Research from Australia
By Myfanwy Maple, Ph.D., Dorothy Ratnarajah, MCoun (Hons), and Warren Bartik, MPsych (Clin), University of New England, Armidale, Australia
Many people ask us why we research in the area of suicide bereavement. These people can be divided into two distinct groups. The first are those who have not been affected by a suicide death, who don’t understand why we would want to spend our time talking about such a trauma with people, concerned that we might be opening up deep scars to ask people about their experience of suicide. The other group asks to continue to seek insight into suicide bereavement, who are appreciative of the need to better understand both how people come to suicidal ideation, behaviours and death, and how people experience their loved one's death. These are people like you, those who have experienced the loss of a loved one. Below, we briefly summarise the Australian research that we have been involved in to help extend a broader understanding of suicide bereavement. We wish first to acknowledge the people who have been involved in this research, and who have shared their own experience so bravely. Under each of the main findings presented below, there is a reference to additional information that has been published in academic journals, if you wish to read further.
To start with– why do we need to understand how people experience suicide death? Isn’t it better to spend our time trying to prevent suicide, or intervene with a suicidal person? Well, yes and no. Primary attention for funding bodies does need to focus on reducing the suicide rates, and risk among particular groups (which are different in each country). However, with over one million people dying by suicide globally each year it is also vital that we better understand how best to understand and support those left behind. In our research, we have found the following key information that is broadly experienced by those involved in our studies:
Experiencing the suicide death of a loved one, or someone to whom you are connected, is always a shattering and life-changing event. For every death by suicide, we know that many, many people are left behind to grieve.
In some families, often where significant mental illness has been experienced by the deceased, the suicide death is not wholly unanticipated. Yet, in other families, there may be no clue, no prior attempt, no prior warning that the person was planning to die. In other families, after the person has died, surviving members are able to piece back together the clues that were unseen, that help to provide insight into the choices the person made to end his or her life. This preparedness continuum is important for health and human service workers (social workers, grief counselors, etc.) to understand to better understand the experience of the family seeking services.
The ways in which people, especially first-degree relatives, maintain their connection with their deceased loved one even though they are no longer physically present is often vitally important. Yet, we also know that for many these rituals and ceremonies are often looked upon negatively by those around them.
For many Western societies, talking about death and grief is difficult and stigmatised. There is a general level of discomfort in asking people about their emotional state, and we tend to try and avoid such conversations. Many of the participants in our studies have talked about how difficult this is, how they are unable to talk about their husband/wife, mother/father, son/daughter, brother/sister, friend or other person lost to suicide. Yet, this person remains important in their life. Most people celebrate the life of their loved one in some way– through memorials, rituals on special days, special places where they feel most close to the person, listening to particular music, or watching movies. All these, and many other activities, have been reported time and time again to be vitally important in remaining connected to their loved one spiritually.
Each family member who grieves the loss of a family member through a suicide death has experienced their relationship with their deceased family member in an individual way which is dependent on the roles, responsibilities and services shared between the lost family member and the grieving relative. Many of these roles are not able to be fulfilled by any other family member or friend. It is in remembering and valuing all the lived experiences that are treasured in the memory of the bereaved family member that bonds with the deceased are maintained. When children lose a parent through suicide, as the child grows and matures, these bonds are maintained by thinking of their deceased parent at the special land mark events in their lives, such as graduation, marriage and especially in the birth of a new generation of children when they gaze into the face of their child in remembrance of the deceased grandparent. The family stories that are passed on to the new family members celebrate all that was special in the life of the one who is no longer present. In this way the suicide deceased is still honoured within the family memories and when the whole of their life is spoken of in an open way, the stigma and embarrassment of silence that may surround their death is broken.
Wives and husbands who grieve the death of their partner are able to recognise that part of their spouse that lives on the faces and mannerisms of their children and grandchildren. Similarly suicide bereaved siblings speak of their feelings of connection to the children of their deceased sibling. As through this connection the bereaved sibling is able to remember and relive their own shared developmental years with the sibling who is no longer present. The memories of parents who grieve the suicide of a child are carried in the centre of their being, and are recalled with both joy and the deepest of pain, especially on birthdays and special occasions such as mothers’ day and father’s day. Such special days and anniversaries may be spent in feelings of longing and loss, but there can also be the experience of the closest of connections as a loved child is forever carried in the heart of a mother and father.
Recent research we have been involved in has found that young people, particularly close friends, feel their loss in quite unique ways. They share the grief and guilt that is common amongst people bereaved by suicide but also feel that because their relationship was one of friendship, they somehow do not deserve to feel as upset or distressed as others, such as family. This sense of "deservedness" then limits their seeking of help or support for their grief. Young people are also then more likely to manage grief over their loss through the use of alcohol and other drugs. This of course involves greater risk for a range of health issues plus poor decision making, reduced coping skills and potentially more impulsive behaviour that can be associated with self-harm and suicide.
Social networking is also an important component of how young people experience suicide death. For many young people their first contact or awareness of a friend’s suicide death occurs through phone text or social networking sites and applications such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Subsequently these same applications become the ways that young people engage to support each other, keep in contact, but also to remember the person who has died by creating memorial sites and posting photos, images, writings and similar material. By its very nature, social networking connects people in a virtual world but can be physically isolating. The danger can be a perception that someone bereaved is doing okay because they are ‘linked in’ but the technology might actually be masking how they really feel. This makes it important to better recognize and understand patterns of bereavement to follow up with appropriate services.
While we have explored a lot of ground, there is a lot more work to do. The road in front of researchers now, to ensure that bereaved by suicide services are adequately funded, is to seek information that allows us to estimate the number of people affected by each suicide death, and what this affect is. Understanding this will ensure that we can all commence advocating for the funding required to better support those bereaved through suicide, to reduce the poor health outcomes associated with suicide bereavement, and ultimately to reduce the risk of suicide and suicidal behaviours among those bereaved by suicide.
Further information can be obtained by emailing Myfanwy Maple at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maple, M., Plummer, D., Edwards, H., & Minichiello, V. (2007). The effects of preparedness for suicide following the death of a young adult child. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 37(2), 127-134.
Maple, M., Edwards, H., Plummer, D., & Minichiello, V. (2010). Silenced voices: Hearing the stories of parents bereaved through the suicide death of a young adult child. Health and Social Care in the Community, 18(3), 241-248.
Ratnarajah, D., & Schofield, M. (2008). Survivors' narratives of the impact of parental suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 38(5), 618-630.
Maple, M. (2005). Parental bereavement and youth suicide: An assessment of the literature. Australian Social Work, 58(2), 179-187.