One of my tasks for publishing the Grief after Suicide blog is, daily, to look at 100 to 200 headlines related to suicide or suicide bereavement. A computer program collects them from the Internet and organizes them into lists for me, one list of headlines on the topic of suicide only, another list on grief only, and another list on suicide and grief. I read the top two or three paragraphs of a dozen or more of the stories I encounter every day, and I read a handful in their entirety. I've been doing this for months, and I did it for a couple of years back in 2008-2010, when I was publishing Suicide Prevention News & Comment.
I've been thinking about the cumulative effect on me of being exposed to all of those reports on suicide. Even if they're about survivors' growth and healing, there is heartbreak in every one of them; and in fact, many are provocatively sorrowful, and a few include graphic details of a death. Why is it that I do not feel traumatized by this? Am I detached? Numb? Have I compartmentalized the suffering caused by suicide? Have I been desensitized to it?
I don't think so. Here is what my experience has been and some observations about my reactions ...
I only read the body of a story from the list of headlines exclusively about suicide if I detect a clue that there might be a loss survivor being quoted or referred to in some meaningful way in the article. The sheer volume of these stories about fatalities has persuaded me that there is no lack of awareness in the U.S. about suicide, for every medium in every market attends to it repeatedly. There might be a lack of awareness about suicide prevention, but suicide is not a secret.
One thing that occasionally troubles me about these stories is that the high number of them day after day can momentarily create the false impression that nothing can be done to stop the dying. As troubling as a lapse into that perspective might be, it also provides me the impetus to consider the counterargument, that suicide is preventable, which is a proposition supported by an abundance of evidence. For me, that evidence is not nearly as valuable or reassuring as is my own experience with people who are having thoughts of suicide and my friendship with a multitude of colleagues who have abundant contact with suicidal people. All in all, I know of hundreds of desperate cases that have a happy ending.
Regarding the headlines exclusively about grief, I am occasionally taken aback by the preponderance of violent death (the majority of "newsworthy" deaths are violent). This is also true about TV, movies, and video games in our culture: our viewing experience is steeped in vicarious violence. That does worry me and, I am certain, negatively affects us all. But these real-life stories about grief, taken as a whole, have the effect on me of helping me identify with those beyond the circle of survivors of suicide loss: They stir sympathy in me for all victims of violence. Suicide survivors are not the only ones exposed to sudden and horrific losses, and even if this "common ground" is based on terrible experiences, there is something about not being alone in my vulnerability as a human being that both strengthens me and enlarges my empathy for others.
These articles about grief also reassure me because a portion of them cover research on grief and point to resources for the bereaved. A lot of my work and advocacy in the field is in reaction to a lack of resources and to problems with access to care, but it is also true that in many instances there is a great deal of assistance available to help people cope with their grief. I can see that our understanding of grief and of what bereaved people need -- which has come a long way in the last 20 years -- is increasingly being put to work in programs and services that are reaching people across the country. And there is at least one article every day about bereaved people helping each other, which is very heartening to me.
Because my purpose in reviewing all of these headlines is to find stories of interest to survivors of suicide loss, I read completely many of the articles in this category. By so doing, I hear the authentic voices of hundreds and hundreds of survivors telling their stories, and I meet their loved ones who have died, so I have a chance to know them -- at least in a small way -- as they were known by those who loved them. Although this takes place against a background of tragedy and pain and sorrow, it is truly inspiring to witness example after example of people going through the most horrible experiences imaginable yet grappling mightily with the reality that confronts them and trying to cope with the calamity that has befallen them. I am only privy to a snapshot of each of these people's lives, but I see in every one of them -- even in the midst of their suffering -- some quality or characteristic that embodies their strength and vibrance.
As I picture each of these bereaved people as the unique individuals that they are, I muster a present-time feeling of deep hopefulness for them, and I wish on their behalf that they will go on to survive and to thrive in the face of their loss. This arousal of my compassion, I believe, works against the cumulative weight of what I have described as the "background of tragedy and pain and sorrow" inherent in the events being recounted. I believe that if I envision a heightened sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with the survivors caught up in the trauma of "the calamity that has befallen them," then a communal -- and therefore protective -- force comes into play.
I certainly am not impervious to the negative effects of being exposed to all of this vicarious trauma -- and of course there is nothing magic about wishing for those who are afflicted to be healed, about assuming a compassionate posture toward those who suffer, or about affirming that we are all in this together -- but our frame of mind (and heart) has the power to shift our perspective toward the positive, to open the door to purposeful connections, and to initiate the process of building community among those who know the pain of traumatic loss.© 2013 Unified Community Solutions. All Rights Reserved.