Grief care a crucial support for the bereaved
Tye McClish used to spend a lot of time outside camping and hiking with his daughter, Lily, before she died by suicide when she was 13. He remembers her as a talented artist, who loved her horse.
"The hardest thing for me is there is not going to be any more pictures. There is not going to be any more memories,” McClish said.
The eighth-grader loved riding her horse, and she was a gifted artist who was always doodling.
“She had a huge smile and laughter. Even being depressed, she could light up a room with her laughter and smile,” her father said.
Lily had struggled with depression. She was bullied at school because she identified as a lesbian, McClish said.
However, the day she died, there was no indication that she planned to take her life, McClish said.
Shortly after Lily’s death, McClish started to attend counseling with Judy Austin, a grief specialist.
“I have never had this pain in my life before, and it’s not going anywhere. And for me, I’ve had to get comfortable with it in my space,” he said.
The regular counseling has allowed him to be more open with his emotions than he has ever been, he said.
For people who lose someone to suicide, grief counseling is important because they are far more likely to die by suicide themselves.
A study in the United Kingdom with 3,400 participants found that adults whose loved one died by suicide were 65 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those who lost friends or family members in other ways.
Youths exposed to the death of a classmate are also more likely to consider suicide and attempt it. About 14 percent of students exposed to suicide are likely to consider suicide themselves. While only 5 percent of those in the same age group reported considering suicide, a Canadian study found.
Grief can be isolating, and that is one way it can feed into a cycle of more suicides, Austin said.
The need for grief care is also a bit at odds with American culture, which tends to put the focus on getting back to normal and going back to work, she said. But sometimes, the bereaved don’t understand how big an impact a loss can have on them.
There is also a tendency to want to escape, cover up or fix difficult emotions across our culture, she said. But part of grieving requires acknowledging difficult feelings.
“We only gain resilience by knowing we can hold the depths of sorrow, despair, depression. ... It’s not permanent, we will always come out of it. But unless we have that lived experience and people around us have that lived experience, we don’t always know that,” she said.
Austin opened The Grief Center of the Southwest Colorado in 2007, and it became a formal nonprofit in 2015. The nonprofit provides grief counseling to anyone who has lost a loved one regardless of the manner of death or how much time has passed since the death occurred. Services are offered on a sliding fee scale.
Counselors from the center also visit schools, businesses and organizations when a death has occurred. This includes going to Durango School District 9-R schools to support staff and students after a death by suicide, Austin said
Initially, counselors comfort the bereaved, listening without judgment, and offer them a list of possible options for grief support they can seek later, such as support groups and therapy.
Tye McClish sought out grief therapy shortly after his 13-year-old daughter Lily died by suicide in 2017. Working with grief specialist Judy Austin has helped him to be more open about his emotions.
The Grief Center has had an exponential increase in the demand for its services over the last three years likely because of an increase in traumatic losses, such as suicides, substance-related deaths, homicides and car crashes, Austin said.
To react, the Grief Center plans to expand its services with a new satellite office that will open this fall in Bayfield Town Hall, she said.
LOSS Teams In many communities across the United States, volunteers who have first-hand experience losing a loved one to suicide are among the first to respond to a death by suicide, and they can immediately recommend locally available grief care to the bereaved.
This response model was started by Frank Campbell, the executive director emeritus of the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center. He founded the first Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors Team, or LOSS Team, in 1998.
Before founding the team, residents took an average of 4.5 years to seek care at his center. With the new team, the average time to seek care decreased to less than 60 days, he said.
The trained LOSS Team volunteer is one of the most valuable people to respond to a suicide because their presence can help bring hope to someone who has just discovered or witnessed a suicide, he said.
“(The bereaved) look up at the person with the LOSS Team and they lock eyes with that person and, I mean, it is just that dramatic. And they routinely say, ‘Oh my God. You know what I’m going through,’” Campbell said. “What happens in that moment I describe as the installation of hope.”
He was initially unable to start the program in Baton Rouge because the coroner was concerned about the potential contamination of the scene while a death was under investigation.
However, Campbell said he built a friendship with the deputy coroner who was eventually elected coroner and who was willing to work with the new team. His LOSS Team has never caused a problem at a scene, he said.
Reducing the amount of time it takes for a person to seek help can prevent additional mental health problems that people who experience such a loss can develop, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, Campbell said.
When La Plata County Sheriff’s deputies respond to a death by suicide, generally two members of the victim resources team responds, said Kathy Brush, victim resource coordinator.
The team will provide emotional first aid because the bereaved are not ready for counseling right after a death, she said. Most people are in shock and can’t retain much information.
“We are present with them. That is our main focus,” Brush wrote in an email to The Durango Herald.
In the days after the death, staff members with victim resources will call the family and recommend therapists, clergy or Heartbeat, a support group for those who have lost loved ones to suicide, Brush said.
Heartbeat The day Michelle and Tony Gelles’ only daughter, Savannah, died by suicide, one of the many people they talked to that day recommended Heartbeat.
The two started to attend the group a week later. The La Plata County chapter of the group was started in 2013 for people who have lost loved ones to suicide. It is now overseen by the The Grief Center.
“Everyone is experiencing the same thing, so we don’t feel alone,” Michelle said.
Savannah was spontaneous and spunky, and an adventurer who enjoyed boating, camping and riding horses.
“She was the rock in our little family of three, always wanting to keep us all positive,” she said.
Savannah started to struggle with the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, a condition that can magnify a person’s emotions, when she was 13 or 14.
The Gelles family immediately sought treatment and feel they did as much as they could for Savannah, Michelle said.
She describes her grief at the loss of her 22-year-old daughter as complicated.
“It’s a roller coaster of unpredictable emotions and reactions,” she said.
Ginger Domingos also started to attend Heartbeat meetings after her daughter, Rachel, died by suicide in 2015.
“It was really good to share how you’re feeling and confirm that you are not going crazy. I literally hurt so bad that I swear it cracked my heart,” she said.
Heartbeat was founded in 1980 by LaRita Archibald in Colorado Springs, and she has observed the difference the groups can make, although they are not a replacement for therapy.
“Many survivors tell me ... being in this group saved my life,” she said in an email.
In addition to attending the support group, Domingos found support through an online email group called Parents of Suicide. The international group allows her to read the stories of others who have experienced a similar loss and keeps her from feeling alone in her grief, she said.
“I think that’s been lifesaver,” she said.