By Catherine Greenleaf
THIS ARTICLE WAS PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED ON THE GRIEF TOOLBOX WEBSITE. YOU CAN ACCESS THIS HELPFUL SITE AT WWW.THEGRIEFTOOLBOX.COM
A person is driving to work in the morning and suddenly sees a horrible sight. Someone has died by suicide. Witnessing the self-inflicted violence and death of another human being can be extremely emotionally traumatizing.
It is important to understand it makes no difference whether you know the person or if he or she is a complete stranger. You can still be traumatized and you may need help to get through the grief you will experience.
Part of the reason for the confusion about getting help is that people who witness a public suicide (these people are referred to as “witness survivors”), have been marginalized for decades. They are often also referred to as “The Invisible Witness.”
Until recently, there has been no form of support or outreach for witness survivors. Society and its outdated attitudes of shame and secrecy toward suicide have certainly contributed to the lack of helping resources in the past. But, fortunately, that is changing.
The other contributing factor has been the negligible amount of research done regarding the witness to a public suicide. This appalling lack of scholarly work into the plight of the witness survivor means there is little or no trickle-down effect from researchers to psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors. Unfortunately, these helpers on the front lines delivering resources are being left in the dark when it comes to the particular needs of the witness survivor.
The other factor is a logistical one. Witness survivors often see a public suicide but do not stop. Instead they continue driving or walking, which means they miss the opportunity to interact with law enforcement, EMTS, paramedics, or other witnesses. Interaction with these individuals can potentially result in recognition of emotional trauma and lead to getting help.
The other challenge is a general lack of acknowledgement by the witness survivors themselves concerning the potential emotional effects of what they have seen. Perhaps people have become so accustomed to violence in the movies and on television, it doesn’t occur to them that witnessing a suicide could have serious potential effects like developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
That’s why outreach and education are so important. When a witness survivor reaches out for help, they can be screened for anxiety disorder, depression and PTSD and be given the treatment they need so they can heal.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Imagine you are at work when a fellow employee walks into the office. He sits down at his desk and puts his head in his hands. He seems agitated, unnerved and upset. You ask him, “Are you okay?” and he answers, “I don’t know. I just saw someone kill themselves."1. Do not marginalize his experience by downplaying the ordeal. He has witnessed a terrifying sight that can lead to anxiety disorder, chronic depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead validate his experience and make it clear it’s okay to have feelings of shock, confusion, sadness and even anger.
2. This is not a time for wisecracks or jokes. Often a person will make humorous remarks about a situation because they themselves are uncomfortable. If you feel uncomfortable about what a work acquaintance has witnessed, get help for yourself. Allow the witness survivor to embrace the gravity and seriousness of what he has just seen.
3. Don’t tell the person to “buck up and get over it.” Urging a person to repress emotional trauma can later result in anxiety disorder and chronic depression. It can also make the witness survivor feel abnormal because of the intensity of the feelings he is likely to have about the suicide. Let him know that witnessing a suicide would upset anyone.
4. Don’t walk away without offering help. Let him know there are resources available for witnesses to a public suicide. Tell him it doesn’t matter that the person was a complete stranger, and that talking about his experience with a trained professional can be very helpful.
5. Don’t forget about him. Keep checking in with him. Weeks or months may go by before he realizes the potential psychological impact of what he has seen. Your gentle reminders that he deserves to take care of himself may be just what he needs to make an appointment to sit down and talk with a counselor.
The most important thing you can do is to be willing to bear witness to the person’s suffering. Let them know, in a calm manner, that you see him in his grief and that you are not there to fix him or his situation. This is a way of communicating your trust in his own inner resilience to get through the loss. Be willing to listen, and stay open to different methods of grieving.