Support is available for those left behind after suicide

As we learn more about suicide bereavement and the unique ways this type of grief and loss impacts individuals, families, and communities, we understand that effective suicide postvention support is in fact suicide prevention in action.

Postvention refers to the activities or interventions occurring after a death by suicide to support bereaved people to cope with stressors and manage their experience of grief and loss.

When my husband died in 2017, I was referred to a range of counsellors who fell short of what I needed and seemed to have a complete lack of understanding of how to support someone experiencing a loss to suicide.

The misconceptions and stigma around a suicide death were rife - the school counsellor suggested I not tell the boys their stepdad died by suicide because they couldn't handle the guilt.

I felt shut down right from the beginning and was left thinking there was little understanding and no support for what the boys and I were going through. I stopped going to counselling because I felt like no one could help me with what I was experiencing. I resorted to unhealthy coping strategies and pretended everything was fine.

Suicide grief is traumatic and different to other types of grief. It comes with extremely complicated emotions such as rejection, guilt, anger, and shame.

I had so many supportive family members and friends around me, but no one knew what to say or do. I felt so much anger behind my grief, but I didn't know it was ok to experience anger. I thought it was wrong to let those feelings surface.

When I connected to people with a lived experience of suicide bereavement I felt completely understood and heard which was something I hadn't felt since Kurt died.

They understood the critical need for connection and their individual experiences inspired me to find hope.

Through the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, I began using my suicide bereavement story to advocate for awareness of this traumatic grief and it became my passion to help others who have been bereaved by suicide within my local area.

There are services available to people who have experienced a loss to suicide. StandBy Support After Suicide is one service that people can access if they have experienced a loss to suicide.

The StandBy team includes support coordinators and lived experience workers who are able to walk alongside people as they navigate the complexity of life following a death by suicide. StandBy also supports workplaces, community groups and witnesses and can be reached on 1300 727 247.

In a similar way, Thirrili Indigenous Postvention Service provides emotional and practical support for families and communities of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people lost to suicide. Thirrili can be contacted on 1800 805 801.

But there is still more to be done. My experience has taught me that, across the board, we need to start by talking to people who have experienced suicide bereavement.

On top of the typical arrangements that need to be made following any death, families who have experienced suicide loss also need to navigate long, drawn-out coronial processes.

Sudden loss can also bring extra financial and legal challenges, and it's exhausting and painful to have to explain to banks, Centrelink, schools, and other agencies that your loved one died by suicide.

My hope is that lived experience is embedded across all levels of government so that supports, payments, and entitlements are forthcoming.

There is a real opportunity to prevent suicide here - we know that people who have experienced a loss to suicide may be more likely to experience their own crisis.

There is also work that we can all do to help reduce the stigma and silence that comes after a death to suicide.

The Illawarra Mercury has partnered with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative in the #care2qpr campaign as a way of raising awareness about suicide prevention and encouraging people to do a one-hour training that can help educate them.

It's OK if you don't know what to say to someone... just let them know you're there and ok to listen.

I'd like to remind people to be gentle, to look after themselves and acknowledge how terribly hard it is.

Remember that supports are available, and I encourage anyone who has experienced suicide loss to reach out and access that support. You don't have to walk this journey alone.

Thank you to the Illawarra Mercury for inviting Sandy Smith, Executive Member of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative to share her thoughts for this opinion piece.