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Postvention Promotes Healing in Aftermath of Death by Suicide

Image of Postvention Promotes Healing in Aftermath of Death by Suicide. In the aftermath of a death by suicide, those left behind often benefit greatly from help processing their grief over the loss of their loved one, friend, or colleague, according to the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office.
[Editor’s note: This article deals with suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the 988 National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline and press “1, or text 838255, or chat for the dedicated Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line. For Spanish, press “2”.]

In the aftermath of a death by suicide, those left behind often benefit greatly from help processing their grief over the loss of their loved one, friend, or colleague, according to the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office.

Survivors benefit from compassion, understanding, and an awareness of the resources available to come to terms with their loss, DSPO said.

“Survivors benefit from an active postvention approach, where support and resources (for example, grief counseling, support groups, and peer mentoring) are offered directly to survivors as soon as possible following a death, within hours if appropriate,” a DSPO postvention toolkit advises. Active postvention can help proactively address and stabilize any suicide-specific issues among survivors.

In the days following a death by suicide, survivor feedback found that this active postvention approach works, and it also makes them seek out more recovery resources and have better long-term outcomes, according to DSPO.

Military leaders who model how to cope with their emotions after such a death are essential to the recovery of those under their command and to themselves, DSPO said.

“They need to seek help following a suicide in their command because they may believe, ‘I’m the leader, I should be able to handle this and go on,’” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chaplain Ben Ellington, deputy chief of religious affairs with the Defense Health Agency at Joint Base San Antonio, Fort Sam Houston.

“The biggest hurdle a lot of times is just to get them to understand they need help to begin with, and that it is okay for a leader to say they need help,” according to Ellington.

“I tell leaders, ‘If you truly want to be a great leader, seek help, and let your organization know you're seeking help because that's your model. You’re demonstrating you're vulnerable and you're grieving as well,’” Ellington advised.

Trying to cope only on one’s own isn’t recommended for anyone, including leaders, according to Ellington. “Grief doesn’t respect rank or position. We need to dispel that rumor in our higher echelons in the military.”

Suicide’s Impact and the Need for Postvention

One death by suicide can have an impact on an entire family, unit, or community, up to hundreds or even thousands of people depending on where they are stationed. “Bereavement and emotional or psychological effects are normal responses when someone you know loses their life to suicide,” Ellington said.

Survivor Guilt Can be Erosive, Support Groups Can Help

Successful postvention can ease “survivor's guilt,” according to Ellington. He said much of that guilt results from a lack of control survivors feel.

“Survivors ask themselves, ‘What could I have done differently?’ That’s the human rationalization of thinking that we have control over our own lives,” he said. “When that control is taken from us in such a dramatic fashion, we look for ways to rationalize it and take control back.”

Guilt shows up in different ways. Ellington said one of the most common ways military chaplains see it is survivors saying, ‘If I had just done something different, if I had been different,’” the situation would be different. “You'll see this guilt with friends sometimes as well,” Ellington said. “Those can be co-worker friends, those can be work acquaintances, or those can be supervisors.”

Support groups can help people learn to cope with the unique kind of grief they experience in the wake of a death by suicide, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Peter Armanas, chair of the DHA behavioral health clinical community at A.T. Augusta Military Medical Center in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

“Support groups can help people to connect and feel comfortable discussing an uncomfortable topic. The corrective emotional experience in the group and the people who’ve grown from tragedy are effective coping mechanisms,” he explained.

Resources

The military provides many resources for survivors to help heal from a suicide death such as non-medical counseling by chaplains, using family readiness units on base, or working with behavioral health specialists.

For anyone experiencing a mental health crisis, needing immediate assistance, or simply needing to talk to someone, confidential help is available 24/7.

The Military & Veteran Crisis Line, text-messaging service, and online chat provide free support for all service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and all veterans, even if they are not registered with the Department of Veteran's Affairs or enrolled in VA health care.

If you are stationed or living overseas and need help, a veteran or other military member can contact the Veterans Crisis Line via chat online from anywhere with an internet connection and get a phone call back at no charge.

If you want to call the line directly from overseas, there are toll-free numbers available both commercial and through DSN. For the most current listing of the numbers from overseas, visit the Veterans Crisis Line Calling from Overseas page.

Military OneSource is a 24/7 gateway to trusted information for service members and families that provides resources and confidential help. Call 800-342-9667. It is a DOD-funded resource that offers free, confidential one-on-one non-medical counseling for service members, immediate family, and survivors.

The Psychological Health Resource Center is available 24/7 for service members, veterans, and family members with questions about psychological health topics. Trained mental health consultants can help you access mental health care and community support resources in your local area. Call 1-866-966-1020, start a live chat, or visit: www.health.mil/PHRC.

The inTransition program has 20 FAQs that are a helpful introduction to the program. Call 800-424-7877, or at 800-748-81111 in Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, and South Korea only. You can also email the program directly at:dha.ncr.j-9.mbx.inTransition@health.mil.

Military Health System, DOD, and VA have many other mental health resources available to any service member, families, or veteran beneficiaries who are struggling with mental health challenges. Read Mental Health is Health Care for a complete list of resources for immediate assistance or to make appointments.

To set up a mental health appointment through TRICARE, visit: www.tricare.mil/MentalHealth.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS, is a nonprofit organization that supports anyone affected by a military member’s death to include specialized support services following a death by suicide.

DSPO resources include the Leaders Suicide Prevention Safe Messaging Guide. DSPO’s postvention toolkit includes information about how various providers—casualty assistance officers to military investigators—can process the death, and details:

  • Suicide and its impact
  • Overview of the days after a suicide
  • Unit commanders and leaders’ action steps
  • Chaplains’ roles

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Last Updated: November 17, 2023
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