In my last blog post, I addressed the topic of suicide survivors, i.e. people who are impacted by the loss of an individual who has taken his or her life. In light of the recent news of the suicides of celebrities who are in the public spotlight, I wish to follow up on my last post by focusing on the issue of "parallel process."
One of the common themes that most survivors will speak about is how powerless they feel in the wake of such a tragic event. Often they feel guilty that they were not able to do more to prevent the suicide. In the presence of the survivor's grief, others can feel powerless as well, not knowing how to best provide support or comfort to the survivor. They may feel compelled to help but are not sure how. I believe that in this particular circumstance, this response differs from other types of losses. We frequently can find ourselves in situations where friends, family members, and colleagues are impacted by the death of someone close to them. Many people have experienced these types of losses themselves and/or have witnessed others who are in mourning. Yet this may not be as frequent when it comes to suicide. Especially if the person has never experienced a suicide or known a suicide survivor, they can feel ill-equipped to know how to respond.
In psychological terms, we can refer to this experience of helplessness or powerlessness as a "parallel process." It is often the case that the people left behind can experience in themselves a parallel experience to the person who took his or her life, namely that of feeling powerless. We can imagine that the person who saw no alternative to suicide must have felt incredibly helpless, powerless to do anything to improve their situation and feeling utterly hopeless that things can get better. Many of these people have tried multiple things to alleviate their symptoms, such as therapy, medication, meditation, yoga, body work, nutrition and exercise. At the end of the day, none of these things have alleviated the depression, shame, negative sense of self, and other feelings underlying their suicidal ideation and intent.
When others are caught in a parallel process, feeling powerless ourselves, our instinct is often to try to "fix it," to find solutions for the people who are grieving. This stems from the discomfort they have tolerating their own profound sense of powerlessness. I encourage people to sit with this discomfort. Sometimes the most we can do is to simply offer support, communicate that we are thinking about the person who is grief-stricken, and let them know that we care about them. Depending on the specific situation, we may spend time with the survivor, bring them food, and check in with them. It's different for each person. To ask the survivor what would help them can even feel like too much for them; it puts the burden on them to have to respond or even know what they need. Our intentions are coming from a place of a sincere wish to help. It's good to remind ourselves that sometimes just the simple things are a form of help.
Someone once told me that hearing a friend say, "I'm thinking of you" felt a lot better than if the person asks them, "How are you doing?" or "How can I be helpful to you?" A simple "I'm thinking of you" conveys that you care without requiring anything in return.