Living in The Wake of a Suicide Attempt

Recently, I assisted a church as they shepherded a group of teens on a youth outing after one of their peers attempted suicide. Once the teen was found and transported to the hospital, the team was left to deal with their own emotions as well as the emotions of everyone else who knew this individual. Whether it is your child, your spouse, a co-worker, a friend, or a parent, having someone you care about attempt to end their life is deeply anxiety provoking! Thoughts like, “What did I miss that allowed this to happen?” or “How can I make sure they are okay?” plague us, create fear, and cause us to over-function in unhelpful ways. A host of emotions can come, including shock, grief, guilt, and anger. These emotions are normal, and it is important to own and process them rather than ignoring or pushing them away.

Processing Emotions

It is tempting to focus on the individual who made the suicide attempt or on getting back to normal as fast as possible. While these things are important, processing your own emotions is equally important, necessary, and within your control. In Matthew 28:11, Jesus invites us to come to him when we are heavy laden so he can give us rest. Scripture is replete with examples of individuals pouring out their hearts to God and allowing him to interact with them around their pain, loss, and fear. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus modeled this for us. The process of owning our feelings, expressing them openly and honestly to trusted companions and God, and releasing our feelings to God instead of carrying them internally is the first step in managing anxiety.

Identify What Is Within Your Control

Much of the angst experienced after a suicide attempt is feeling somehow responsible for the actions of another. It's important to remember, even if the individual who attempted suicide is your child, you don’t have the power to control the actions of another. Their choices are not your fault or even within your control. Analyzing what you could have done differently to change the outcome, or attempting to figure out what you should do next to ensure they don’t attempt again, is both futile and deeply anxiety provoking. You are not responsible for the choices of another. And when you attempt to manage another’s choices, you step into God’s place rather than trusting God. Your loved-one is God’s child, and God loves them more than you—even when that doesn’t seem possible. Only God knows their thoughts, only God is with them 24/7, and only God knows the future. When we step into those places, our powerlessness creates anxiety and invites us to over-function. Thus, it is important to identify what is yours, what belongs to others, and what is God’s. One way to do this is to create three columns on a paper labeled “Me”, “God” and “Others.” In each column, record things each is responsible for. It might look like this:

My ThoughtsThe FutureAsking for what they need
My FeelingsLoved One's HealingManaging their thoughts
My BehaviorsKnowing what is neededManaging their feelings
Providing what is neededChoosing how they act and react

Own Only What is Yours to Own

When you find yourself anxious, check to see if the worry is yours to control or belongs in the hands of God or others. If it belongs to another, pray, release your emotion to God. Ask God to guard over and protect your loved one, to speak to your loved one through the Holy Spirit, and to empower your loved one to act in ways which bring hope and healing. If it is something you’re responsible for (like calling to check in), determine what actions you need to take and act instead of worrying.

Also, pray for your loved-one daily placing them in the hands of Jesus and asking him to guard over and protect them. This process of actively trusting God to care for them helps manage fear and anxiety.

Ask and Don’t Assume

Much of the anxiety experienced after a suicide attempt is connected to attempting to determine what your loved-one needs and make sure they get what they need. Whether the individual involved was an adolescent or an adult, it is important to let go of attempting to mind-read and directly ask what is helpful.

  • Let them know you love them and want to be helpful.
  • Ask what things help them to manage their thoughts and feelings
  • Ask what makes things more difficult.

It is also important overcome your fear and directly ask if they continue to struggle with suicidal thoughts. This gives them permission to externally own what their feelings are rather than holding them internally where they can take on a life of their own. Also, be honest about which of the things they find helpful you can do and then follow through on those things.

Be Willing to Seek Help

If you continue to find yourself plagued by anxiety or experiencing symptoms like:

  • Feeling on edge
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nightmares or flashbacks about what happened
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased forgetfulness
  • Anger outbursts
  • Increased conflict
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling depressed, alone, hopeless or out-of-control
  • Worrying about the safety of others

The presence of these symptoms may indicate you should seek professional assistance. Sometimes the trauma of having someone attempt to end their life requires professional assistance. Just as you want your loved one to get the help they need, make sure you seek appropriate help. This normalizes and models getting assistance and helps you to be healthy so you can assist others.

While having someone attempt to end their life produces anxiety, this anxiety does not need to control you or remain a part of your life. Processing your emotions and remembering God is ultimately in control can help you to release your anxiety and reclaim a sense of peace and hope.

About the author — Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW

Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW obtained her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa in 1995 and has worked at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services since 1997. She is currently the Southwest Regional Director in addition to managing the Telehealth Clinic. Jean started her career as a teacher after earning her BA in Education from the University of Northern Iowa in 1985. She was a teacher for 10 years prior to beginning her career as a therapist. She is the author of two books, Managing Worry and Anxiety, and When Anxiety Roars. She is deeply invested in walking with individuals struggling to find meaning and purpose in the midst of the struggles of their lives. She enjoys speaking at events and is passionate about providing educational services which equip individuals, leaders and organizations to proactively address mental health issues. Jean is also the mother of two adult children.

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