Deadly Crashes Rising in Dane County

Oringinal article by Allison Garfield
Original Article can be found here: Deadly Crashes Rise

Dane County saw an unprecedentedly high number of fatal crashes in 2021 caused by both speeding and drug use, according to the county’s Traffic Safety Commission, and will put four taskforces to the task of finding solutions. During the fourth quarter of 2021, two of every three fatalities on Dane County roads resulted from crashes where both speeding and alcohol or drug use were a factor, a recent summary from the Traffic Safety Commission shows.

From October to December last year, six fatal crashes in the cities of Madison, Sun Prairie and Middleton — and towns of Montrose and Dunkirk — caused 10 deaths, six of which were in crashes that involved both speeding and alcohol or drug use. Continuing that trend, in total last year seven fatal crashes resulted in 11 deaths that involved both speeding and alcohol or drug use, said Sgt. Matt Meyers with the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and also the co-chair of the county Traffic Safety Commission.

“This is an increase of over 40% from averages in the past five years,” Meyers said.

On average in the past five years, there have been 33 crash-related deaths. In 2021, that number spiked to 48, a 33% increase. Almost half were speed-related, according to a press release from the TSC.

Deadly Combinations Continue to Increase Risk

On top of that, excessive speed or use of alcohol or drugs causes increased risk for traffic crashes, but the combination of the two factors is especially lethal, according to Cheryl Wittke, TSC co-chair and executive director of Safe Communities of Madison-Dane County.

“When a crash involved multiple factors, it dramatically increases the likelihood it will result in death. In Dane County, we see our share of this, and no family should have to face the tragic results,” Wittke said in a statement.

Just last month, Madison Police Department officers stopped 32 vehicles during a traffic enforcement project on Feb. 21 on the Beltline, all of which were going at least 75 mph in the 55 mph zone. The trend isn’t unique to Madison. “We’re seeing that pretty much everywhere. It started in the pandemic (and) the theory has been when traffic congestion dropped, that created more space on the road for people to drive fast,” said Chris McCahill with the State Smart Transportation Initiative.

McCahill is the managing director of the SSTI — a joint project of the University of Wisconsin and Smart Growth America that aims to promote transportation practices that advance environmental sustainability and equitable economic development. He told the Cap Times that many cities, like Madison, have design issues where there are a lot of large roads meant for traffic and congestion, but in reality, serve as a catalyst for speeders.

“In Madison, we’re really interested in changing the designs of streets to make things safer for those walking,” McCahill said.

And despite efforts from the city to increase speed limit enforcement, especially on the most dangerous streets like East Washington Avenue, “there’s a cultural shift that needs to happen,” McCahill said.

A Focus on Equity Helps Eliminate Traffic Enforcement Discrimination

Traffic enforcement can have a disproportionate impact on people of color. McCahill said MPD and the city are pursuing equitable enforcement: focusing on the most dangerous driving and making sure drivers aren’t fined for minor offenses.

“There’s a lot to be done,” McCahill said. “We’re just really getting started with the Vision Zero action plan, but putting the goal of traffic safety and redesign front and center is going to be a major shift for the city.”

Vision Zero — a key policy platform for Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway — is a data-driven strategy intended to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries on city streets, and also improve pedestrian and bike safety in an effort to prevent avoidable fatal crashes.

2021 Brings Record Number of Traffic Fatalities for Dane County

Zero deaths in wisconsin

The number of traffic fatalities this year in Dane County already has exceeded the total for all of 2020, according to officials from the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission (TSC). This includes an unusually high number of pedestrians struck by motor vehicles.

Officials with the TSC report that thirty-five persons have died so far this year in Dane County crashes, more than all of 2020. Twenty-seven of this year’s deaths were within the months of April, May, June, and July. Seven of this year’s fatal crashes involved pedestrians, including six in Madison and one in Sun Prairie.

“This is an immediate public health issue when it comes to traffic safety,” said Sgt. Dennis Sieren, Dane County Sheriff’s Office and co-chair of the Dane County TSC. “We are extremely concerned about the increasing number of fatalities, despite local efforts to improve safety. Too many area families have lost a friend or loved one under tragic circumstances that could have been prevented.”

