are too personal or intimate to share. Quite the contrary, in fact. The reason I do not share them is because they are not acceptable to my colleagues or other suicide-loss survivors.
My colleagues have created safe language to discuss suicide and suicide-loss so that nobody gets triggered, is offended, hurt, or otherwise further traumatized by the words someone speaks about their own experience. I think there is validity to all of this and I appreciate the boundaries to keep everyone safe especially as it relates to others describing the death scene. However, there is a very obvious consequence to the “safe language” and it is not a popular opinion to have or express, especially as a professional who is expected to be PC in all things surrounding the topic of suicide.
I have heard fellow suicide-loss survivors express their feelings of anger toward the one who died by suicide only to have other survivors or professionals jump in to say, “Your loved one was hurting. How can you be angry at them?” Or when survivors express, “My husband was so selfish for leaving me and the kids. I have two small children and no job, how are we going to survive?” To which, again, others jump in to say, “How dare you say they were selfish! They were not!”
By monitoring and censoring how survivors are “allowed” to express their grief into what others feel is “acceptable” is abusive. Why can’t they be angry? Why can’t they feel their loved one was selfish? Why can’t they feel abandoned or betrayed? These feelings are completely natural parts of grief and when another person inserts themselves to say, “That opinion or belief is not appropriate and we do not talk about those who died by suicide like that” then we actually stifle their grief.
I recently attended a conference where the speaker said, “My loved one chose to die.” After the speaker was finished, an individual in the audience stood up and said, “As a fellow suicide-loss survivor, I was really triggered when you said ‘chose to die.’ That was really hurtful and you should choose your words better.” To which the speaker then profusely apologized. I think the audience member was rude to stand up to tell this speaker how he can/cannot speak about his family member’s suicide.
There is an expression in the 12-step programs that says, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” It means if you hear something you like and find helpful, take it with you. If you hear something you don’t like or find upsetting, leave it here in this room.” I think there is a lot of wisdom to that. We cannot control how others feel or speak and it is ignorant to believe we can.
If an individual were expressing suicidal ideation, we would NEVER discount their pain by saying, “Oh, it’s not that bad. You’re fine. You’ll feel better tomorrow.” We would listen, support them, and get them the help they need. When a survivor expresses their pain; however, we tell them, “Oh, you can’t say this/that. It’s offensive to others. Your loved one was hurting.” How is it helpful to their grief to discount the survivor’s pain by explaining the deceased was hurting more than the survivor currently is?
I have led suicide-loss support groups for years and also sat in therapy sessions with countless clients after they lost a loved one to suicide. It is in those rooms where they can fully express their genuine and raw emotions and be accepted. Eventually, if clients are allowed to share their thoughts, feeling, and beliefs around the death, most of them will move beyond their anger. If they are not afforded this opportunity or are told it is not appropriate to think/feel this way, they get stuck in their grief. Sometimes for decades or even longer.
We cannot be scared or threatened by allowing survivors to express their true feelings or emotions in the same way we wouldn’t silence those struggling with depression or anxiety. It’s not healthy or safe. Survivors are already wrestling with guilt, shame, remorse, trauma, anxiety, and grief. We cannot silence their discomfort because we are uncomfortable or offended by their raw emotions. We have to do better.