“There is a need for wanting to talk about your loved one … wanting to cry when everybody else isn't crying,” mused Rev. Faith Proietti.
Today marks International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, a day that falls on suicide awareness the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year. In this sense, this day not only gives voice to the grief of suicide, but also gives voice to it at a time when it’s simultaneously the most palpable and the most out of place with the rest of the world’s mood.
The grief that comes with losing someone to suicide -- the grief of having a loved one decide to take their own life -- can be a unique grief, with the stigma and guilt that attach themselves to suicide. Proietti knows this.
As Manager of Pastoral Care at OhioHealth Mansfield and Shelby Hospitals, she has been running a support group at Mansfield Hospital for survivors of suicide -- those who have lost a loved one to suicide -- for over a decade. “It's kind of an open forum in the sense that I do come with structure and a topic … but I also leave it open for the individuals because you never know where they're going to be in their grief and what they're working through.”
The day is aptly timed during the holiday season. And it’s at this time, when there seems little room for grief in the midst of a celebration of family and love that is reinforced in media and retail, that a support group can be especially helpful for those coping with the loss of someone who committed suicide.
“The support group I think is so good at Thanksgiving,” said Proietti. “We talk about and get in preparation for Thanksgiving and what people are going to do for that holiday and what they can do, what their choices are.”
She encourages her attendees to pay particular attention to taking care of themselves during this time. This can take many different forms, from setting boundaries and not overextending between family commitments to answering honestly when others ask how you’re doing.
“It’s tough because we all have this attitude during the holidays; we're supposed to be joyful, and we're supposed to be laughing. And I think people that lose someone to suicide, or even general grief, feel like they don't want to be the sad sack in the group,” Prioetti explained.
But while this time of year can be difficult for those grieving, it’s the time after the holidays that is most difficult for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. “We actually see a spike in suicide usually around end of January, February and March,” said Joe Trolian, executive director of the Richland County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board (MHRSB).
“When you're in the holiday season, you typically have some families that will reach out to you, even if you've pretty much withdrawn from everybody else … And so people tend to have a little more support during that time, and then they lose that support as January rolls around,” he clarified.
And those who have had an immediate family member commit suicide are six times more likely to commit suicide, said Trolian. For this reason, avoidance and silence can be detrimental to those in the grieving process.
“Somebody who's had a loved one commit suicide, the last thing we want to do is isolate them,” he said emphatically. “A lot of times I think we try to soften the blow by not talking about them [those that took their life]. [But for] most people, that's the best way you can remember somebody, is to talk about them.”
Proietti echoed this sentiment: “When you don't discuss it and you hold everything in, you hold that grief for a long time,” she said. “But once you begin to talk about it, you can kind of filter through your own emotions and you'll also filter through what was leading up to their death.”
Proietti in fact did her doctoral degree on how to help others cope with the grief of suicide, spurred by a dual interest in both the increase in suicide rates over the years -- Ohio’s rates have increased between 36 and 57 percent, depending on population, in the last 10 years -- as well as the question of how to help those grieving a suicide. And certainly her multi-year dedication to running support groups is assuredly a reiteration of imperative roll talking plays in grieving.
Although grief is heavy and grieving arduous, neither are stagnant, as Proietti discussed when bringing up the wheel of grief she uses in the support group. In this wheel, people will cycle through shock, disbelief, protest, disorganization and then eventually, they will come to reorganization.
“[There] comes a time of reorganization, and that's what the support group and the leaders help you to do -- to find out who you are now without this person in your life and also how they've contributed to your life and how you can move forward as a new individual with changes,” she explained
“One thing that we say all the time: Our loved one would tell us, do not remember me for the last 15 minutes of my life, remember me for the totality of my life,” Proietti shared.
People must recognize suicide warning signs in loved ones
According to Trolian, who’s held numerous positions in the behavioral health sector for the past 28 years, the primary warning signs of someone considering suicide are an explicit statement of wanting to end their life and significant changes in mood and behavior, whether drastically negative or positive.
Broader areas for concerns include those who have a history of suicide attempts, those with an immediate family member who committed suicide and those who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, an issue particularly heightened at the moment due to the opiate epidemic.
It’s imperative that the average person know and recognize these warning signs as it’s rarely a therapist, said Trolian, who first discovers someone is suicidal. Rather, friends, family members, coworkers, teachers and similar persons typically first identify someone is suicidal and then are able to refer them to help. Businesses and institutions can request training at no cost for their employees through the MHRSB.
Most simplistically, it is important that people are willing to ask the question “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” and then be ready to handle the answer.