Even though 2020 saw a drop in traffic volume across the county from the prior year, traffic officials started to see an increase in total crashes and serious injuries. Despite less traffic, at the end of 2020 Dane County had more fatalities than the prior year, and this trend is accelerating in 2021. Fatal crash data reported by city and county agencies is reviewed and analyzed quarterly by the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission. Results for the second quarter of 2021 showed:

  • Over half of crashes resulting in fatalities involved a driver using alcohol or other drugs.
  • Three fatality crashes involved a semi-truck or other commercial motor vehicle.
  • Four fatal crashes involved a pedestrian struck by a car or semi-trailer truck.
  • Speeding was involved in eight of the fatal crashes, with a maximum speed of 92 mpg in a 35-mpg zone. In all of 2020 there were twelve speed-related fatalities, more than double the previous
    year (5).
  • Twelve fatal crashes involved only one vehicle or motorcycle.

“We’re not sure why the significant increase in fatalities,” said Cheryl Wittke, TSC co-chair and executive director of Safe Communities of Madison – Dane County. “One theory involves how the behavior of drivers changed during the height of the pandemic last year. Vehicle volume was down significantly, and drivers increased speed. Perhaps some drivers accustomed to fewer vehicles on the roads have not adjusted their speed and fully resumed defensive driving skills as roads became more congested.”

“The common denominator for most crashes is risky driver behavior,” added Sieren, noting that distracted or inattentive driving, such as use of cell phone or looking away from the road, is likely a
contributing factor in many of the fatalities. “Everyone needs to be more aware of their surroundings and more vigilant about safety threats.” He offered these reminders:

  • Slow down. Know the speed limit and stay under it.
  • Keep your distance from vehicles in front of you.
  • Watch for vehicles turning ahead with or without signaling.
  • Avoid alcohol or drugs before or while driving.
  • Make sure all people are wearing seat belts or motorcycle riders wearing helmets.
  • Yield to pedestrians, even if they are crossing inappropriately.
  • Pull over to use the phone, eat, smoke, or reach into the back seat.

Check Your Medication: Medication Review Resources

person looking over their medication

Medications Linked to Falls-Resource from CDC (PDF)

Postural Hypotension-Resource from CDC (PDF)

Wisconsin Pharmacy Quality Collaborative

The Wisconsin Pharmacy Quality Collaborative (WPQC) is an initiative of the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin (PSW) which connects community pharmacists with patients, physicians, and health plans to improve the quality and reduce the cost of medication use across Wisconsin. This team-based approach has brought stakeholders together in a unique collaboration with the goal of ensuring safe and high-quality care to patients in Wisconsin.  WPQC coordinates a network of pharmacies with certified pharmacists who have received specific Medication Therapy Management (MTM) training. WPQC pharmacists meet privately with patients to review medication regimens, communicate potential opportunities to improve medication use with physicians and other health care providers, and educate patients on the appropriate use of their medications. The medication use and safety goals of WPQC are to resolve drug therapy problems, improve adherence and coordination of care, and engage patients in their own care. Click here to access list of WPQC pharmacy locations.

Preventing Access to Methods of Suicide

A man and woman at a table, the man holds the woman's hand in a way of comfort

Facts to Know About Suicide:

  • Suicide is the leading cause of violent death in Wisconsin.
  • Firearms are the most common method used in suicide, followed by hanging and poisoning.
  • A previous suicide attempt or the loss of a love done or friend to suicide can increase the risk.

Suicide is often preventable with education, treatment and support. 60–90% of people that die by suicide have a treatable mental illness or alcohol/drug abuse problem.

