Chapter 3: When more help is needed

When a colleague dies by suicide

The grief experts says
Dr. Chris MacKinnon provides guidance when a colleague dies by suicide. (3:22)Video transcript

Psychologist Judith Stillion convincingly argues that suicide remains one of the most complicated and least understood of all human acts. Lynne Ann DeSpelder and Albert Lee Strickland discuss the many meanings suicide can have for both victims and survivors. These include:

  • A sign of weakness.

  • A way to die with dignity.

  • An act of revenge.

  • A way to end intolerable suffering.

  • A penalty for failure.

Why?

In the wake of a suicide, everyone impacted revisits the circumstances leading up to the act, conducting a form of psychological autopsy where they try to reconstruct a coherent narrative of why the suicide happened. It will be almost impossible to know the entire story of what motivated a person to take their own life. Individuals who suicide frequently appear as if nothing is the matter only moments before they die. Humans are exceptional in their capacity to mask their true feelings.

Anger and blame

Those left behind feel a deep sense of shock. In the absence of certainty about the cause, there can be anger. Colleagues may be blamed for not preventing the death or for contributing to it. People can be scapegoated and marginalized. There may be intense rage at the deceased for dying in such a manner. Grieving family and friends (referred to as suicide survivors) may be trapped by the “tyranny of hindsight,” perpetually revisiting what they could have done to prevent the death. Suicide is a reminder of the depths of powerlessness people can feel. In the end, if someone is determined to end their life, little can be done to stop it. The suicide of a colleague has the power to split a team apart.

Suicide can shatter the most fundamental assumptions of life. Diane Sands, Director of the Bereaved by Suicide Centre for Intense Grief, and her colleagues have looked at the challenges faced by suicide survivors as they try to make sense of that which makes no sense. Sands built on the pioneering efforts of Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, who, in her acclaimed book on trauma, Shattered Assumptions, identified three core assumptions that can be destroyed in the aftermath of tragedy:

  • The world is a safe place. 
  • It’s possible to make sense of all life events.

The traumatic suicide of a colleague forces paramedics to confront the reality that the world is not always safe; there’s no making sense of certain circumstances; and being good doesn’t guarantee a life free of adversity. It’s no small feat to reconstruct one’s world in the shadow of suicide.

The personal response 

Talking about the experience with a professional counsellor, spiritual leader or trusted friend may be essential in order to heal. One can never really prepare for the grief following a suicide and the impacts may not be evident for some time. Be mindful of how you are responding to this stress (e.g., increase in activities that “check you out of your life”) and seek out support. Grieving the suicide of anyone, including a colleague, is not a simple task and may take a significant amount of time and active engagement on your part through seeking formal and informal support to heal.

The team response

How does a team that works with death deal with the death of one of their own? There are multiple concurrent challenges, including:

  • Trying to make sense of what happened.
  • Discerning the impact on the team.
  •  Finding constructive ways to respond.

A one-time debriefing meeting will likely be insufficient:

  • With few exceptions, outside professional involvement and group facilitation by outside professionals will be necessary.

  • Individual and group counselling by outside professionals is strongly recommended.

The team members who provide psychosocial support will also be affected by the death and will need support. They’ll be especially vulnerable if the person who suicided was someone they’d been counselling.