Monday, February 17, 2020

In Grief: Supporting the Survivor of Suicide Loss ~ Helpful or Harmful?

[Reviewed and updated January 7, 2024]

A reader writes: Eight days ago my brother-in-law Joseph died by suicide, leaving behind my sister after almost 15 years together, and their 10 year old daughter. I’m here to support my sister and niece during this time, as are many of her friends and family. Everyone has been very forgiving and patient. Though we all grieve individually, my sister and her daughter are at the forefront of our minds. I’m writing you in the hopes that you can lend some practical advice. The situation we’re in may not be unique, but I have failed to find any help in guidebooks or any other resource thus far. 

Briefly, let me just explain — my sister's husband shot himself in the head, in the garage of the home their family shares with a roommate. My sister and brother-in-law were separating, but very amicably. Their roommate had only just moved in four days prior, and Joseph was a few days away from moving into his new apartment just across the street from their daughter's school. Joseph is one of that small percentage of people who never, ever reached out beforehand. He called the police in order to ensure that his family would not be the ones to find his body. 

They live in a city where apparently the post-crisis clean-up crews can take up to 2 weeks. So the new roommate’s boyfriend ended up having to clean up the mess, but not fully. When my sister first told me what had happened she said her roommate's boyfriend "is out there right now, shovelling Joseph up”. The trauma this boyfriend feels has rippled through this family. But we all live in other cities. So then before we leave we should finish dealing with the garage, shouldn’t we? Or else who will do it? The boyfriend?? But my sister isn’t ready. 

Adding to this, the funeral home released the clothing Joseph was wearing back into my sister’s possession, in a plastic garbage bag, unwashed. It’s been sitting in the trunk of her car for days. Any conversations about whether it’s time to remove the bag are met with catatonia and quick changes in the subject. This, and the garage, present not only deeply traumatic confrontations with their loss, but also sanitary issues. 

But it’s also that the whole house is a museum of Joseph’s state of mind. His dirty clothing and trash lie in piles everywhere. Gun ammunition is stashed in bowls throughout the house. The last day he spent with his daughter was at the gun shooting range. Before we knew this, we found the paper target from that day and instantly threw it in the garbage. My sister demanded we retrieve it… But, at what point do you say to a survivor, NO. This is too unhealthy. You aren’t thinking straight right now. Focus on the good memories. I understand this resistance, I have compassion for it, but those of us who are here to support them are worried for their health and safety mentally and physically. 

So, my question to you is this: 

How do you get a bereaved wife and daughter to allow you to get rid of the stuff that causes them harm, to bleach away and dispose of the garbage, the medical waste, the remnants of his lowest weeks, days or moments?? How do you do this in a supportive way, without alienating them, making them feel as though you are betraying them or forcing them to let go too early? 

I should mention that my sister is herself not the most stable person emotionally, and never has been, having severe abandonment issues since early childhood. She is in denial and experiences waves of sadness and anger, but mostly numbness and disbelief right now. In this last day or two she has also become very protective of Joseph's ashes and of her daughter.

We understand, of course. But also, when are we allowed to remind my sister that what her daughter experiences during this time, or sees her mother saying and doing, will affect her for the rest of her life?? Where is the line between harm and good here??? ...And how do we push them into getting the professional support services that are better equipped to deal with these issues than we are? 

I worry for them both, and for all of us here in this house. Any answers you can give are desperately welcomed.

My response: My dear one, I’m so sorry to learn of this tragic loss in your family, and sorry, too, that you find yourself in this position. I applaud and appreciate the deep concern you have for your sister and your niece, and I can only imagine how helpless you must feel.

I understand your wanting so desperately to get your sister to do what you think is best for her and her daughter ~ but the reality is that you simply cannot force someone to accept your advice or do what you think is best for her, no matter how “right” you may think you are. I think that all you can do (in addition to continuing to “be there” for her in a compassionate, non-judgmental way) is to look into whatever resources are available in your community, so you can gently encourage your sister to take advantage of them, if and when she is ready to do so. An example might be to find and share with your sister an article or two explaining why the services of a professional cleaning company are indicated when a suicide happens in a home. This might be an indirect way to let her know of your concerns about sanitation as well as traumatization. (See the Related resources listed below for examples.)

Your sister’s mental health history (which you describe as severe abandonment issues) and the traumatic nature of this death suggest to me that she would benefit from a specialized form of complicated grief treatment such as that developed by Katherine Shear and her colleagues at Columbia University. (See Center for Prolonged Grief.) I don’t know where you live, but there are therapists throughout the country trained in her techniques; see Find A Therapist. There are also many resources aimed specifically at survivors of suicide loss (see Surviving A Spouse’s Death by Suicide), which you can investigate on your sister’s behalf. A phone call to one of the organizations listed in that article could also give you more ideas on what you can do to support your sister.

I think it also helps to learn all you can about what is normal in grief, so you’ll have a better understanding of your sister’s reactions and how to manage them. See, for example, In Grief: “Being There” for Someone in Mourning.

I hope this information proves helpful to you, and please know that I am thinking of you at this sad and challenging time.

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