Things to Look Out for:

Warning Signs-

  • Talking about suicide or wanting to die
  • Recent crises, losses, stress; they can be financial, personal, relationships, illness and pain
  • Untreated mental illness and alcohol/drug abuse
  • Access to methods of suicide: fi rearms, poisons, suffocation/hanging

Feelings-

  • No reason for living
  • Hopelessness/helplessness
  • Trapped/no way out
  • Anger, rage
  • Anxiety, agitation
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Heavy guilt

Behaviors-

  • Big changes in eating and/or sleeping
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Impulsiveness
  • Alcohol/Drug use/abuse
  • Withdrawing from family/friends/usual activities
  • Making final arrangements; giving away prized possessions
  • Planning and preparing for suicide

“Spur-of-the-moment behavior appears to play an important role in suicide. Suicide prevention experts believe that if deadly methods are not readily available when a person decides to attempt suicide, he or she can delay the attempt. If delayed, it may allow for the possibility of later deciding not to attempt suicide, or using less deadly methods, allowing for greater possibility of medical
rescue.” -From the South Central Idaho SPAN Chapter, Steps to Prevent Suicide brochure

If you see these changes in yourself or someone else call:
1-608-280-2600 Crisis Line available 24/7
1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

 

What to do:

Firearms-

  • Remove all firearms (shotguns, handguns, hunting rifles) from the home. Ask extended family and/or friends to store them
  • Contact your local police about safe gun storage
  • Get and use cable gun locks
  • Lock gun cabinet or safe, store all keys in a separate location from the gun
  • Keep all bullets separate from gun(s)
  • Store gun(s) unloaded

Medications & Poisons-

  • Destroy unused and outdated medications
  • Fill drug prescriptions in small quantities
  • Buy over the counter medications in small quantities
  • Store all medications and poisons in a secure place

Hanging & Suffocation-

  • Many items in the home can be used for suicide by hanging or suffocation
  • Be alert to the risk factors and warning signs of suicide

Alcohol & Drugs-

  • Monitor alcohol and drug use; as they can increase impulsivity and make symptoms worse

 

Resources:

For emergency help if someone is in immediate risk of suicide
CALL 9-1-1
Call 1-800-273-8875 (TALK)
Press 1 for those who are a Veteran

For additional information:

Dane County residents:
Call 608-280-2600 Crisis Line (available 24/7)
Mental Health Center of Dane County
Dane County Access to Services Map:
www.safercommunity.net

HOPES – Helping Others Prevent and Educate About Suicide at
www.hopes-wi.org

Mental Health America of WI at
www.mhawisconsin.org

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at
www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

 


Sources:

AFSP – American Foundation of Suicide Prevention at
www.afsp.org

AAS – American Association of Suicidology at
www.suicidology.org

Suicide Prevention Task Force of Safe Communities at
www.safercommunity.net

WI-DHFS, Division of Public Health, Injury Prevention Program – WI Violent Injuries and Death Report at
www.dhfs.wisconsin.gov/wish/

Youth Suicide Steps to Prevent Suicide, South Central Idaho SPAN Chapter at
www.spanidaho.org

Suicide & Depression Q & A

Lady sitting on floor by bed, holding her shoulders and looking hopeless or depressed

What are Depression and Depressive illnesses?

Depression and depressive illnesses occur when chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, become unbalanced or disrupted. A person who has depression does not think like a healthy person. The illness can prevent them from understanding the options available to help relieve their suffering. Many people who experience depression report feeling as though they’ve lost the ability to imagine a happy future, or remember a happy past. Often they don’t realize they’re suffering from a treatable Illness and seeking help may not even enter their mind. Emotions and even physical pain can become unbearable. It’s not that they want to die, but they may think it’s the only to end the pain. Experiencing depression is involuntary, just like cancer or diabetes, but it is a treatable illness that can be managed.

How Do Alcohol/Drugs Affect Depression?

Alcohol or drug use can be lethal for a person experiencing depression. Attempting to alleviate the symptoms of depression by drinking or using drugs can increase the risk of suicide by impairing judgment and increasing impulsivity.

Can a Person Mask Their Depression?

Many people experiencing depression and even contemplating suicide can hide their feelings and appear to be happy. Sometimes a suicidal person will give clues as to how desperate he/she feels.

Why do People Attempt Suicide When They Appear to Feel Better?

Sometimes a severely depressed person contemplating suicide doesn’t have enough energy to attempt suicide. As the disease lifts she/he may regain some energy but feelings of hopelessness remain, and the increased energy levels contribute to acting on suicidal feelings. Another theory proposes that a person may “give in” to the disease because she/he can’t fight it anymore. This may relieve some anxiety, which makes her/him appear calmer in the period preceding a suicide attempt.

