Filling the void in the wake of a suicide

John JordanPhoto courtesy of John Jordan
John Jordan
Photo courtesy of John Jordan

This year, 17 percent of high school students seriously considered suicide, with 14 percent of them drawing up specific plans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While those statistics haven’t changed greatly over the years, suicide continues to be the second leading cause of death for teenagers, ranking behind vehicular and other types of accidents.

With that in mind, the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville will begin offering a suicide support group for those 14 to 17 years of age. The seven weekly sessions will be for those who have lost a family member or friend to suicide.

JSSA has had a similar support group for adults for four years.

There have been “more than several” suicides in area high schools, said Ellen Lebedow, who leads the Suicide Grief Support Group for adults. “Unfortunately, this is an issue we are facing.”

According to the CDC, there were 41,000 suicides nationwide in 2013.

JSSA’s support group averages between six and 12 participants at its bimonthly meetings that are open to anyone, regardless of their religion.

While the numbers may not be increasing, more people affected by suicide are reaching out to JSSA for help, said Lebedow, a clinical social worker. People are slowly beginning to understand that “it’s OK, and for some very helpful, to talk about losing someone to suicide.” It is often easier to speak freely among other people who understand the pain of losing a loved one to suicide, she added.

People who aren’t directly affected by suicide sometimes don’t know what to say and may “think they shouldn’t talk about it,” Lebedow explained. “In fact, it’s the opposite. People want to hear. … It’s so very important to let them know their loved one is remembered.”

It used to be that only immediate relatives and close friends were studied for research involving those living with the grief of losing a loved one, said John Jordan, a clinical psychologist specializing in grief counseling, who led two programs last month, one for survivors and the other for clinicians. The talks were sponsored by JSSA and NAMI DC, the local branch of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and held at JSSA’s Fallsgrove office.

Now, Jordan said, “we are learning and beginning to widen our lens, if you will, that other people are impacted.”

Think of the ripple effect of a rock being thrown into the water, Lebedow said. Just as the ripples around the rock spread, so does the number of people affected by a single person’s suicide. This can include the neighbor who said “good morning” every day to that person or the student who sat next to that person in class.

A survivor, Jordan said, is anyone “grieving after the loss of a loved one to suicide. Friends, family, colleagues — anyone who has been impacted.”

The grieving process concerning suicide, while similar, is not the same as with other forms of death, Jordan said. “If someone important to us dies, we miss them. It doesn’t matter how they die.”

But in cases of suicide, there is what Jordan referred to as the “why” questions: “Why did they do it? Why didn’t they ask for help?” Survivors find themselves dealing with guilt, asking themselves, “What accountability do I have in this?”

When he met Nov. 19 with about 45 family members and friends of people who committed suicide, Jordan talked about the issues they may be facing and how to best move forward. He also talked to them about what normally happens over time.

“One of the biggest things for survivors is [how] to understand it,” Jordan said. Also, a survivor needs to deal with the suddenness of the death and the realization that the person is truly gone.

The next day, Jordan led a six-and-a-half hour training program attended by about 70 clinicians working in the Washington area.

Many of the attendees work with grief, “but typically have little or no training at all with suicide,” he said.

Jordan advised those counseling people affected by suicide to create a strong relationship between themselves and those clients: “I think the core of it is creating a close and supportive and safe relationship.”

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