Grief, Suicide, and the Coronavirus: Our Silent Pandemic and What We Can Do About It
In this guest blog I am sharing the wisdom of Grief Recovery Specialist, Ashley Mielke, from The Grief Recovery Institute. Ashley certified me in The Grief Recovery Method program. She is one of the most grounded and heart centered practitioners I know. I hope you find this blog helpful.
Grieving a death by suicide is a painful reality that many of us will experience in our lifetime. Not only is suicide one of the leading causes of death in the world, it is the second leading cause of death for men aged 30 to 44 in Canada.
Since the coronavirus struck our country, resulting in significant economic downturn and an increase in social isolation and stress, we are expecting the number of deaths by suicide to increase dramatically.
According to a recent study out of the University of Toronto, we can project an increase of approximately 2,114 deaths by suicide above the Canadian average by the end of 2021. For every percentage point the unemployment rate rises among people below the age of 65, the rate of deaths by suicide also rises by a percentage point.
As a country, we are emotionally unprepared to deal with the impact of the coronavirus on all aspects of our lives. We have been taught how to acquire things, not what to do when we lose them. We struggle to manage and process the mass of emotion that accompanies significant loss, including the effects of living through a global pandemic.
Despite the fact that grief and loss will impact every single human being, including those living and dying through the pandemic, it is the one experience we feel incredibly ill-equipped to deal with.
The Grief Recovery Institute defines grief as the conflicting feelings caused by the end or change in a familiar pattern of behaviour. Not only are we experiencing tremendous economic loss, we are grieving the loss of security, comfort, and predictability of everyday life. From how we conduct business, to how we greet a friend, we have been robbed of absolutely everything that was once familiar, normal and safe.
As a Registered Psychologist and Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, I have experienced first hand how impactful the coronavirus has been on our community. Sadly, a number of new intakes at The Grief and Trauma Healing Centre in Edmonton, Alberta have been individuals grieving a recent death by suicide; Notably, all men between the ages of 32 and 45 years old.
The emotional impact that the coronavirus is having on men particularly, sheds light on an even deeper issue impacting our culture; the social programming in childhood around emotional awareness, expression, and communication.
Men are socialized as little boys to be strong and act tough. They hear messages like “big boys don’t cry”, “be a man”, “suck it up”, “quit your crying”, “you’re fine”, “don’t be a baby”, and even as far as, “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about”. Repeated exposure to these messages from well-meaning adults in their life reinforces the false belief that sadness equals weakness and that painful emotions should not be expressed, communicated, or shared with others.
Instead of following their natural instinct to share their feelings with someone they trust, they choose to suppress and deny their emotional truth to avoid any form of judgment, criticism, or disapproval.
Now imagine the cumulatively negative impact of emotional avoidance on men’s overall health, happiness, and well-being; particularly during a global pandemic when their world has been turned upside down. Their bodies became storage tanks for feelings rather than processing plants.
Because they have been taught to suppress and deny their painful feelings, any stress and overwhelm they may be experiencing, especially around job and financial security, would be enough to lead them to an emotional breaking point.
A majority of the men who died by suicide in recent months were already carrying the emotional weight of other losses they experienced throughout their lives. Any pain of unresolved grief and trauma from the past was further exacerbated by factors relating to the coronavirus including unemployment, financial stress, social isolation, uncertainty about the future, and overall loss of sense of security and control.
It is not often just one loss, change, or transition that leads to suicide, it is an accumulation of painful events and experiences over time coupled with the lack of tools to process, heal, and recover from them.
Without the correct tools to effectively identify, acknowledge, express, and process the conflicting feelings surrounding our current crisis and past losses, the rate of suicide will only continue to climb in our country.
How we socialize children in our culture, particularly boys, must change if we hope to live in a world that prioritizes emotional communication, validates sad feelings, and celebrates emotional honesty as true strength and courage.
I wholeheartedly believe that by cultivating environments that feel safe to be open, honest, and human, our sons, brothers, cousins, husbands, fathers, uncles, friends, and colleagues would feel less pressure to bury their emotions and more likely to share their emotional experience and ask for help when they are struggling.
We don’t heal in isolation; we heal in relationship. By simply feeling heard, seen, and witnessed in our pain, our sense of love, safety, and connection is strengthened, reducing feelings of pain, isolation, loneliness, and fear; all significant risk factors for suicidal thoughts and actions.
You may be wondering how you can tangibly strengthen the emotional environments in your life. The first and most important place to begin is within your own family.
Here is an 8-step actionable guideline, within the context of the coronavirus, that you may use or adapt as you take action.
1. Take some time to journal and reflect upon how the coronavirus has personally impacted you.
What aspects of your life have changed? What losses are you grieving? What are your greatest fears or concerns about the future? Identify the emotions, big and small, you have felt throughout the pandemic. The more specific, personal, and thoughtful your reflection is, the deeper and more meaningful your self-awareness will be.
2. Initiate one-on-one conversations with each of your immediate family members.
You can invite them into a conversation while hanging out in the living room, on a walk, while driving, or any other circumstance that feels the most comfortable. You may lead with, “I’ve been reflecting on how the coronavirus has impacted me and how I’ve been feeling, and I would really love to share my experience with you.” It is important that you set the emotional tone for openness, honesty, and vulnerability by going first. This will invite their participation and give them permission to share their emotional truth with you.