Is Depression the Same as the Blues?

We need to understand that grief and clinical depression are different. It is normal and even expected to feel badly (feel grief) after losing someone, or experiencing a disappointing or traumatic event. This grief can stay with us for a very long time. However, consistently experiencing the symptoms of clinical depression for longer than two weeks may indicate the presence of an illness and warrants consultation with a physician or mental health professional.

Why do Depressive illnesses sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts?

There is a direct link between depressive illnesses and suicide. Depressive illnesses can distort thinking so a person can’t think clearly or rationally. The illness can cause thoughts of hopelessness and helplessness, which may lead to suicidal thoughts.

What Causes a Depressive Illness?

A combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors play a role in how and when a depressive illness manifests. Because these are illnesses, stress doesn’t necessarily have to be present, but can trigger or exacerbate a depression. Depression can appear when there seems to be no reason for a person to feel depressed. People of all ages, including infants and children (who may be born with a chemical imbalance), can experience depressive illnesses. Since they may be genetically predisposed to depression, a person may be at higher risk than someone whose family doesn’t have a history of depression. This doesn’t mean everyone will inherit a depressive illness.

Can Depressive Illnesses be Treated?

Yes. There are various ways to treat depressive illnesses depending on the type of illness, the severity, and the age of the person being treated. A person experiencing depression should not try to manage his/her own illness. Depression is a condition like diabetes or high blood pressure that can be effectively managed with the help of a physician, mental health counselor, etc.

If a Person has Experienced a Suicide Loss, are They at Higher Risk for Suicide?

Statistics do show that those who have lost a close friend or family member to suicide are at higher risk themselves, probably for a combination of reasons. There may be a biological predisposition toward depression in some families; in addition, the “modeling” of suicidal behavior by a person important to one’s life or the thoughts of a grieving person about joining the loved one in death may all play part in the increased risk. Most importantly, treatments for depression are steadily improving and are often highly effective. Furthermore, counseling and support for those who have lost someone to suicide is very helpful to survivors as they move forward in their lives.

From SAVE website with adaptations by MHCDC/SOS

Dealing with Grief in Your Own Personal Way

A lady with her back to the camera, she sits and looks over a sunset on a lake

Grief is as old as mankind but is one of the most neglected of human problems. As we become aware of this neglect, we come to realize the enormous cost that it has been to the individual, to the families and to society, in terms of pain and suffering because we have neglected the healing of grief. Essential to a grieving person is to have at least one person who will allow them, give them permission to grieve. Some people can turn to a friend or to a family member. Some find a support group that will allow one to be the way one needs to be at the present as they work through their grief.
Dealing appropriately with grief is important in helping to preserve healthy individuals and nurturing families, to avoid destroying bodies and their psyche, their marriages and their relationships. You can postpone grief but you cannot avoid it. As other stresses come along, one becomes less able to cope if one has other unresolved grief. It requires a great deal of energy to avoid grief and robs one of energy for creative expression in relating to other people and in living a fulfilling life. It limits one’s life potential.

Suppressing grief keeps one in a continual state of stress and shock, unable to move from it. Our body feels the effects of it in ailments. Our emotional life suffers. Our spiritual life suffers. We say that the person is “stuck in grief”. When a person faces his grief, allows his feeling to come, speaks of his grief, allows its expression, it is then that the focus is to move from death and dying and to promote life and living.

Learning the ‘okays’ of Grief:

IT’S OKAY TO GRIEVE: The death of a loved one is a reluctant and drastic amputation, without any anesthesia. The pain cannot be described, and no scale can measure the loss. We despise the truth that the death cannot be reversed, and that somehow our dear one returned. Such hurt!! It’s okay to grieve.
IT’S OKAY TO CRY: Tears release the flood of sorrow, of missing and of love. Tears relieve the brute force of hurting, enabling us to “level off” and continue our cruise along the stream of life. It’s okay to cry.
IT’S OKAY TO HEAL: We do not need to “prove” we loved him or her. As the months pass, we are slowly able to move around with less outward grieving each day. We need not feel “guilty”, for this is not an indication that we love less. It means that, although we don’t like it, we are learning to accept death. It’s a healthy sign of healing. It’s okay to heal.
IT’S OKAY TO LAUGH: Laughter is not a sign of “less” grief. Laughter is not a sign of “less” love. It’s a sign that many of our thoughts and memories are happy ones. It’s a sign that we know our memories are happy ones. It’s a sign that we know our dear one would have us laugh again. It’s okay to laugh.

