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My life changed seven years ago on June 19, 2015—the day my brother Dave died by suicide. To this day, writing these words still puts a pit in my stomach and shoots electricity out my fingers.
I’ve always had close relationships with my family, especially my siblings. Dave and I were only two years apart in age, and throughout our lives we spoke regularly every week. Even when I found out that Dave took his own life, my initial reaction was still, no—it must have been a car accident.
The last thing I ever thought would happen is Dave would take his own life. As a clinician, I knew all the facts and figures around suicide and still never thought that Dave would be one of the statistics.
Dave was a family man who was actively involved in his two children’s lives and in his community. He was a successful businessman, and had recently started his own company.
Dave had a small inner circle of friends, and during his eight-hour memorial service I heard time and time again: “Your brother was my rock. He was always so kind, considerate, loving, smart and had a quick wit.” I heard it so many times that I just couldn’t imagine why he died by suicide.
We need to start talking about it
Suicide is a complex puzzle of health: one part biology, one part circumstance, and very often, one part mystery. It affects people of all races, colors, genders and ages. It does not discriminate and is a human issue. No one is immune.
Suicide is a word that is whispered. We don’t talk about it, and after the word is mentioned, it just hangs there. We do talk about suicide when we see it in the media, like the deaths of Robin Williams, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain, but it’s not long before conversation about it stops.
And this is a conversation that needs to start and continue, around our dining room tables at home but also around conference tables in the workplace. This is the only way to dispel the myths about suicide, and work toward changing the statistics.
Reducing the stigma with the right language
Words matter. They matter when you’re talking about a sensitive workplace issue, and they matter when you’re talking about suicide.
It’s so important to model appropriate language so we don’t perpetuate the stigma of suicide. One way is to use the phrase ‘died by suicide’ instead of ‘committed suicide.’
Suicide is not a punishable offense, and my brother didn’t commit a crime when he died. The smallest terminology changes can often make a world of difference, especially when talking about a topic this heavy.
Recognizing the warning signs of suicide ideation
The months preceding his death were the perfect storm for Dave. He was battling extreme stress after opening his business and dealing with grief from our mom's death four months prior. He was a 45 year old white male in extreme pain—pain that he held privately inside.
It’s often not easy to spot the warning signs, but there are two different areas when it comes to recognizing suicide ideation—statements and behaviors.
Here are some statements to take seriously, if you hear them from employees or someone you know:
- Comments about having no reason to live or no purpose in life
- Talking about feeling trapped or feeling like a burden to others
- Speaking about feeling hopeless, helpless, or worthless
- Writing or talking about death, dying, or suicide
Here are some behaviors to look for:
- Acquiring means to take one’s own life, such as purchasing a firearm or accumulating pills
- Socially isolating and wishing to be left alone
- Reckless and impulsive behavior or engaging in self-destructive actions
- Dramatic mood changes or mood swings
Any of these red flags need to be assessed, especially if a person is showing multiple signs. If you see warning signs in an employee or loved one, these questions can be helpful for starting the conversation:
- I’m concerned about you. How have you been doing?
- How long have you been feeling like this?
- Something seems to be bothering you. Would you like to talk about it?
- Have you spoken to anyone about this before?
How to help employees who may be considering suicide
If you determine that an employee may be considering suicide, trust your gut and instinct to get help. The National Suicide Lifeline uses 988 to call for services.
You don’t have to be a clinician to have a conversation with someone you care about. The ALEC framework is a helpful model to follow with your employees:
- Ask – Help them open up by asking open-ended questions, and mention specific things that have made you concerned for them.
- Listen – If they need time to think, sit patiently with the silence. Encourage them to open up by asking questions. Show that you've listened by repeating back what you’ve heard (in your own words) and ask if you’ve understood them correctly.
- Encourage Action – Encourage them to think about what they might do to help the situation. Consider suggesting the use of Spring Health for a variety of services like coaching, therapy, and on-demand wellness exercises.
- Check in – Ask if it’s okay for you to check back in with the employee on a specific day to see how they’re doing.
4 ways to support employees who lose a loved one to suicide
As I mentioned earlier, my Mom passed away four months before my brother, and my Mom’s death was different. You expect to lose a parent at some point. You don’t expect to lose a sibling or any family member or friend to suicide.
This kind of loss requires a unique level of support from managers, employees, and friends. Here are four ways to do this.
Allow as much time off as they need
When my brother died, I told my manager that I wouldn’t be coming into work, and I had no idea how long I’d be out. I ended up taking three weeks off, and all my coworkers were so supportive, giving me the time I needed.
My company allowed me the time and space to grieve, and didn’t ask questions about the cause of my brother's death. Even if it was assumed, it was not spoken.
Reach out to check in
Check in with the employee to ask how they’re doing—to support them and let them know you care, not to pry.
None of my coworkers probed or pushed about how my brother died, and that was incredibly helpful. When someone sent an email or message just checking in on me, those small acts of kindness were so meaningful to me.
Practice compassion, but respect their space
When the employee returns to work, let them tell their story in their own time, if they choose to do so.
When I returned, many of my coworkers focused on my family and my brother’s kids, asking how they were doing, and I appreciated that. Those questions felt less heavy and personal.
Also, the employee will likely have bad days and not want to talk about how they’re doing. Respect this as well by moving on to a different, lighter topic.
Set annual calendar reminders
As I look back on the past seven years, what I appreciate most are the people who reach out on my brother’s birthday or on the anniversary of his passing. Talking about him and saying his name makes it feel like we’re honoring his life.
HR and People leaders can also reach out to employees during months or on days that may be harder, like September which is Suicide Prevention Month, or October 10 which is World Mental Health Day.
You could say: “I know it’s the anniversary of your brother’s passing today, and wanted to see how you’re doing” or “we’re focusing on suicide awareness this month, and I wanted to ask if that’s difficult for you.” Just a quick check in to let them know you’re thinking about them and you care how they’re feeling.
If you reach out, remember that words are important. Use ‘died by suicide’ or ‘passed away,’ never ‘committed suicide.’
Why I choose to share my brother’s story
When a loved one passes away, there are typically normal levels of guilt, and the five stages of grief that move a person toward acceptance. But when someone dies by suicide, those feelings of grief are compounded, and become even messier and more complicated.
For two years, I couldn’t say the word ‘suicide’ out loud, and would tell people that my brother died in a tragic accident. A small circle of friends were aware of how Dave died, but it wasn’t until several work colleagues lost a family member by suicide that I decided it was time to share my brother’s story.
I remember the first few times I was honest about how Dave died, and experienced that awkward silence. I just sat with that silence for a few moments, and knew that the more I was able to open up and talk about it, the more I could help chip away at the stigma surrounding suicide.
Begin the conversation about suicide at your workplace, today
In closing, I want to leave you with this—there is hope, and you can take action today by beginning the conversation about suicide at your workplace. This takes courage, but you have the power to make a difference for any employee who is spiraling or contemplating suicide.
The more we talk about suicide, the more we’re able to tackle the shame, anger, stigma, and silence that still surrounds it.
Read this blog next to learn how to recognize the unique symptoms of depression in your male employees, and normalize conversations about it at your organization.