A 2011 study revealed that approximately 70 people are intimately or directly impacted by the suicide of a young person. Research further underscores that the effects of a young person’s death by suicide extend beyond more immediately or directly impacted survivors. A more comprehensive study on the subject indicates that 115 people are exposed each time a death by suicide involving a young person occurs. The extent by which death by suicide impacts the lives of others underscores the need to have a keener understanding of the overall impact this type of death has on survivors of student suicide loss.
Suicide Shakes an Entire School Community
When considering a student’s death by suicide, it is important to appreciate that this type of death truly impacts the broader school community. This includes:
- Friends of the deceased student
- Other students in the school
- Students at other schools
- Teachers of the deceased student
- Other teaches in the school
- Teachers at other schools
- School administrators
- Other school staff members
- Personnel at other schools
- Parents of other students
Of course, the family members of the student who died by suicide obviously are directly impacted in a unique manner.
Researchers have endeavored to better pinpoint the extent of the impact on others of the death by suicide of a student. They have reached the following conclusions, including the degree of closeness felt by the 115 people impacted by the death in some manner:
- 71 people felt some degree of closeness
- 42 of that 71 felt a high degree of closeness
- 21 of the 42 felt aa very high degree of closeness
Researchers also examined the perceived impact a suicide had on the lives of other people:
- 53 said their lives were disrupted for a short time
- 25 of the 53 said their lives were disrupted in a major way
- 11 of the 25 indicated that a suicide had a devastating impact on their lives
Model for Identifying Impact of Suicide Loss
The Riverside Trauma Center developed a model for identifying the impact of suicide loss. Through this model, affected individuals – survivors of suicide loss – are impacted in one of four varying degrees:
- Suicide Exposed
- Suicide Affected
- Suicide Bereaved – Short Term
- Suicide Bereaved – Long Term
Domains Affected by Trauma or Extreme Grief Following Death of a Student by Suicide
In addition to developing a generalized model for how survivors of suicide are impacted by a student’s death by suicide, the Riverside Trauma Center went further and addressed different “domains” in which people are affected by this type of death. For the purposes of this analysis, domains are different levels in which survivors of suicide loss respond to the death of a student by suicide. The different domains are:
- Spiritual/Meaning Making
Examples of cognitive responses to the death by suicide of a young person (or any person, for that matter) are:
- Intrusive thoughts
On the emotional level, a survivor of suicide loss is apt to experience:
The two most commonplace social/behavioral responses to the loss of a student by suicide are:
Survivors of suicide oftentimes experience physiological or physical responses as well. The most commonplace of physiological responses include:
- Startle response
- Sleep issues
Finally, in the aftermath of the death of a young person or someone else by suicide, spiritual or what also are known as meaning making issues can arise. These include:
- The thought or belief that nothing matters
- Who would God let this happen?
- Why do I bother?
A person is likely to experience responses or reactions of more than one type or in more than one domain. Because the responses to becoming a survivor of suicide are not all based on feelings, asking someone in such a position “how do you feel?” really is not the best question. Rather, a more suitable query is to ask “what are you experiencing?” or “how are you getting through what you are experiencing?”
It’s also important to understand that the responses in each domain are normative in the aftermath of the death of a student by suicide. These are all normal reactions, each individual experiencing some of even all of them in their own way.
Reasons Why Grief Following a Death by Suicide Is Can Be More Complicated
Researchers have identified a number of reasons why grief following a death by suicide can be more complicated for survivors of that type of death. They have identified a dozen essential reasons why grief following a death by suicide has the potential for being more complicate. Bear in mind that this list is not necessarily exhaustive:
- Shock arising from a sudden or unexpected death
- Social stigma or shame that may attach to a death by suicide
- Intense search for the reasons as to why a suicide occurred
- Police investigation and media involvement
- Sense of guilt and the question of whether the death could have been prevented
- Ambiguity about the intent or volition of the deceased person (did the person intend to die)
- Trauma or violence associated with the death
- Feelings of abandonment or rejection
- Fear of one’s own self-destructive impulses
- Fear of possible suicidal thoughts in others or concerns about their behavior
- Long delays in receiving autopsy or medical reports
- Anger at the deceased individual, blaming, and scapegoating
Most Commonplace Dilemmas on Suicide Postvention in a School Setting
In the aftermath of the death of a student by suicide, school administrators, faculty and others in the broader school community face a number of commonplace dilemmas. These include:
- Conclusions by some that the death wasn’t a suicide
- Large staff meetings and assemblies
- Empty chair and desk
Some of these dilemmas need further exploration. For example, it is relatively common that in the aftermath of a student’s death by suicide, some people will conclude that the death was not actually the result of suicide. This type of reaction is most common among immediate family members who understandably oftentimes look for another reason why their child or sibling died. An accidental death can be easier to emotionally and otherwise manage than a death by suicide. The fact that some people may not concur that a particular death was by suicide needs to be respected.
Large gatherings of people may not be the most ideal course to take in the aftermath of the death of a student by suicide. There oftentimes is an inclination to do something like call an all-school assembly. In reality, this can work to improperly romanticize the untimely death of a young person. Such a gathering can also make many attendees uncomfortable. Finally, a hastily called all-school assembly oftentimes is not a forum that really furthers the healing process.
Another relatively common response to the death of a student by suicide is to plan some sort of permanent memorial. While the intentions behind taking this step are sincere, the reality is that creating a permanent memorial should be reconsidered. In some cases, a permanent memorial might serve to romanticize the death by suicide of a young person. Moreover, within a few years, an entire new student body will be present in a school. Over time, the school will be populated with students who lack any real connection with the deceased student.
In the final analysis, a solid postvention process following the death of a young person by suicide is also good prevention. Moreover, a well-crafted postvention process really can go far in aiding people to heal and grieve in a healthy manner following the death of a student by suicide.