No two people will ever grieve the same way, with the same intensity or for the same duration.

It is important to understand this basic truth. Only then can we accept our own manner of grieving and be sensitive to another’s response to loss. Only then are we able to seek out the nature of support we need for our own personalized journey back to wholeness and be able to help others on their own journey. Not understanding the individuality of grief could complicate and delay whatever grief we might experience from our own loss. It could also influence us, should we attempt to judge the grieving of others -even those we might most want to help.

Each of us is a unique combination of diverse past experiences. We each have a different personality, style, various way of coping with stress situations, and our own attitudes influence how we accept the circumstances around us. We are also affected by the role and relationship that each person in a family system had with the departed, by circumstances surrounding the death and by influences in the present.

Grief and the Mourning Process

A woman in funeral clothes being comforted by a man

Many people refer to the “stages” or “phases” of grief. It may be helpful to be aware of these identified phases or common aspects of grief. It is also important to know there is no right or wrong way to grieve. You may go back and forth between phases, experience more than one at a time, or even skip one all together. All feelings are normal, even if they seem “crazy”.

The Phases of Grief:

  • Shock is the first stage of numbness, disbelief and unreality.
  • Denial is thoughts or words such as, “I don’t believe it — It can’t be!”
  • Bargaining involves making promises such as, “I’ll be so good if only I can awaken to find this hasn’t happened” or “I’ll do all the right things if only…”
  • Guilt is a hard stage and difficult to deal with alone. This is a normal feeling characterized by statements such as, “If only I had/If only I had not…” done or said or thought something. Guilt may ultimately be resolved by understanding that all of us are human beings who give the best and worst of ourselves to others. What they do with what we give is their responsibility.
  • Anger is another very difficult phase, but it may seem necessary in order to face reality and get beyond the loss. We all must heal in our own way and anger is a normal stage along the way. However, you may feel guilty because you are angry at the person who died or because your life is continuing while his or hers is not. If you don’t feel anger, don’t manufacture it!
  • Depression may come and go and be different each time in length and/or intensity. Give yourself time to heal.
  • Resignation means you finally believe the reality of the death.
  • Acceptance and Hope come when you finally understand that you will never be the same, but you can go on to have meaning and purpose in your life.

Here are four steps toward surviving tragedy and loss.

Four ‘Tasks’ of Grief:

  • Tell the story: Talk about what has happened until it becomes real. Talk to caring family and friends, attend a support group, begin individual work with a mental health professional, but find a way to speak about the person who died and how the death has impacted your life and family. Tell the story until you don’t need to tell it anymore. Chances are, you will be close to acceptance at that point.
  • Express the Emotions: Grief is filled with conflicting tidal waves of emotion. Just when you think you’ve accepted the death, disbelief may sweep over you again. You may feel intense anger along with equally intense feelings of love and loss. Or, in the midst of crying about the person’s death, a sense of unreality may surface again. No matter what the range of emotions, all are to be expected during grief. It is crucial to get the emotions outside of yourself. “Stuffed” feelings can build and build and become overwhelming. Scream, cry, write, draw, punch a punching bag, tell an empathetic someone, take a walk, do SOMETHING to express what you feel.
  • Make Meaning from the Loss: Nothing can make what has happened “okay”. Life is turned upside down and changed forever. However, you can determine that something good and reasonable will come out of the unreasonable tragedy that you are experiencing. At some point, you may be able to accept the reality that your loved one’s entire life was not defined by his or her last decision – to die. Nothing can take away the good things the person accomplished. When you are ready, you may reach out to others with similar experiences… or set up a scholarship or other appropriate memorial in the person’s name … or work in some capacity to better the lives of others. There are many, many ways to make meaning from tragedy.
  • Transition from the Physical Presence of the Person to the New Relationship: while missing the physical presence of a loved one in our lives may continue well into the future, it is possible to transition into acceptance of the person’s nonphysical presence. What can that relationship be? For some, it is memories and love carried in our hearts. No one can take away our memories and, as long as we treasure love for the person who has died, they are not forgotten. The new relationship may be spiritual or in some other way in keeping with religious beliefs.
Originally distributed by:
The Link Counseling Center’s National Resource Center for Suicide Prevention and Aftercare
348 Mt. Vernon Highway, N.E.,
Atlanta, GA 30328
404-256-9797

