Living in the aftermath of suicide

Perseverance and the the ability to unload feelings in a non-judgmental environment key to the healing of close friends and family

Matt Dunae is living with the spectre of losing his brother to suicide.

It’s not hard to compare suicide to a bomb.

Like a bomb, suicide happens with abrupt violence, obliterating the centre and leaving a gaping hole.

Like a bomb it creates a jagged pile of rubble that survivors are forced to pick through and repair in its wake.

And like a bomb it can spawn clefts and fissures that may not be immediately apparent to the naked eye and take a lifetime to patch.

Suicide happens about 100 times a year on Vancouver Island and the community places a great deal of emphasis on stopping these bombs from exploding.

But what about those people in the blast radius, those who are left cleaning up the aftermath and picking at the shards? How do they recover?

Matt Dunae lost his dad when he was a teenager.

His brother took his own life with a rifle blast in 2007, a day after telling Matt over lunch that he had bought a gun. Within two years of that devastating event, Dunae lost two of his best friends.

In the immediate aftermath of this hellish time, Dunae drowned his pain with alcohol and lashed out at those around him. He ping-ponged between anger, sadness and guilt. And yes, taking his own life was something that crossed his mind.

It has not been an easy journey. But Dunae is still here.

Heather Owen is the community relations co-ordinator for the Vancouver Island Crisis Line and the former facilitator of its suicide bereavement support group. It’s a field she gravitated to after dealing with a suicide in her own life.

She said healing is about time, patience and and an often lengthy quest for understanding.

“It takes a while for people to even reach out. It takes a long time to get to normalcy,” she said. “With suicide, it’s sudden. It’s always sudden and it’s violent. It’s not like an illness when you have a chance to prepare yourself.

“The ripple effect is so large, often times the people around the family don’t get help. Maybe it’s a best friend, an ex-girlfriend – all of those people that may have had an emotional connection. I’m sure it took me 18 years to get over that guilt.”

And there is guilt for most people who have lost a loved one to suicide. And often anger, or shame, or other – sometimes surprising – emotions.

People wonder what they could have done differently, or what signs they missed. They point fingers and place blame on others for the things those people did or didn’t do. They feel embarrassed or ashamed that they are being judged by the community for the actions of their loved ones. Sometimes they even feel a sense of relief that the pain preceding the suicide is over.

“Obviously anger is one of the first emotions, and definitely guilt,” Dunae said. “[Losing] my bother was devastating. I still have trouble talking about it even though I talk about it all the time. I coped with alcohol for a while. I lashed out. I was just not caring.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association says people need to acknowledge their feelings in order to move forward.

“Not moving forward is dangerous; it can cause mental and physical illness and can tear families and friendships apart. It can stop people from coming to terms with the suicide. You must face your feelings before you can work them out,” reads a statement on the CMHA Toronto website.

Don’t expect your friends and family to react the same way you are, or the way you think they should.

“It’s complex. Everyone copes in a different way,” Dunae said. “There is nothing you can do or say.”

And then there is that omnipresent question: why?

In literature it supplies to those who have lost someone to suicide, the Victoria Hospice Society writes that many people will replay the same questions again and again to the exclusion of anything else.

“You may have an insatiable need to examine every possible reason why your loved one chose suicide,” the literature states. “You are trying to answer unanswerable questions, trying to understand how [they] could have chosen this traumatic final way to solve [their] problems.”

Owen said people can fall into the pattern on fixating on one thing – even when the big picture is usually far more complicated – because it helps them make sense of a situation they can’t understand.

Suicide is never the result of one thing.

“It’s actually the combination of all these things that happened,” she said. “Bad things happen all the time. Relationships end all the time. People move on.”

The complete answer to your ‘why’ may never come, but in time you may discover an answer that allows you to move on.

“You just learn to live with it. We tell people to keep asking those questions until you don’t need to ask them anymore,” Owen said.

“Do what you need to do to get through that day. Find a moment of peace and try to build on it. If rituals are helpful, keep doing them. If it’s painful, then let those things go.”

Dunae credits his friends – and particularly his now-wife – for sticking with him through the darkest times no matter how hard he tried to alienate them.

“She just wouldn’t let go. I tried to push her away,” he said. “If I didn’t have my friends, I wouldn’t be here. Surround yourself with as much support as possible.”

He also slowly found his ‘thing.’

A hiphop musician known as SirReal, he poured himself into his art. Others may use therapy sessions with a counsellor, or exercise, or writing to help process their pain.

Dunae also got involved with the Vancouver Island Crisis Society. He initially stumbled into an event it hosted in downtown Nanaimo. Later he started volunteering and he now works for the VICS as a community education trainer, reaching out to schools and the community to bring awareness about suicide.

He said under school programs spearheaded by Lyndsay Wells, the society’s increased efforts have led to calls, texts and chats from youth growing by 800 per cent.

“Helping others is a great way to help yourself,” Dunae said. “I know for a fact we are saving people’s lives.”

Now 34, nine years after losing his brother, he says the best things those attempting to support suicide survivors can do is to learn to listen with empathy.

“There is nothing you can do to fix them. You can let them know you can relate and help them walk the path. The best things you can do is say ‘I can’t imagine what you are going through’ and ‘I am really glad that you shared that with me.’”

Years of counselling have taught Owen that a friend’s role is neither to judge nor to fix; it is simply to be there and to listen.

“People say ‘I don’t know what to say.’ Don’t say anything. They need to cry. They need to let go. They need the memories,” she said. “It wasn’t about what I said. It was about what I allowed them to say.”

Counselling may be helpful, but the key is simply being there when people need to be heard.

“I would say support is always good, but we should never force someone to counselling. Let it happen when people are ready,” Owen said.“It’s something we need to talk about. It is not unusual for people to feel overwhelmed.”

Dunae says it is hard for him to give advice to survivors since so many people heal in different ways. But there are two things he sees as being common in every recovery: share your burdens and keep moving forward.

“I don’t think that with a suicide you fully ever come to terms because they didn’t do it on your terms,” he said.

“Don’t give up on yourself and remember that the one who is gone is always with you. Unpack. That’s what it comes down to. It’s not easy. But it can get easier.”

If you need support, call the Vancouver Island Crisis line toll-free at 1-888-494-3888. More information is available at vicrisis.ca.

 

As a Friend, What Should I Do?

• Try to understand and be patient.

• Do not ignore or overwhelm.

• Never blame anyone

• Do not try to accelerate the process of bereavement.

• Be available to listen or to help out with the chores.

• Encourage counselling, or a support group.

• Acknowledge your friend’s feelings.

— Canadian Mental Health Society

 

Suicide rate by community

1 Port McNeill-Hardy 235

2 Campbell River 167

3 Zeballos-Tahsis-Gold River 153

4 Cowichan 148

5 Ladysmith-Chemainus 139

6 Comox Valley 127

7 Victoria-Esquimalt 126

8 Alberni-Tofino-Ucluelet 125

9 Nanaimo 106

10 Sooke and Western Communities 103

11 Saanich Peninsula 84

12 Parksville-Qualicum 79

13 Lake Cowichan 58

— Island Health, score expressed as a percentage of the expected rate

 

Suicide rate by age

10-19: 23.8

20-29: 68.9

30-39: 83.8

40-49: 108.7

50-59: 103

60-69: 53.9

70-79: 34.9

80+: 24.3

Men commit suicide at about three times the rate of women.

— B.C. Coroner’s service, numbers indicate the average number of suicides per 100,000 people across the province over a 10-year period ending in 2011.

 

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