Do I need therapy?
By Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D.
(Adapted from Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families Through Suicide Grief by Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., Chellehead Works, 2010.)
This isn’t a review of types of therapy available. That is not what this book is about. If you are interested in therapy, there are many books to read and people available with whom to discuss the possibilities. Instead, this is about sorting out if the family (and the individuals within it) should seek therapy. The information below is derived from a presentation I did with Jack Jordan in 2008 at the American Association of Suicidology Pre-Conference. Jack is a therapist and discussed what people should look for in finding a therapist. Jack uses this approach when he speaks about coping with suicide loss.
Going to therapy is an individual and family decision. Therapy can be a great experience, and there are people who absolutely love it and will say it was the best decision they ever made. Other people find it does not work for them. What is significant is that there is no reason not to try therapy. One has nothing to lose. However, sometimes a particular therapist that can cause the experience not to be positive. That is why one should think about the points below before selecting a therapist.
- Not all therapists have been trained to work in suicide grief. There is nothing wrong with shopping around or trying out therapists. This is one reason why people in therapy are sometimes referred to as “consumers”—you are buying the therapy so you really have a choice to pick the best therapist for you. The best way is to ask for referrals from other people for therapists who have worked with the suicide bereaved. Support groups for the bereaved by suicide are good for this because others in the group might have experience with a good local therapist (and can steer someone away from a bad therapist).
- Do not continue to see a therapist who makes you feel bad for who you are and what you have been through. Evan a therapist who has experience working in suicide grief may have personal suicide-related issues (attempter, family member who died by suicide) that remain unresolved. These therapists need to cope with their issues before they can help others cope with suicide.
- It is okay to ask therapists about their experience working with the suicide bereaved (or with people who have had traumatic losses). You need to know if they have experience helping the bereaved by suicide cope with some of the unique facets of suicide grief. Also, ask them about their experience of working with general grief and bereavement. It is good to work with a therapist who at least has experience with death and grief/bereavement if not suicide (and in a smaller community you may not have many choices of therapist).
In my experience as a workshop presenter, I often have therapists attend who want to know more about how to work with the suicide bereaved. They might have a current client or one in the past and they want to strengthen their skills. There are many therapists out there who truly want to help the suicide bereaved. Sometimes they just need the opportunity of good training to educate them. But understand that those who are working with you who might not have a lot of experience. They also might want to learn from you and use that to help people in the future (as well as helping you).
- Can the therapist handle the intense pain (as well as the other emotions of suicide grief) and also realize that he or she will not know exactly how to guide individual bereaved people along the grief journey? It is a difficult balance. No therapist will be able to help all bereaved in the same way. There is no one size fits all for suicide grief.
- The bereaved person should feel emotionally safe talking with the therapist. It is important to go with your intuition. If you do not feel that everything can be shared, it might be best to sever the relationship and look for another therapist. The bereaved person should not only feel secure but also have a sense that he or she will be supported in the healing journey he or she ultimately chooses.
- One more time! Because of the importance of selecting the right therapist, it is okay to shop around and ask the therapist questions about his or her background. It is okay to go to a few sessions and then move on to another therapist if it is not working out. Your grief journey is at stake here and you want to know that the most helpful, supportive person is walking with you along the road. That means you do not always want to choose the first person who comes along. And that is okay.
How do you know when you should be going to therapy? Take a look at how you are coping. Are you happy with the direction you are going? Are you engaging in self-destructive behaviors like alcohol/drug abuse? Are you feeling depressed? Are you feeling suicidal? Or do you simply feel like you need someone to help guide you on your path? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then seek out a therapist. That person can give you the help you need and possibly help you place puzzle pieces together and connect events related to the loss that you are not able to do yourself.