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Contacting the Clinician

“I want to contact my loved one’s clinician but I’m not sure how or what to say.  What do I do?”

By Vanessa L. McGann, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City and a survivor of her sister's suicide

I am a therapist (as well as a survivor of my sister’s suicide) who works with family members bereaved by suicide and I often have this question asked of me. Though it may sound like a simple question, often it is not. It is filled with hopes, fears, and above all, more questions. 

Here are just a few: Did they know he was suicidal? Do they know he is dead? Did they judge me or feel that I am to blame? Do I judge them or feel that they missed something/screwed up? Did they love him?  Did they care?  Can they guess at or feel my pain? Will they answer my questions or disappoint me? Will they help me to understand or confuse and hurt me more? In sum, is it worth the risk of contacting them or shall I stay with my unanswered questions?

I know from speaking with survivors that contact with their loved one’s therapist can be exceedingly helpful. I also know that it can be disappointing, if not enraging. In addition, feelings about these meetings can shift over time. So, while it is never simple, it is almost always important, and well worth exploring. Some survivors contact their loved one’s therapist immediately, some after some time, and some choose never to do so, all for various and valid reasons. The following are some suggestions that might help you to think about a potential meeting.

First, know your motives. What do you want to get out of the meeting on both practical and emotional levels? What will it feel like if you don’t get those things? What will it feel like if you do? It might be helpful to write some questions down, whether or not you refer to them directly in a meeting, just to get your thoughts and feelings out.

Second, know the clinician’s fears and limitations. In my work, I have spoken with hundreds of clinicians who lose clients to suicide. I can say without exception both that they cared about your loved one and that their biggest fear is of being sued. Because of this, they may be careful, defensive and/or hesitant to talk to you. So, while anger on your part may be part of the reason for contacting your loved ones therapist, and while they may expect anger from you, anger alone will most likely serve to frighten them and make them less open.

Third, try to give yourself time and space to explore what you need to. I suggest that you call and ask if you might come in and see the clinician to talk about your loved one. Perhaps suggest it might help you to understand things about your loved one as well as help you with your grief. It might also be helpful to state that you know they may not be able to tell you everything due to the confidential nature of the relationship but that you still think a meeting would be helpful. When you make arrangements to see him/her, or even if it is just to be a phone call, make sure you know how much time you will have, so you do not feel rushed or cut off. Also prepare yourself for the feelings you may have being in the same physical space that your loved one had been, and meeting with a stranger that your loved one once knew.

Optimally, you will learn something helpful about your loved one that you didn’t know before; you may also learn something about his/her illness or something about your own grief process. Hopefully, you will have the support and confidence in knowing that someone else was also trying their best to understand and help your loved one.  However, no matter how skilled, human and wise the clinician, (or maybe because of it?), be prepared that as a survivor, you will probably still leave with some questions, with some feelings of anger or guilt,  and a sense of loss that to some degree will always linger. I hope these thoughts and observations help you with your grief journey.

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