Helping Families and Friends Through the Critical Time After a Suicide

Dallas attorney Brian Loncar was found dead in his car just over week after the suicide of his 16-year-old daughter. Although authorities have not ruled on how Loncar died, his death has brought attention to the aftershocks of suicide that ripple through families, friends, classmates and others in the community.In the wake of the Loncar tragedy, The Dallas Morning News talked to two local mental health experts: Dr. John Burruss, chief executive of Metrocare Services, a nonprofit that runs community mental health clinics in Dallas County, and the Rev. Dawn Anderson, associate pastor at Highland Park United Methodist Church, who runs a support group for people whose lives have been crossed by suicide.Q: How difficult is suicide on those left behind?Burruss: There is no question that these kinds of particularly abrupt, unexpected, often violent deaths create more difficulty accommodating to the loss than other kinds of losses. These are normal people trying to adapt to horrific circumstances. They’re ... going to feel that life has now changed forever.Q. What makes suicide so difficult to cope with? Anderson: Guilt is No. 1, especially with parents. Parents feel responsible for a child and wonder if they could have done something to prevent it, or if they passed on a trait for depression. There is also what I call “solving the mystery,” where we go over and over in our minds why the suicide happened...Q: What about anger?Anderson: Yes, but I don’t see that as much with parents of children. They do sometimes feel like the children did this to them. But I tell them there are a lot of other things going on in a child’s life besides your relationship. It can occur at a pivotal time like college, where they’re thinking about the future. And with younger teens, it can be an impulsive act over the breakup of a boyfriend or girlfriend.Q: Is there a risk of harm for those left behind?Anderson: If there’s a suicide, the whole family needs to be watched very carefully. There is a higher risk of suicide for the remaining family members. Burruss: It’s not only blood relatives but all loved ones. You’ll see what’s called “suicide contagion,” with classmates and peers of a young suicide victim. They’re at a higher risk for suicide than they would be if this had not happened.Q: What do you say to people who are stuck in this state of mind?Burruss: Thoughts of suicide or harming oneself occur in people who have recently lost loved ones to suicide. Those feelings happen. Denying them or saying they don’t exist can be problematic, rather than understanding they’re part of the situation. Acting on them is what we want to avoid.Q: Is there a risk of divorce for parents whose child has died by suicide?Burruss: Yes, divorce is a danger when a child dies under any circumstances. But it’s particularly true in suicides. It’s best for couples to put it on the table and say, “We’re at high risk for a lot of things — depression, divorce. Let’s be aware of that and make sure there’s not a second tragedy on top of the first one.”Q: Are there other risks?Burruss: Alcohol and drug use. Even people who weren’t struggling with alcohol or drug abuse might very well end up in some problematic use. And, there’s a high risk for those already struggling with it.Q. What kind of help do you recommend for people who are suffering through the aftermath of a suicide?Burruss: There’s all manner of help, whether it comes from loved ones, clergy or support groups. There are hotlines, like 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433), which is not just for people contemplating suicide but also for people who have lost someone to suicide. And then there are mental health professionals.Q. Is there an identifiable pattern that people follow in these circumstances, such as the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance?Burruss: It’s important to realize there is no right way to grieve. The stages can happen out of order. You can skip stages. Different people grieve different ways. Some people are very visible when they grieve, some are not. People can get caught up in whether they’re grieving the right way. “I’m not crying enough. I’m crying too much.”Q. What do you recommend doing first?Burruss: As you’re living with this horrific, tragic moment, what feels like it would be useful? And the answer to that can be nothing. Or it might be that you have to try some things.Anderson: If someone has just experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide, I suggest they come in and talk to me one-on-one for pastoral counseling. I will also recommend an individual counselor.Q. What about going to a support group?Anderson: My criteria includes asking, “Are you ready to hear other people’s stories?” If you’re so new and so raw with your own story, hearing somebody else’s story can send you over the edge. I want to be sure they’re ready. That could be anywhere from the day after the funeral to five years down the road.Q: How does a support group help?Anderson: I think the most healing part is just telling your story over and over. The more you tell it, the more it becomes integrated into your life story. Talk saves lives.Q: Is there ever a point where a surviving parent, sibling or friend can feel normal again?Burruss: The general rule of thumb is that by six months from an event like this, people should have returned to some approximation of their previous level of function. Going to work, church, school. They haven’t stopped missing the person, and they haven’t stopped crying. But they’ve restored function.Resources  Continue reading...

Copyright The Dallas Morning News
Contact Us