ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – Participants in a U.S. Army Sustainment Command-sponsored virtual candlelight vigil offered heart-wrenching stories and feelings of grief and guilt they experienced following the loss of a friend or family member to suicide.
In observance of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on Nov. 20, ASC held two virtual candlelight vigils on Nov. 17 in hope of supporting those in the Army family who have been affected by the suicide of a loved one or teammate.
The events were presented by Dr. Joy Summerlin, ASC G-1 (Human Resources) Health Wellness and Resiliency Program specialist and ASC Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Kevin Niehoff. Also taking part in both events was Robert Donohoo, program coordinator for the Rock Island Arsenal Employee Assistance Program.
An invocation was given by Niehoff, followed by the survivors sharing their personal stories, lighting of candles in remembrance, and concluding with a moment of silence.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is an opportunity for those left behind to share their stories to support others who are suffering a loss. It is also a time to bring suicide prevention to the forefront, and to urge those with suicidal thoughts to get the medical and mental health assistance they need.
Several participants offered emotional stories of experiencing grief and guilt following the loss of a friend or family member to suicide. Summerlin said it’s not unusual for friends or loved ones of a suicide victim to feel a wide range of emotions. She also said it can be a crushing burden for those left behind.
The holidays can be especially traumatic, said Donohoo, because “they are bombarded with television movies, commercials and community events that celebrate the joy of the holiday season, typically showing families gathering around a busy dining table eating a meal or sitting around the Christmas tree opening gifts.
“For those who have lost a loved one to suicide,” he said, “this focus on celebration and joy only reinforces that person is no longer present. And, for many, the holiday season is an annual reminder that their family is ‘incomplete’ after losing a loved one to suicide many years earlier.”
One of the common threads throughout the two sessions was people often don’t realize that a friend or loved one is harboring suicidal thoughts. A person contemplating suicide often seems “normal” to those around them, and intentionally hides signs of their struggle.
Summerlin, a veteran with 20 years of service in the Army, said that Soldiers are trained to avoid displaying patterns of behavior or movements, because those can be exploited by the enemy. This lack of a pattern in an individual’s behavior can also hide their struggle from family and friends.
“Everyone faces challenges in life,” said Summerlin. “Mental illness doesn’t discriminate by culture, race, gender or sexual orientation. It is ok to not be ok! You are not alone! Please seek professional help if it is needed.”
Another aspect that arose during the sessions was what is called “contagion”, and it’s one that is especially relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes the loss of a friend or loved one, by any cause, is so overwhelming that others contemplate suicide in order to “join” the one they lost, or they feel they cannot continue living without that person.
“Having an open discussion with professionals following a loss is part of the healing process, which may give closure to the survivors,” she said, adding, “no, you cannot plant suicidal thoughts in a non-suicidal person.”
Army Regulation 600-63 (Army Health Promotion) outlines suicide prevention and care for those who lose someone to suicide. There are three principal phases, or categories, of activities to mitigate the risk and impact of suicidal behaviors: prevention, intervention, and “postvention.”
The regulation states “Postvention is prevention for survivors. The goal of suicide postvention is to support those affected by a suicide or attempt, promote healthy recovery, reduce the possibility of suicide contagion, strengthen unit cohesion, and promote continued mission readiness.
“The loss of a family member, especially the loss of a child due to suicide, is perhaps the most difficult form of death for survivors to accept. On top of their grief over the death of a loved one, families of suicide victims often experience shame, humiliation, and embarrassment.
“Other common reactions are fear, denial, anger, and guilt, all of which combine to produce one of the most difficult crises a family may ever experience.”
AR 600-63 suggests the following postvention actions:
•Be respectful of the feelings of Soldiers, leaders, family, friends, co-workers.
•It is important to quickly address the situation to reduce the likelihood of suicide by contagion.
•Communicate in ways that do not vilify the person who died or focus on the means of death.
•Support reintegration of Soldiers after treatment, and encourage the person to continue treatment if needed.
•Follow up in the following months.
•Bring in chaplains, counselors and grief counselors as valuable resources to assist.
•The local commander/installation commander should have a postvention action plan to execute if there has been a suicide attempt or a death by suicide.
This specific section of the regulation details the actions following a suicide, but deep emotional wounds can come from the death of anyone close, and for any reason. It could be from sickness, accident or natural causes.
Summerlin said the COVID-19 pandemic has provided what some experts have said is the “perfect storm” for the contagion effect because of the numbers, and sudden nature, of many COVID deaths.
But while the loss of a loved one or friend can be traumatic, no matter the cause, suicide remains particularly shocking for the friends and family of the deceased. Fortunately, resources are available in the military and local community to provide loss survivors with tools and a support network to help manage their grief and hopefully guide them on a path toward healing.
There are numerous avenues for military members seeking help. Army Community Services has people trained in helping individuals and families facing this ordeal, and can get them in touch with other community-based organizations that offer support.
While support for those left behind is vital, suicide prevention is key. Some startling statistics:
•Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America. Tens of thousands of families must deal with the loss of a loved one each and every year.
•The Cost of War Project estimates over 30,000 American active duty and veterans involved in post-9/11 wars have died by suicide — a number four times greater than killed in combat.
•The World Health Organization says a life is lost through suicide every 40 seconds.
If you see someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, the most important thing to do is to act. Most mental health organizations focus on the ACE method:
•Ask: Ask them directly if they are thinking of killing themselves. Asking does not put the thought in their head.
•Care: Express concern and empathy. Acknowledge and validate how they are feeling. Stay present mentally and, if possible, physically with the person. If on the phone or social media, do not hang up and do not lose the connection.
•Escort: If physically present, take them to an emergency room or behavioral health provider. If not physically present, get their location and have someone else call emergency resources to go to the person while you stay connected with them.
•Make sure you follow up to see how they are doing.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is observed one day each year, but Summerlin said it’s important to understand that “mental health awareness is about self-awareness 365 days a year.”
There are many resources available if you need help for yourself or others. At ASC, you may contact Niehoff, or ASC Senior Religious Affairs Noncommissioned Officer, Sgt. 1st Class Lakeithia Thomas at 309-782-4603. Also, most military and local communities have chaplains, EAP, behavioral healthcare resources, and others who can offer support.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has resources available for those contemplating suicide, and for those who feel a family member or friend might be thinking of taking their own life. The foundation’s crisis hotline number is 800-273-8255.
ACS also has resources for many different kinds of situations that military families and individuals face, including suicide loss and prevention. At Rock Island Arsenal, the contact number is 309-782-0829. If you’re not sure of the number to call, the national ACS office can be reached at 800-531-8521, and from there you’ll be directed to the resources closest to you.