A Survivor’s Tale of Overcoming Questions After Suicide

A young women in a graveyard looking into the distance as the sun sets

For some reason, reacting to a suicide and making comments on it brings out the worst in some people. While only those who are either practiced or lucky seem to make comments that are helpful, the rest of us may blunder through with words spilling from our lips before our brain has thought them through. I know that I fell into the second category before I had a suicide loss and still find myself there occasionally.
There can be a period of numbness immediately following the death when the mind remembers nothing. Perhaps that is a blessing. Later, survivors are often able to remember, with clarity, things that either helped or hurt them. They may latch on to these words and keep them forever. That means they can be forever thankful or forever non forgiving. When asked to recall helpful or non- helpful comments, most survivors can come up with a few that are stuck in their minds.

It is useful for a survivor to be aware that their loss brings vulnerability and to learn the skill of anticipation and practiced answers. This is an area where we help each other and there is true value in a support group. From the first time that someone asks, “Why?” or “What Happened?” survivors are called upon to answer what may be unanswerable. Our answer may be one of defensiveness or despair. The question can come at us so often that we may become sarcastic or complacent. The need that others have to know doesn’t always match our ability to tell. We do get to choose how brief or detailed we are in our replies. With even the most intrusive questioning it may not occur to us that the most honest answer might be, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care to talk about it now”.


My first awareness of insensitivity came almost immediately after Bill’s death. The coroner wisely advised me that I should get my children home from grade school so I could take charge of telling them of their father’s death. It was a difficult assignment but I agreed I should be the one to make the call. When I called the school, the principal answered. Calmly, I stated that I needed to have the children home from school, recited their room numbers, and said I was sending someone to pick them up. “May I ask why?” was the first question. “There has been a death in the family” I replied. “May I ask who?” was the next question. The tough answer came out for the first time, “It was their father”. The next question left me stunned and unprepared. “May I ask how?”
Without an answer, I hung up the phone. In looking back, I suppose the woman was not just curious but needed to fill out some kind of form to explain a student’s partial absence. The part of the encounter that made it more difficult was not that I was caught off guard, it was the fact that for the remaining eight years that the children attended the school, the woman never spoke to me nor did I ever feel comfortable approaching her. My own sensitivity led me to believe that it would have gone differently if it had not been a suicide death.

Words of shock, dismay, despair and comfort were all intermingled in the first few hours, days, weeks. Some words reverberated as though they were shouted in an echo chamber. There were other times I felt that I saw people’s mouths moving but had no idea what they were actually saying. There were those who had nothing to say. They simply stood there as their mere presence spoke volumes. Their hugs or tears were easily understood.
I made a decision not to have a formal visitation thinking it would be awkward and difficult. No one suggested any other plan at the time. In looking back my thoughts about that decision have changed. Therefore, following the funeral service friends and relatives lined up to speak to me. I remember looking down that row and seeing the people in our life waiting to comfort me. As folks passed by one by one I got stuck on the phrase that was used over and over again. With affirmation it was repeated, “Hang in There”. I could not imagine people being so insensitive as to offer up those words when only two days before I had found my husband hanging. It was a common statement that had now taken on new meaning for me. My sensitivity was surfacing again.
As cards and letters arrived, I sorted through, looking for words of comfort. I dismissed words that didn’t make sense or seemed inappropriate. I know I could reread those messages today and feel very differently about them.

