New Guide Helps Funeral Directors Support Survivors of Suicide Loss
By Riggin Waugh
In the immediate aftermath of suicide, funeral directors play a vital and powerful role with those affected by the profound and crippling effects of suicide loss.
A new booklet from SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS)—Supporting Survivors of Suicide Loss: A Guide for Funeral Directors—addresses how those in the funeral services industry can lessen the leveling blow that families are dealt when they lose a loved one to suicide.
Suicide may be a personal act, but its effects are far-reaching. In the United States, 91 people a day die by suicide. Each year, nearly 200,000 individuals become survivors of suicide loss. Suicide affects families, communities, and society as a whole.
For the past decade, suicide has been recognized as a major public health threat and has received significant attention at the Federal level. The National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, developed by the U.S. Surgeon General, describes suicide as a tragedy that can be prevented in many cases. Lives can be saved if the right people, equipped with the right knowledge, intervene at the right time.
The guide for funeral directors addresses the differences between death by suicide and death by other means. As after other deaths, those left in the wake of suicide feel a multitude of emotions such as denial, fear, anger, and abandonment. Suicide can heighten these feelings or bring on others such as anguish, guilt, betrayal, relief, and incompetence.
Other ills that can accompany suicide loss include exhaustion, migraines, post-traumatic stress disorder, memory problems, colitis, alcoholism, sleep problems, anxiety, crying spells, heart trouble, fear of being alone, ulcers, difficulty with relationships, clinical depression, and thoughts of suicide.
The guide offers carefully chosen language for funeral directors to use to minimize stigma when talking with those who have had a loss to suicide. How funeral directors interact with survivors of suicide loss can affect survivors’ stress levels immediately following the death and in the days and months to come.
Showing sensitivity in interactions with bereaved individuals—for example, choosing pallbearers with care, remaining flexible with regard to physical contact with the deceased, scheduling breaks for bereft individuals between visitations, showing compassion for erratic behavior, and inquiring about mental illness, if indicated—can lessen feelings of stigma or shame that survivors already may be experiencing.
Also included in the guide are frequently asked questions about suicide and its immediate aftermath, a discussion of compassion fatigue, and a list of resources.
To order print copies of Supporting Survivors of Suicide Loss: A Guide for Funeral Directors, call SAMHSA’s Health Information Network at 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727). Ask for publication number SMA09-4375. A PDF version of the guide will be available soon on the CMHS Web site.
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