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A commentary by Franklin Cook, co-lead of the Survivors of Suicide Loss Task Force and publisher of the Grief After Suicide blog, regarding how the emerging field of suicide grief support ought to concentrate both on what is unique about suicide bereavement and, paradoxically, on what suicide grief has in common with grief after any means of death (the paradox: suicide grief is different, and suicide grief is the same). See the related blog post at http://bit.ly/paradoxrequires. The essay outlines common features of grief that ought to be taken into account by those delivering services to the suicide bereaved. Here's a quote: "The outline above represents only a portion of the hard-earned insights over the past 20 years that have come from other fields directly related to suicide bereavement support. Insights such as these (as well as the evidence that supports them and their applications in practice) underpin the call to action in the new national guidelines ... which challenges suicide grief support practitioners to the following: 'It is essential to advance purposeful communication and collaboration among all disciplines working to support the bereaved — especially those focused on addressing the effects of every manner of sudden or traumatic death' (from 'Responding to Grief, Trauma, and Distress After a Suicide: U.S. National Guidelines')."
Paradox Requires Scrutiny of Help for Suicide Bereaved
"Paradox Requires Scrutiny of Help for Suicide Bereaved" is
based on Responding to Grief, Trauma, and Distress After a
Suicide: U.S. National Guidelines (2015), by the Survivors of
Suicide Loss Task Force (bit.ly/sosl-taskforce) of the National
Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. The original document
is available free for download at bit.ly/respondingsuicide.
Paradox Requires Scrutiny of Help for Suicide Bereaved
by Franklin Cook, Unified Community Solutions
A recent blog post on Grief After Suicide argues (convincingly, I hope) that
suicide bereavement is unique because suicide itself is a unique way to die.
Yet, at the same time, an abundance of research—not to mention the
universality of the human experience of grief—points to a paradox, namely,
that all bereavement over the death of a loved one shares a great deal in
common. In other words, grief after suicide is, simultaneously, both different
than and similar to bereavement following other means of death.
Understanding and accounting for this paradox is important because—as is
stated in recently released national guidelines on responding to suicide,
created by the Survivors of Suicide Loss Task Force of the National Action
Alliance for Suicide Prevention:*
Suicide grief support is an emerging field of practice poised to gain
strength from newer understandings of bereavement adaptation in
thanatology [the study of death and bereavement].
This emerging field would benefit tremendously from its practitioners look-
ing more closely at—and acting more collaboratively with—the field of grief
counseling (as well as other fields, such as traumatology, mental health
crisis response, and disaster response). Doing so would enrich and streng-
then suicide grief support through the application of evidence-based and
promising practices that are already proving to be effective with a variety of
bereaved people. Taking this multi-disciplinary approach would prevent
responses to suicide grief from evolving based on narrow or monolithic
ideas centered primarily around what is unique about suicide bereavement.
Consider, for instance, what Chris Hall, the newly elected president of the
Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), says in the intro-
duction to his excellent summary of the topic:
Long-held views about the grief experience have been discarded,
with research evidence failing to support popular notions which
construe grief as the navigation of a predictable emotional
trajectory, leading from distress to 'recovery' ... Recent research
evidence has also failed to support popular notions that grieving is
The source document for this report is Responding to Grief, Trauma, and Distress
After a Suicide: U.S. National Guidelines, by the Survivors of Suicide Loss Task Force
of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. The use of the Action Alliance
logo is intended to credit the SOSL TF as the author of the source document, but it
does not imply endorsement of this report by the Action Alliance.
May 18, 2015
necessarily associated with depression, anxiety and PTSD or that a
complex process of 'working through' or engagement with 'grief
work' is critical to recovery ..." (2014).
In addition to moving away from the "stage theory" of grief, away from
closely linking grief with pathology, and away from the idea that one must
interact with grief in a particular way, a number of other modern ideas about
grief surely apply to suicide bereavement:
! The goal of grieving is not a return to "normal." A goal of the medical
model of healing is to return an organism to homeostasis (physiolo-
gical stability), which equates with normal functioning. After a major
loss, bereaved people often say there is no "normal" to which one can
return, because that state is irretrievably damaged or lost. An
alternative goal that resonates with many people is to seek a new
normal, which refers to a fresh sense of stability and meaning in one's
life, even if it is quite unlike the "old normal."
! There is a great deal of individual variation and complexity in grief
processes. Worden transforms a dictum of one of his professors into
this observation: "'Each person's grief is like all other people's grief;
each person's grief is like some other person's grief; and each person's
grief is like no other person's grief'" (2008, p. 8) [emphasis in the
! There are differences in grieving styles that it is important to
understand and take into account. Martin and Doka elucidated two
grieving styles: intuitive, which is more emotional and focused on
reflection, and instrumental, which is more cognitive and oriented
toward action (1999). These two styles, initially closely linked to
gender (intuitive to female and instrumental to male), provided the
starting point for a more subtle view of grieving styles that are seen
as existing on a continuum and are rather independent of gender
(Doka & Martin, 2010).
