Family and School Community Grief
Suicide affects not only loved ones, but entire communities. Learn about the emotional wounds and how the healing begins.
It was a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in January, and the weather seemed to fit the mood of the hundreds of people gathered at the graveside service mourning the loss of one of the community’s youths. The news of Brad’s death put everyone in a state of shock and disbelief. The news spread quickly, and the service was well-attended by his classmates, teammates, neighborhood friends, fellow church members, and teachers and administrators from his high school.
The 17-year-old was loved by many, and his suicide confused and devastated them. The priest presiding over the services had a heavy heart as he remembered the smiling, playful little boy who grew up in the church community.
Sheila, Brad’s mother, was numb, accepting hugs and thoughtful words of condolences, yet believing this was all a bad dream. Sheila felt as if her heart had been torn apart when she learned that Brad had shot himself in the head with a gun his grandfather gave him for Christmas.
Throughout the service, Sheila held Brad’s picture in her hands and wept for her oldest child. She was deep in thought about her son’s brief life from the time he was born to the last few days. She remembered him as a sweet, friendly, giving child with a charismatic smile. At the age of 8, Brad faced some challenges when he was diagnosed with dyslexia. But with continued support from his parents, school, and tutors, he had overcome these tough times. With an empty feeling in her heart, Sheila replayed the words she read in Brad’s suicide note: “Mom and Dad, I love you and Beth and Jason. Please understand, I just can’t do this anymore—it’s too painful for me. Please forgive me.”
Since Brad’s suicide, his father, Donald, became a mask of strength as he believed this was best for Sheila and the children. He had spent the past few days in his study, crying privately, struggling with why and how this could have happened, and trying to make sense of his son’s suicide. He had already spent many hours on the Internet searching for information about youth suicide out of a desperate need for answers. Although the search was in some ways beneficial, it grieved him to realize that his son had been displaying many of the warning signs of suicide—helplessness and hopelessness, the inability to see beyond his hurt and pain, and feelings of worthlessness.
Donald was plagued with guilt as he reflected on how dismissive he had been with Brad over his recent breakup with Jennie, his girlfriend of four years. Brad had known Jennie since kindergarten. She was one of his faithful supporters when he faced his earlier crisis in school. She had often defended Brad when others would make fun of his dyslexia.
Since eighth grade, their relationship had strengthened. Brad openly shared dreams of how he and Jennie would finish college, get married, and start their life together. These dreams were shattered in late November when Jennie broke things off with Brad, saying she felt it would be better for them to date other people. Brad was heartbroken and couldn’t envision a world without Jennie, as she had always been there for him. Donald could see now that he missed opportunities to support Brad through this emotional ordeal, and so he repeated to himself, “If only I had done something; if only I had listened and paid attention.”
Beth, age 13, and Jason, age 15, were in their own experiences of sibling grief after Brad’s suicide. Beth was devastated, as Brad was the big brother who protected her. Since her birth, Beth could do no wrong in Brad’s eyes, as she was his “Bethy.” She struggled when thinking about what life would be like without Brad by her side. She was angry with Jennie for causing Brad so much heartache and pain. Mostly, she was frightened to realize that such a horrible thing had happened to someone she loved so deeply.
Jason was keenly aware of how drastically things were changing in his family. He could see the devastating pain created by Brad’s suicide. Jason listened to the priest’s words and was seething inside. He was angry with everyone—God, the church, his grandfather, Jennie, Brad’s friends and teammates, and the school. More than anything, he was angry with Brad and asked, “Why did you do this to us? Why did I have to be the one to find you?”
Mr. Wilcox, Brad’s high school principal, was at the gravesite, accompanied by many of the teachers, coaches, school counselors, school social workers, and other administrators. They all met early that morning at the school to discuss their initiation of the crisis management plan for responding to Brad’s suicide. He had already seen the faces of grief-stricken school personnel who now would be responsible for guiding the school community through this tragedy.
He also heard the initial processing of the event that seemed like puzzle pieces coming together. Teachers said Brad’s coursework had plummeted in late November; he was distracted and seemed depressed. His coaches said he lost interest in football and stopped coming to practice, causing him to be suspended from playing in the last couple of games. Mr. Wilcox looked out into the crowd of mourners and saw the tearful, emotional faces of family, youths, and school personnel. He recognized that the high school was facing a daunting and overwhelming task on that first day back as they would be entering a school in mourning.The Aftermath of Suicide
Adolescent suicide is a major problem in this country. It is the third leading cause of death of U.S. youths (American Association of Suicidology [AAS], 2006). The aftermath of suicide is the beginning of a painful journey of intense and complex grief for family, friends, classmates, the neighborhood, and the school community. Within the field of suicidology, those left behind are referred to as survivors of suicide (Hoff, 2001). It is estimated that for every completed suicide at least six persons are affected by it (AAS, 2007). Considering the social networks of many adolescents, this is likely a conservative estimate.Family Grief After Suicide
Shock and disbelief are common in the early stages following a loved one’s suicide. Naturally, most survivors experience a sense of numbness and disbelief—”It can’t be! They wouldn’t do this! You must have this wrong!”
