Support after suicide

words: Tim Power

“Grief with the volume turned up” is how Sarah Bates describes the impact of suicide on the family and friends of someone who has taken their own life. Sarah is Executive Lead of the Support After Suicide Partnership (SASP), a network of more than 35 organisations across the UK that provides support for people bereaved and affected by suicide.

She said: “The SASP was set up in 2013 to address the gap in support for people whose lives are devastated by suicide, and our role is to research, advocate, consult and campaign to achieve the vision that everyone bereaved or affected by suicide is offered and receives timely and appropriate support.”

This support is crucial as people affected by this kind of death, be they family and friends, or a bystander witnessing a suicide, are profoundly affected by the experience.

Suicide bereavement can have devastating consequences: people bereaved by suicide are at a 65% higher risk of attempting to kill themselves, and around 9% go on to make a suicide attempt. Research also shows that 8% of people drop out of work or education, and people are more likely to have mental and physical health problems, experience family breakdown, use excessive alcohol and drugs to cope, take higher risks, and feel stigmatised and isolated.

Sarah explained: “Most people pass away through old age or a long illness, so their loved ones have time to come to terms with their death, but a suicide is sudden and a shock and may result in intense emotional trauma. People can feel a range of emotions, from anger and abandonment to guilt and shame. Suicide is also unusual because new revelations about the life and choices of their loved ones may come to light following the death that might be shocking and upsetting.”

The difficulty of the whole experience of a suicide is compounded by the criminal aspect of the subsequent investigation of the death. This will involve the police, a coroner or procurator fiscal and an inquest – a process that very few people have any experience of and that will be traumatic to go through.

It’s extraordinary to consider now, but before 1961 suicide was a crime, and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and imprisoned, while the families of those who succeeded could also potentially be prosecuted. The Suicide Act 1961 decriminalised suicide, but created a new offence of “assisting, aiding or abetting suicide”. However, although a suspected suicide is no longer a crime, it still requires a criminal investigation and a formal inquest into the death.

Sarah said: “This places families and friends in a unique position – they are left to deal with complicated grief, emotional trauma, a criminal proceeding, and the aftermath of a death of a loved one – all with very little or no support.

“That’s why we were set up, to work with different organisations involved in the whole process to ensure people get support. We bring together expertise and best practice from across a very wide field, including police and coroners, right through to how to support people who witness a suicide. That’s why funeral directors have a key role to play, as they are often the only professionals who will have an extended contact with families over this period.”

Sarah gave a webinar for SAIF members recently to explain the challenges of dealing with the funeral of a suicide, and how funeral directors can provide professional support to the family as well as to members of their team.

She said: “We have found that funeral directors are incredibly kind and compassionate people, but a death by suicide presents a much more complicated situation than normal. Funeral directors will require patience and good listening skills, as well as having the confidence to suggest sources of support if they feel family members are not coping well.

“One of the reasons I gave the webinar is to talk to funeral directors directly and say that it is alright for them to normalise the situation. They should treat it as if they were planning any other funeral, as the arrangement and ceremony is no different.

“A lot of people are uncomfortable as they do not know what to say, have no idea of what the family is going through and are generally worried that they might say something wrong that will make matters worse.

“Well, the truth is that the worst thing has already happened – and being someone they feel they can rely on is so important to making them feel comfortable.”

One of the questions that came up from funeral directors at the webinar was how to refer to the death with the family. Sarah said: “It is fine to ask a person how they want to refer to the death. It is often best not to shy away from the subject, but you have to be mindful of the family’s situation; for example, if they are religious they may want to see the death as an accident rather than a suicide.

“Families may have many questions about the funeral of someone who has died by suicide, such as can they be buried in a church setting, are they allowed to show the body etc., so it is important that you correct these perceptions and show them that you are going to treat it as a normal funeral arrangement and there is no stigma attached.”

Sarah said it can also really help a family to offer suitable sources of support, especially if the support is local or if a funeral director feels that a family member may not be coping well with the death.

She said: “The best thing a funeral director can do is to listen to the family and ask what they think would be supportive. Don’t be afraid to gently signpost them to appropriate organisations, making sure you are putting the offer into the families’ hands. It’s fine to ask if they have considered some support. One way to is just ask, ‘have you spoken to your GP to see if they have any support? Do you think this could be helpful?’

“One of the huge advantages of SAIF is that, because the businesses are family run, they tend to have been in their communities for many years so they know a lot about local support. They are in a perfect position to link people up with organisations, such as local bereavement support groups.”

She said another important part of the process is to ensure that the rest of the funeral team know that a colleague is arranging a funeral for a suicide, and to alert them to the fact that they may need support.

“Dealing with this type of funeral can be emotionally difficult, so it’s important that managers and colleagues check with the person to ensure they are coping alright.

“People need to know that it’s okay to be affected by these situations. Funeral directors could consider developing a procedure for support, such as having a senior member of staff check in with them regularly to make sure how they are doing, and not just during the funeral arrangement, but even weeks or months down the line.”

Sarah spoke to Paul Allcock of Norwich-based Allcock Family Funerals and a former SAIF National President about this situation, and he admitted that it can be difficult dealing with the funeral of a suicide.

He said: “It’s hard – we’re all human. To some extent you can get into a headspace that allows you to deal with it, and support the people in front of you, but it definitely leaves a mark on you.”

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