3. Share as openly and honestly as you feel comfortable.
It may feel awkward, especially if you are unfamiliar with communicating on an emotional level. Be gentle and kind with yourself. Remind yourself of how courageous and brave it is to tell the truth about how you feel. Your loved one may not know how to listen or respond empathically, simply because these are not intuitive skills. Extend grace and generosity to them throughout this conversation. You may even say, “It’s okay if you don’t know what to say. It’s also okay if it feels awkward or uncomfortable. I know we don’t often talk about our feelings. It is just really important to me that I share my experience with you. Thank you for listening.”
4. Invite your family member to share their experience with you.
Be patient and gentle as they may not know what to say or how to say it. They also may not feel comfortable sharing. Allow that to be okay too. Planting seeds around healthy emotional expression and communication will encourage their participation in the future. You may invite them to share by saying, “I love you and it’s important to me that you feel safe talking to me about anything. Would you like to share your experience with me? Nothing is off limits in this conversation.” Acknowledge any discomfort you may be feeling as that will further humanize and normalize how difficult these conversations can feel. Love is honest communication after all.
5. If it feels safe and appropriate, talk about the projected rise in suicide as a result of factors relating to the coronavirus.
You may also choose to save this conversation for a later date. It is important to note that talking about suicide actually diminishes suicidal ideation and action. I learned that from my wonderful friend and colleague Dawne Adkins who works at Suicide Information and Education Services in Red Deer, Alberta. By having the conversation about suicide, it invites participation, diminishes isolation, and reinforces safety and trust in the relationship.
6. To complete the conversation, reinforce confidentiality and thank them for sharing.
Emotionally completing our conversations is very important, especially following a vulnerable or difficult one. You may close with, “Thank you so much for sharing. I appreciated this experience so much. I just want to reinforce how much I love you, how important everything you shared with me is, and that what you shared will stay with me. I look forward to future conversations like this, where we can talk openly and honestly about our feelings.” Complete your conversation with a hug.
7. If you are concerned about your family member, I encourage you to express your concern to them and reach out to a local mental health agency for support.
Equipping ourselves and our families with the correct tools on how to identify, express, and process painful emotions and experiences is absolutely key to healing in the healthiest and most meaningful way. We want to encourage personal ownership, not avoid it.
8. Continue to plant seeds with your family members by regularly practicing emotional honesty.
This may look like debriefing on the various emotions you felt throughout the day, acknowledging your feelings in the moment, and allowing your family members to see you cry and express openly when you feel sad, overwhelmed, angry, or any other normal human emotion. And when they acknowledge, express, or communicate an emotion with you, listen like a heart with ears. Feelings are meant to be heard not fixed, so just simply listening with your heart and allowing them to feel heard without intellectualizing their emotions will deepen the safety and comfort they feel in expressing openly and honestly with you.
Through integration of small and consistent emotional actions in your closest relationships, you can create significant influence in how your family manages emotions and how you show up for each other during the most dark and difficult times, such as the pandemic we are living through today.
As Al Gore once said, “There is an old African proverb that says if you want to go quickly, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. We have to go far, quickly, and that means we have to quickly find a way to change the world’s consciousness about exactly what we are facing.” To create the change in the world we desire to see, we must commit to doing our part to change the narrative around this silent pandemic.
If you are struggling or grieving due to a recent suicide in your life, please know you are not alone. There are caring and compassionate professionals available to support you in your personal healing and growth. If you live in Alberta, our incredible team of grief and trauma therapists at The Grief and Trauma Healing Centre in Edmonton, Alberta would be humbled to support you through our in-person or telehealth (video or phone) sessions. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at 780-288-8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn about our unique healing approach, click here.
For more immediate 24/7 crisis support, you can call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1- 800-273-8255, or our local Support Network Distress Line at 780-482- HELP.
I sincerely hope that you found this article to be educational, insightful, validating, and practical for both your personal healing journey and in support of those who you love and care about most.
I encourage you to share this article on your social media platforms and email communications with your family, friends, leaders, and colleagues, as the information will uniquely resonate with each person. You never know who needs these words today.
If you’d like to personally connect with me, please email me at email@example.com.
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Canadian Grief Recovery Method Specialist, Tammy Adams loves to problem solve, inspire and motivate others who are ready and committed to change. Tammy has spent over 30 years in the field of education and as a Certified Life and Executive Coach Tammy teaches individuals to challenge and conquer their limiting beliefs and insecurities to create the life of their choosing. As a Grief Recovery Method Specialist Tammy understands that unresolved grief can limit an individual’s capacity for happiness and is gifted at supporting individuals through the pain and isolation cause by an emotional loss, of any kind, to a place of happiness they believed no longer existed. Tammy’s clients say, “Tammy helped me unpack the baggage and put a smile on my face in the process. It’s a rare quality for someone to fully listen without judgement but yet still steer you in the right direction.”
To learn more about Intuitive Understanding please visit www.tadams.ca or contact Tammy by email at firstname.lastname@example.org