The World Health Organisation (WHO) marks Saturday 10th October as World Mental Health Day 2020 and this year their aim is to kick-start a global investment in mental health. WHO points to the current COVID-19 pandemic for many of us facing new or escalated challenges to our mental wellbeing whilst many mental health services are disrupted to make way for caring for those infected with coronavirus (read more about it here: https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/27-08-2020-world-mental-health-day-an-opportunity-to-kick-start-a-massive-scale-up-in-investment-in-mental-health).
Our suicide bereavement services have clearly been impacted by the pandemic, and we have adjusted, like most services, by moving our one-to-one and group support online to Zoom or over the phone. We have also seen a change to our group work programme and have lots of new groups and workshop tailored to what people have told us they need right now.
Facing a traumatic grief like suicide bereavement is as unique as the person going through the experience, but it undoubtedly impacts all aspects of our health and wellbeing including mental health. For WMHD 2020, we will explore the different ways in which suicide bereavement affects our health, how our service accommodates for this and some suggestions for how to take care of yourself through your experience.
1. Suicide bereavement can be isolating and make you feel alone…
Suicide and death are two separately stigmatised experiences and topics of conversation. Dealing with suicidal feelings and thoughts, although extremely common, can be an isolating experience, with many people having a heavily misunderstood and misinformed opinion on suicide. On the other hand, an open conversation around death and bereavement is difficult to find outside a therapy room, especially in this country. People can adopt a stiff upper lip attitude to the whole affair, and there is a lot of talk about ‘moving on’ from our bereavement after the funeral has taken place. There is also an air of being able to replace loved ones, with many people who have lost their partner or child being told ‘you will find someone new’ or ‘you have other children’…
So then, when someone we love dies by suicide, we can be met with a silence so deafening we find ourselves feeling cut off from the world. Many people bereaved by suicide describe being avoided in the street or supermarkets by people they used to be close to, or find their phones fall silent just weeks after their loss.
That is why our service exists. We are peer support service, meaning all our staff and volunteers have their own personal experience of suicide bereavement. This means that your support comes from a place of shared understanding of what you may be going through. It means conversations with your practitioner or in a group are free from judgment and stigma that you may experience from those who haven’t got that shared experience. It opens you up to a community of people who have been in a similar place to you, are finding their own way through and are open to sharing that wisdom with you.
It also means, particularly in your one-to-ones, there are no bounds to what you can talk about – suicidal feelings, relief, anger – it’s all welcome and invited here. Your practitioner can support you with difficult relationships after your loss, problems with work or accessing other services. We understand the importance of all aspects your health during your loss and do what we can do help you feel understood and connected to people outside our service. Lifting that silence around suicide bereavement is of upmost important to our mental wellbeing and health. People who have used our service describe finally feel a sense of belonging after their loss. There is something so powerful about sharing something about your experience that you’ve sat and struggled with alone, perhaps for years… and be met with other people not just understanding but perhaps sharing their own version of that experience. We have a full timetable of peer support groups and workshops, all of which are running weekly over Zoom at the moment.
We understand joining a new and unfamiliar group can be daunting and anxiety-provoking, which is why we do what we can to ease that experience for you. You don’t have to speak or share in the group if you don’t want to, you can turn your camera off if you need a break and our there are always 2 facilitators there should you need a one-on-one chat. We also try to make our groups feel like an informal and relaxed place to be, we chat about our bereavement and difficult experiences, but we can also have a laugh and a joke too!
2. Grief after suicide affects our physical health too
Experiencing grief affects the whole of our being – mental, physical, emotional, social… It’s important to understand what’s happening inside of us so we can validate our experience, and communicate our needs to others (like our employers, loved ones, GP etc.) As suicide bereavement is regarded as a traumatic loss, we can go into something called ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is an evolutionary response, which means systems in our bodies are activated to help us physically deal with the stress of our experience. For you, this can feel like your heart racing or anxiety-like symptoms, memory loss, difficult thinking clearly, upset your appetite, sleep (the list goes on and it’s different for everyone). This is why it is so important to take care of yourself in whatever way you need to after your loss.
Our service has developed workshops to help you learn about this response in more depth and explore how your grief feels for you, in your body (because again, everyone is different) We currently have sessions about ‘Understanding Triggers’ after your loss which goes into details of what exactly might be going on in your brain and body whilst you’re grieving, and how this can be triggered day-to-day. We also have workshops dedicated to helping you with Self-Care, as well as Coping with Anniversaries and Significant Dates after your loss. The aim of these workshops is to help you learn about and explore these parts of your experience, and empower you to build your own ways of looking after yourself – because you really do deserve to!
So… if you needed permission to rest or take some time out today, this is it!
3. Self Care after suicide bereavement
Leeds Suicide Bereavement Service is big on self-care and you’ll find us asking you what you’re going to do to take care of yourself after most peer support groups or workshops. We know self-care can be a bit of buzzword but after experiencing a suicide bereavement, it is important to take your own self-care seriously. Immediately after a suicide bereavement it can be difficult to work out what we need and give it to yourself, and lots of people describe needing their loved ones to take the reins in a practical sense – making you that cup of tea, home-cooked meal, drawing you a bath or calling you first to talk/ make plans to meet up.
Taking care of ourselves may also feel loaded, as we can feel some pressure to know exactly what it is we need. It can help to think of your needs as ‘building blocks’ to support your wellbeing. Building up our self-care practice can take time, as well as trial and error. Our needs will change and fluctuate over time but we will become more apt at listening closely to ourselves and noticing what’s happening inside. You may also notice patterns in feeling certain emotions and what helps you – such as needing space, versus needing someone to talk to.
Some days it will be about just getting through as safely as we can (surviving); other days it will be about growing and building resilience. The more we work on understanding what we need, the closer we come to knowing ourselves and having a strong, sustainable self-care practice to lean on. The picture below shows a mindmap we created at the end of our Understanding Triggers workshop (excuse the array of hearts and stars, as mentioned in our last post, our group facilitators aren’t always serious…). We discussed all the things that help us in those moments or days where our grief feels heavy, overwhelming or our emotions are more intense.
Similarly, in our Art & Grief workshop we thought about ‘safe spaces’ – where we need to be when we feel overwhelmed, upset, anxious or just in need of somewhere calm and comforting to be. What would your safe space feel like? Who is there? What can you hear/ smell/ see? Can you create a space with these qualities in your home or workplace?
If you need support with anything mentioned in this blog, or help with self-care, please speak to your practitioner.