September is Suicide Prevention Month, a time when many organizations dedicated to promoting mental health awareness aim to educate about suicide, support survivors of suicide loss who have experienced losing a loved one to suicide and provide information about what people should do if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts themselves.
Throughout the year, organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI; the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention work to support people who have suicidal thoughts as well as suicide loss survivors. But Suicide Prevention Month is a key time for them to bring the issue to the forefront of the public consciousness.
In addition to those large-scale groups, local community efforts help people process their experiences with losing loved ones.
One such Baltimore-area organization is Jewish Community Services, which has been offering grief-related support groups for years but first founded Healing Conversations: A Group For Suicide Loss Survivors in December 2020.
Donna Kane, a grief clinician and the facilitator of Healing Conversations, had been attempting to form a support group for survivors of suicide loss for over 15 years before JCS started theirs. “It was very difficult because of the stigma [surrounding survivors of suicide loss],” Kane said. “But I finally approached Jacki [Ashkin, director of community connections at JCS,] and said ‘Why don’t we hold this over Zoom and make it anonymous, so anyone can join?’ Luckily, it worked, and over the past several years, we’ve had people from all over the world participating in Healing Conversations.”
The support group is open to people of all faiths. Due to its virtual nature, attendees participate from as far away as Canada and Thailand. In addition to opening the group’s doors to an international audience, the online nature of the meetings makes them more approachable for those who may be struggling to discuss their experiences.
“In any type of loss, and particularly in a loss by suicide, it is very important for people to tell their story, and they need to tell their story in a safe place and a supportive place,” Kane explained. “And people need to feel like they’re not being judged when they’re telling their story, which is why I feel walking through virtual doors is a bit easier for people.”
Helping people process losses due to suicide can be a much different undertaking from counseling those who have lost loved ones by other means. Survivors of suicide loss are often left with guilt and unanswered questions, and the experience may require a different approach than counseling people who are mourning a loss from old age or illness.
“Some group members may never find the answers they are seeking,” Ashkin said. “And that’s probably one of the hardest things that people who have experienced this kind of loss live with. As human beings, we want answers, but we don’t always have those answers.”
Like its name implies, Healing Conversations can serve as a place of renewal and healing for survivors of suicide loss. Members support each other both in and outside of meetings, and Kane noted that she has seen friendships form among members of the group who help each other through these difficult times.
Jewish thought on suicide has changed significantly in recent years. According to My Jewish Learning, suicide was often seen as counter to the value Judaism places on preserving life. However, as the conversation surrounding mental health has grown more prominent, Jewish scholars and rabbis have reexamined the discussion surrounding suicide loss and attempted to remove the stigma it once carried.
“Grief, loss and remembrance are built into the Jewish calendar,” Kane said. “ And so during those times, we stop and pause and we talk about how we are and what we are doing to remember our loved ones. It’s part of an ongoing process.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, call 988 to reach 24/7, free and confidential support and crisis resources.
Do’s and Don’ts for Discussing Suicide Loss
Do: Listen and be there for suicide loss survivors
Suicide loss can be an incredibly lonely experience. It is important to show support for people in your community who may be going through it. Just checking in on them can help.
Don’t: Ignore what happened
It may be tempting to never bring up the loss to avoid making a survivor upset, but talking about it can actually be helpful and give them an opportunity to process their emotions. It should not feel like others have forgotten the deceased, either.
“Talking can be a very helpful and healing way to approach someone you care about who’s had this kind of loss,” Kane said. “Even just acknowledging the person who passed can keep their memory alive.”
Do: Give people time to grieve
Even years after a suicide, people may not be fully recovered from what happened. There may not be any easy way for them to resolve their feelings about the event. Be patient and continue showing support, no matter how long it has been.
“You could feel like you’re on your healing journey, and suddenly something happens that makes you feel bad again,” Ashkin said. “The metaphor I always use is that it’s like climbing a mountain. Even if you fall, now you know the path back up even better.”
Don’t: Place blame
“You should never put the survivor of this loss in a position where they need to defend themself or the deceased,” Ashkin explained. “Like asking how [the deceased] could do this to them, or how they did not see the signs that it was going to happen. You have to think about this sensitively.”