ON THE SCENE: Postvention

Caring for those who’ve lost a loved one by suicide or trauma

Terri Morse, director of Essex County Mental Health and Community Services, and Pastor Lynette Colden of Schroon Lake (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

On average, a single suicide affects 135 people, the family, co-workers, and others directly and indirectly who knew the person who died. The impact of the traumatic death of a loved one has a similar effect, and both sometimes have far more significant impact than 135, sadly exemplified by the recent deaths of Dmitry Feld in Lake Placid and Robbi Mecus of Keene Valley.

Illustrating the need to curtail the number of suicides and the impact that suicide is having on society, approximately 7% of all Americans know of someone who has died by suicide in the past 12 months.

On Friday, May 17, representatives from four Adirondack counties — Clinton, Essex, Franklin and Hamilton — met at the Pine Room in the Joan Weill Student Center at Paul Smith’s College to begin a training process to enable them to support and provide care to those impacted by such losses. Further, their goal is to stand ready to assist colleagues in any of the four counties who request additional assistance. This region-wide approach is the first of its kind in New York state and has the potential to be a model for other counties.

The impact of a traumatic death, be it by suicide or in another way, is felt for a long time, and sometimes years hence, can trigger a suicide by another or deeply felt reawakened pain. Thus, those taking this training know they must be willing to provide assistance over time and that the ramifications are always nuanced in many ways. The value of a team approach, be it within a county or across counties, is that the responders can discuss options and benefit from the diverse skillsets and connections they collectively have.

Postvention is the name of this kind of service. The decision to seek such training was the outcome of three suicides within three days in Essex County this past November. Terri Morse, director of Essex County Mental Health and Community Services, and members of the county’s prevention team recognized they needed to be better help the people impacted, including the first responders.

The highly interactive session was led by Garra Lloyd-Lester, coordinator of community and coalition initiatives, Suicide Prevention Center of New York State, a part of the New York State Office of Mental Health in Albany. He opened the interactive discussion by asking five questions posed by the psychologist Dr. John J. Jordon, author of Grief After Suicide: Why do people take their life? Who is responsible when a suicide occurs? Can suicide be prevented? Should suicide be prevented? And, are there circumstances under which you might consider suicide?

There is no correct answer to any of these questions, but they open the door to the myriad of questions people ask when a loved one dies by suicide, such as, could I have done more, did I fail this person in some way, did society? As an example, many suicides include the person having easy access to a firearm. Or they may hear that such a person who died is no longer in pain and then consider suicide as a means of ending their pain.

Loved ones feel the shock, and often the horror of learning the death was by suicide. Sometimes, they feel anger, a sense of rejection and abandonment, and even shame, especially if they feel they have been in some way responsible. Their lives have been disrupted in a multitude of ways, enhanced by social media, and the statistics show that their chance of dying by suicide has increased. Many here in the Adirondacks, indeed in the entire northern forest, know of multiple people who died by suicide; for me, it’s two relatives, several close friends, and several acquaintances. I am by no means alone.

A multitude of factors can impact our reaction to a suicide or a traumatic death, ranging from our closeness to the person, our cultural and religious beliefs, our age, our coping mechanisms for reducing the impact of stress, loneliness, and loss, and increasing resilience. My coping methods include being out in nature, expressing emotions through the arts, participating in my faith community, and nurturing relationships.

The goal of those attending was to learn how to help suicide/traumatic death survivors, the people, families, and communities impacted. Families might not just be those related; it can be their co-workers, for example. We learned the value of teamwork for sharing insights and better understanding who needed support.

Critical is listening, helping a person or group of people feel heard. Not everyone can express their feelings verbally; writing poetry or music may be preferred, or creating a work of art and discussing what’s illustrated. Some who need the help most may be trained not to share their feelings, or are only comfortable with someone in their cadre, such as many first responders, those serving in the military, in health care or as a faith leader.

Critical also is validating people’s feelings, and providing them support, which can be through offering ways for them to vent their anger, cry, or learn they are not alone with their feelings. No less is to honor them, their feelings, and their loss. An outcome of this approach is helping build resiliency, helping them feel comfortable taking advantage of beneficial resources and tools. Critical is being sensitive to the myriad cultural sensitivities and the differing needs among a wide- range of people.

As part of the process, Lloyd-Lester had us meet in breakout sessions by county to discuss how we would address a complex situation based on a real-life experience. One outcome was our Essex County team deciding to meet regularly starting shortly to deepen our skillsets, gain additional information and training, and, at a future date, promote the postvention service to fire, police, and other first responder agencies, churches, schools, and public officials.

“This is much like terminal cancer caregiving,” said Andre d’Avidgnon of Jay. “It impacts many people, including family, friends, co-workers, and caregivers. I think that’s what drives us all to be here today.”

Essex County’s postvention team’s goals are to provide planned interventions to those affected by a suicide or traumatic loss to facilitate the grieving or adjustment process, stabilize the environment, reduce the risk of negative behaviors, and limit the risk of further suicides. In addition, we aim to strengthen relations with and be available to support our partner countries as we continually work to improve our skill sets.

“This is a collaborative effort between the four counties,” said Terri Morse. “We all felt that we needed to improve our postvention response teams and that we needed to create a collaborative dispatching opportunity in case there was a need for additional responders from outside their county.”

“I learned that the interconnectedness of our counties is one of the most beautiful parts of living in the North Country,” said Pastor Lynette Colden. “We rely on each other and have a very deep understanding in our souls that we need each other. That understanding is crucial to our survival and thriving; the more resources we can pool, the better.”

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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