The senseless act of suicide may leave family members confused and bewildered. Some may struggle to find answers to the why’s behind suicide. “Why did it happen? Why couldn’t he see that we loved him? Why didn’t he come to me for help?” The inability to make sense of a suicide causes survivors to feel out of control and vulnerable in protecting other loved ones from the same fate.
Feelings of guilt, anger, or both may be part of the grief process for survivors. Some family members may experience a sense of guilt if they believe they were responsible for the adolescent’s suicide or could have prevented it. Anger may be directed at various sources, such as God or any spiritual being, family members, mental health providers, school officials, or anyone who could have possibly prevented the suicide. Anger is sometimes also directed toward the deceased person for creating devastation within a family or community.
Once the shock wears off, many survivors begin to feel intense sadness and may long for the companionship and presence of their loved one. For some survivors, the sadness may develop into depression. Grief after suicide is unique in that there is the complicated nature of having had a loved one take his or her own life, causing survivors to interpret this act as the ultimate rejection or abandonment. The experience of grief for survivors can be so overwhelming and intense that they may relate to the emotional pain of the adolescent and even have thoughts of suicide themselves.
Since grief after suicide can be intense and complicated for families, therapeutic support and intervention is often beneficial for the healing process. Emotional support may come from family members, friends, a church community, or professional sources. Those who seek professional help usually do so as they are struggling with the complexities of their loved one’s suicide. Some benefit from individual therapy to work through feelings and others from family therapy aimed at expression of feelings and promoting healing. Some family members actively seek out support groups, such as Survivors of Suicide, where they can relate to and be validated by others who have experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide.
Essentially, survivors need help with expressing feelings about their loved one’s suicide, grasping the reality of it, and finding the best means for coping with their grief (Hoff, 2001).School Community Grief
Brad’s case exemplifies an adolescent suicide that can significantly impact a school community. Because of his popularity and reputation, his death will likely leave the school reeling for days, months, and even years. Just like Brad’s family, the school family will experience emotions such as shock, disbelief, confusion, guilt, anger, and sadness. In the aftermath of a student suicide, there is always concern about suicide contagion or copycat suicides (Berman, Jobes & Silverman, 2006).
Adolescents who are troubled and depressed may relate and feel a sense of permission to follow in their footsteps. Others may experience a sense of vulnerability and fear knowing that someone they considered to be strong and solid took his or her life. Generally, schools have established crisis management programs directing specific actions for responding to a student’s suicide (Pitcher & Poland, 1992; Poland, 1989).
Effective intervention plans must involve a multilevel approach in addressing the needs of the school community. Specifically, school personnel must simultaneously concentrate on several key areas. First, because of the concern regarding suicide contagion, major efforts should be undertaken to prevent further student suicides. Prevention requires identifying students at risk for suicide and providing appropriate interventions within the school, as well as involving family and making referrals for further care.
Second, the school must promote adolescent suicide education and provide guidance on the grieving process for survivors. Lastly, the school must take responsibility for facilitating the process of grieving for the student body. At the same time, schools must provide some sense of security and stability by maintaining normalcy as much as possible.
When youth suicide occurs, families, friends, and school communities are left behind to sort through things, struggling with the painful journey of mourning and finding ways of surviving the enormous loss. The experience of grief after suicide is often intense, complex, and long-term. Although the pain of grief may at times seem unbearable and devastating to the survivor, it is important to remember that, with time and support, people can survive this tragic loss. Some survivors do it alone, some deny and avoid their grief, and some face the intensity of their emotional pain through the help of support groups and helping professionals.
— Sandra A. Lopez, LCSW, ACSW, is a diplomat in clinical social work and a clinical associate professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.References
American Association of Suicidology. U.S.A. suicide: 2004 official final data. December 15, 2006. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from: http//www.suicidology.org/associations/1045/files/2004OfficialFinalData.pdf
Berman, A. L., Jobes, D. A., & Silverman, M. M. (Eds.). (2006) Adolescent suicide: Assessment and intervention. 2nd edition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Hoff, L. A. (2001). Helping self-destructive people and survivors of suicide. In: People in crisis: Clinical and public health perspectives. 5th edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Pitcher, G. & Poland, S. (1992). Crisis intervention in the schools. New York: Guilford Press.
Poland, S. (1989). Suicide intervention in the schools. New York: Guilford Press.Books for Survivors of Suicide
Cox, D. & Arrington, C. (2003). Aftershock: Help, hope and healing in the wake of suicide. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishing.
Dunne, E. J., Dunne-Maxim, K. & McIntosh, J. L. (Eds.). (1987). Suicide and its aftermath. New York: Norton.
Lucas, C. & Seiden, H. M. (2007). Silent grief: Living in the wake of suicide (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Kingsley Publishing.
Ross, E. B., Richman, J. & Ross, E. B. (2002). A ray of hope for those left behind. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.Resources
American Association of Suicidology: www.suicidology.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Fact Sheet on Understanding Suicide: www.cdc.gov/injury
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: