AFTERMATH: What Workplaces Can Do

Co-Workers Helping Survivors of Suicide

What can you do? Survivors of suicide loss often suffer in silence. People often feel uncomfortable dealing with death in general, and helping someone through the aftermath of suicide often increases these feelings manifold. Helping your friend or family member through this tragedy may be the most important thing you can do - by taking action you will help lessen the isolation survivors are experiencing and move them toward eventual healing.

Things to consider when helping survivors of suicide loss:

  • Participate in mourning rituals (e.g. funerals, memorial services, etc.)
  • If appropriate help create a memory album or quilt for survivor or surviving family
  • Bring easy-to-heat up and nutritious frozen meals to grieving family (e.g. a big batch of chicken soup is especially comforting)
  • If the deceased was a co-worker, offer the family assistance by packing up the personal belongings of the desk or office and bringing them by the home. Call ahead to be sure the family will be there when you deliver the items.
  • Ask the survivor what you can do to help and do it. During the acute aftermath phase you can help them in many concrete ways:
    • Keep a list of phone calls, visitors, and people who bring food and gifts
    • Help keep the mail straight - bills, cards, newspaper notices
    • Offer to make calls to people they wish to notify
    • Help with errands - walk the dog, shop for food
    • Offer to help with documentation - for insurance, newspapers, services
    • Write down a story or create a collage of photos about the deceased
  • The emotional intensity of the grief is great. Survivors may need to talk, cry, scream, or sit silently for hours at a time. Repetition is part of healing.
  • Listening with your heart and without judgment is most helpful. You do not need to take the pain away; your presence helps contain it.
  • Use the deceased's name and ask for and tell stories - hearing the name and remembering can be comforting to the survivor.
  • Don't worry about saying the wrong things; just concentrate on what is being shared with you. Think of yourself as someone who is walking with the survivor not in front or behind.
  • Give them permission to grieve. • Clichés such as “Everything has a reason” and “Time heals all wounds” are not helpful at this time.
  • Be patient - grief takes its own course and may go on for a long time. Often the support is most needed after the initial chaos of the trauma has diminished.
  • Be mindful of holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Offer to help find support groups or other resources such as books and pastoral care. The American Association of Suicidology has a Survivors of Suicide Kit complete with literature and a directory of suicide support groups.
  • Avoid statements like, “I know how you feel” - everyone goes through this in a different way.

Manager’s Role in Supporting Survivors of Suicide Loss

  • Managers need to approach the situation with compassion for the bereaved.
  • Timely and accurate information briefs can help dispel rumors
  • Public and private communication need to reflect a respectful tone of empathy and support - and permission for people to take care of themselves.
  • Managers need to listen to different types of needs from various employees.
    • Some workers who are more distal acquaintances might be able to return to work very quickly
    • Others may need some time to adjust to the loss.
    • Some might need to vent anger
  • Consider offering a structured debriefing session
  • Increase the presence of counseling staff and their collateral material
  • Generate a list of referrals to support groups, therapy and other resources.
  • Take the lead in helping surviving family members with practical matters.
  • Be sensitive to anniversaries and major dates that might trigger reactions from staff.

Leadership Makes a Difference - Follow the ACT Model

According to Bob VandePol, president of Crisis Care Network and consultant to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), “how leaders respond during the first hours after a disaster offers both tremendous opportunity and serious risk for the subsequent outcomes.” Effective leadership will both compassionately address the personal impact of the suicide while skillfully moving people along in the healing process. VandePol proposes the ACT Model, a structured process for leaders to help facilitate individual and organizational recovery:

1. Acknowledge the trauma

  • Understand the facts and avoid speculation.
  • Use real language (specific and jargon-free) that appropriately captures the experience.
  • Personally acknowledge the trauma, positioning leaders as equally affected by the tragedy.

2. Communicate compassion and competence

  • Seek consultation from a knowledgeable colleague, EAP consultant or Critical Incident Response expert to help develop your statements and provide coaching on subsequent steps.
  • Develop a full-scale crisis plan that includes use of critical incident response professionals and referral networks.

3. Transition

  • Communicate an expectation of recovery and resiliency, helping to paint a picture of “survivors” rather than “victims”.
  • Communicate flexible and reasonable accommodations as people progress back to normalcy. Assign concrete tasks with structure and focus. Remember that extended time away can actually inhibit recovery.
  • Lead visibly for several days and be especially accessible.
  • Encourage the use of support services