! Bereaved people commonly benefit from an ongoing relationship with
the deceased. "The resolution of grief involves continuing bonds that
survivors maintain with the deceased and ... these continuing bonds
can be a healthy part of the survivor's ongoing life" (Silverman &
Klass, 1996, p. 22). The quote is from the introductory chapter of the
book that countered the long- and strongly held tenet that severing
bonds with the deceased was necessary to free bereaved people to
reinvest in new relations and "move on" with their lives (Klass,
Sliverman, & Nickman, 1996).
! Major (or traumatic loss) can damage a person's sense of identity,
prompting the need for restructuring of self-identity as a part of
recovery. Janoff-Bulman wrote that traumatic loss can damage a
person's assumptive world, especially three fundamental assumptions,
that the world is benevolent, the world is meaningful, and the self is
! Grief is bound to culture in the broadest sense. "There is no death that
is not experienced within cultural categories and no grief that is not
felt and expressed within cultural guidelines and expectations" (Klaas
& Yin Man Chow, p. 342).
! (It also can be helpful to view grief from the point of view of
categories or subcultures of the bereaved, e.g. suicide grief.)
! The journey through the experience of grief for many people is very
well supported by their resilience. Bonnano has identified three
patterns of grief, including resilience, and concludes, "for most of us,
grief is not overwhelming or unending. As frightening as the pain of
loss can be, most of us are resilient" (2009, p. 7) [emphasis in the
! Posttraumatic growth is a possible outcome of bereavement. The term
posttraumatic growth describes benefits that result from "people's
struggle with trauma ... [namely,] self-confidence, enhanced personal
relationships, and changed philosophy of life" (Tedeschi & Calhoun,
1995, p. 77).
! Grief is both individual and relational, and it is intertwined with the
dynamics of families. "Grief within the family ... consists of the
interplay of individual family members grieving in the social and
relational context of the family, with each family [member] affecting
and being affected by the others" (Gilbert, 1994).
The outline above represents only a portion of the hard-earned insights over
the past 20 years that have come from other fields directly related to suicide
bereavement support. Insights such as these (as well as the evidence that
supports them and their applications in practice) underpin the call to action
in the new national guidelines,* which challenges suicide grief support
practitioners to the following:
It is essential to advance purposeful communication and collabora-
tion among all disciplines working to support the bereaved—
especially those focused on addressing the effects of every manner
of sudden or traumatic death.
* Introductory material from Responding to Grief, Trauma, and Distress After
a Suicide: U.S. National Guidelines (Table of Contents, Executive Summary,
Acknowledgements, Preface) is available at bit.ly/excerptsosl, and the com-
plete document is available at bit.ly/respondingsuicide.
Bonnano, G.A. (2009). The other side of sadness: What the new science of
bereavement tells us about life after loss. New York: Basic Books.
Doka, K.J. & Martin, T.L. (2010). Grieving beyond gender: Understanding the
ways men and women mourn. New York: Routledge.
Gilbert, K.R. (1994). We've had the same loss, why don't we have the same
grief? Family meanings and family grief. [Paper presentation]. 1994
Annual Meeting of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.
Portland, OR. Retrieved from www.jffh.com/Grief/griefa6.htm.
Hall, C. (2014). Bereavement theory: Recent developments in our under-
standing of grief and bereavement. Bereavement Care, (33)1, pp. 7-12.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology
of trauma. New York: The Free Press.
Klass, D., Silverman, P.R., & Nickman, S.L. (Eds). (1996). Continuing bonds:
New understandings of grief. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.
Klaas, D., & Yin Man Chow, A. (2011). Culture and ethnicity in experiencing,
policing, and handling grief. In R.A. Neimeyer, D.L. Harris, H.R. Winokuer,
& G.F. Thornton (Eds.). Grief and bereavement in contemporary society:
Bridging research and practice (pp. 341-353). New York, Routledge.
Martin, T.L. & Doka, K.J. (1999). Men don't cry, women do: Transcending
gender stereotypes of grief. New York: Routledge.
Silverman, P.R., & Klass, D. (1996). Introduction: What's the problem? In D.
Klass, P.R. Silverman, & S.L. Nickman (Eds.). Continuing bonds: New
understandings of grief (pp. 3–27). New York: Routledge.
Tedeschi, R., & Calhoun, L.G. (1995). Trauma and transformation: Growing in
the aftermath of suffering. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Worden, J.W. (2008). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the
mental health practitioner (4th ed.). New York: Springer Publishing