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Suicide grieving process is tricky

Psychologist Everett Worthington had just written a book on forgiveness when his elderly mother was murdered in 1996.

After six years of studying the topic, Worthington knew how powerful forgiveness could be for getting rid of bitterness and anger. Still, he struggled.

But the Virginia Commonwealth University professor said he was able to forgive his mother’s killer in about a day.

Five years later, Worthington’s brother committed suicide. And the psychologist and professor found it was much harder to forgive himself for not recognizing the depth of his brother’s depression.

It took Worthington years to forgive himself.

That guilt is one reason that survivors of suicide struggle with a grief that differs from other losses, said Victoria Graham, director of ACTS Helpline, a crisis intervention program in Prince William County.

On Wednesday, Graham will speak about grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide at the start of the annual Grief 101 monthly workshop sponsored by Mary Washington Hospice—Hospice Support Care.

Worthington will speak about forgiveness and guilt during the November workshop.

This will be the fourth annual series of grief workshops. Bereavement counselor Gloria Lloyd started the popular seminars to help people learn more about grief.

“They are for people who are grieving and for people who want to support those who are grieving,” Lloyd said. “So many people say, ‘I don’t know what to say or I don’t know how to help.’”

And that is especially true when someone has lost a loved one to suicide, said Graham, who also runs a support group for people surviving a loss after suicide.

Because of the stigma of suicide and mental illness, many people don’t know what to say or do. So they stay away, which isolates grieving people.

It leads to “disenfranchised grief,” Graham said. And people grieving a loved one who committed suicide are more likely to contemplate killing themselves, she said.

But there are resources, including support groups and bereavement counseling.

Most importantly, people need to know that they’re not alone and that their grief processes are normal, Lloyd said.

“Suicide is one of the hardest deaths for survivors because they feel guilt, as if they should have know or should have done something,” Lloyd said. “Guilt is often part of grief but with suicide, it’s intensified.”

The grieving workshop will be a chance to see that other people are in the same situation, and that there are many people who want to help, she said.

“This won’t fix the grief,” Lloyd said. “But I do think they walk away thinking, ‘I’m normal, I’m not the only one.’ And people who care are there, so it tells them that people in the community care.”

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973


People often want to help when someone they know is grieving a loss after a suicide. But it can be hard to know what to do. The Harvard Medical School’s Health Blog offers these tips:

  • Stay close. Families often feel stigmatized and cut off after a suicide. Ignore your doubts and make contact. Survivors learn to forgive awkward behaviors or clumsy statements, as long as your support and compassion are evident.
  • Avoid hollow reassurance. It’s not comforting to hear well-meant assurances that “things will get better” or “at least he’s no longer suffering.” Instead, the bereaved may feel that you don’t want to acknowledge or hear them express their pain and grief.
  • Don’t ask for an explanation. Survivors often feel as though they’re being grilled: Was there a note? Did you suspect anything? The survivor may be searching for answers, but your role for the foreseeable future is simply to be supportive and listen to what they have to say about the person, the death and their feelings.
  • Remember his or her life. Suicide isn’t the most important thing about the person who died. Share memories and stories; use the person’s name. If suicide has come at the end of a long struggle with mental or physical illness, be aware that the family may want to recognize the ongoing illness as the true cause of death.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty. Survivors are not all alike. Even if you are a suicide survivor yourself, don’t assume that another person’s feelings and needs will be the same as yours. It’s fine to say you can’t imagine what this is like or how to help. Follow the survivor’s lead when broaching sensitive topics.
  • Help with the practical things. Offer to run errands, provide rides to appointments, or watch over children. Ask if you can help with chores such as watering the garden, walking the dog or putting away groceries.
  • Be there for the long haul. Even if a survivor isn’t bringing up the subject, you can ask how she or he is coping with the death and be ready to listen (or respect a wish not to talk about it). Be patient and willing to hear the same stories or concerns repeatedly. Acknowledging emotional days such as a birthday or anniversary of the death—by calling or sending a card, for example—demonstrates your support and ongoing appreciation of the loss.


WHAT: Grief 101, a monthly workshop for adults who have experienced the death of a loved one—and for the family, friends and professionals who wish to support them.

WHEN: The first Wednesday of each month, September through June, 1–2 p.m.

WHERE: The John F. Fick III Conference Center, 1301 Sam Perry Boulevard

DETAILS: To register, contact Kristen Emerson at kristen.emer or 540/741-3597.