About six weeks after Bill’s death an evening seminar was advertised in the newspaper. The subject was Grief. Mustering the courage to check it out, I arrived to find that I was the only one in attendance. It made me think that I might be the only one grieving. The two gentlemen who were presenting were quite cordial as they shared their material and then sat with me to listen to my story. It was healing to be able to find a new audience who would listen to my rambling version of what had happened. I was able to share my feelings, reactions and questions. When I finished, I heard some of the first words that made sense to me and seemed well thought out at the time.
“I am so sorry you have lost your husband. There are many ways to die. Some people die when their kidneys fail, some when their hearts fail, some when their lungs fail, some in tragic accidents. It is sad that Bill died when his emotional system failed.”

At that moment I found those words making sense. There was something about the statement that normalized Bill’s death for me. I didn’t feel vulnerable, I felt comforted. It was all part of a process of putting pieces together. Making sense of the senseless.
As time passed many statements and questions would make me shudder and retest my vulnerability:
“How do you feel about Bill committing murder on himself?”
” I think that Bill just thought he had a good idea. He was always and idea man.”
“Are your kids OK or are they a little nuts?”
“Bill selecting Thanksgiving time to kill himself really ruined our holiday.”
“How do you live with the guilt?”
Every survivor can recite a number of these types of comments in their own personal experience.

It may not seem right that a suicide has to bring with it a heightened sense of rawness and sensitivity. It may not seem fair that even our method of communication is shaken. It may make us angry that everyone cannot be aware of our plight and comfort us with the right words. The reality is that we are plunged into the task of being a survivor in an imperfect world. Every phrase is not always composed with our loss in mind. People’s lives go on without always waiting for us to catch up. However, we do get to sort and sift things that are said. Taking what is helpful and dismissing what hurts. We do get to try to read, discuss and learn from other survivors. We do get to move away from rawness and develop skills in talking about a suicide loss.

This loss requires of us an extra measure of patience. Patience with the insensitivity of others who may say the darndest things. Patience with our own sensitivity. Patience with the process of surviving. It is a comfort to look back and know that the process works!

Jeanne Adams April
2, 2002
Volunteer – Survivors of Suicide Mental Health Center of Dane County Madison, WI

How to Support Loved Ones Dealing with a Suicide

Two woman hugging each other tightly

“Grieving is as natural as crying when you are hurt, sleeping when you are tired, eating when you are hungry, or sneezing when your nose itches. It is nature’s way of healing a broken heart.” –Unknown

Everyone handles grief in his own way. It is a very personal thing. A mother, a father, a brother or sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors. Each will grieve individually. It is helpful to keep this in mind. When there is a death of a loved one by suicide, be aware that there will be a depth and range of feelings. It is important to honor and respect the needs of the survivors in the days, weeks and months following the suicide. Often you may feel helpless in this situation. This list may prove to be helpful to you in understanding those things which may be comforting and those things which may not be helpful to the family. Some of these suggestions pertain to immediate needs– others are suggestions for the following weeks and months.

DO:

  • Respond honestly to questions asked by the family. You don’t need to answer more than asked. If they want to know more, they will ask later. Too much information too soon can feel hurtful.
  • Surround them with as much love and understanding as you can.
  • Give them some private time. Be there, but don’t smother them.
  • Show love, not control. If you make a person dependent upon you, you might both end up in a painful position.
  • Let them talk. Most of the time they just need to hear out loud what is going on inside their heads. They usually aren’t seeking advice.
  • Encourage that any and all decisions be made by the family together.
  • Expect that they will become tired very easily. Grieving is hard work.
  • Let them decide what they are ready for. Offer, but let them decide themselves.
  • Get the names and phone numbers of anyone on the scene: police, medical examiners, etc. (anyone who has been involved). The family may want to ask questions later.
  • Keep a list of phone calls, visitors and people who bring food.
  • Offer to make calls to people they wish to be notified. *Keep the mail straight. Help with errands.
  • Keep track of bills, cards, newspaper notices, etc.
  • Keep a list of medication administered (i.e., Sandy – aspirin 2x,1 PM)
  • Offer to help with documentation needed by the insurance company. (They generally require a photocopy of the death certificate, etc.)
  • Give special attention to the other members of the family – at the funeral and in the months to come.
  • Allow them to express as much grief as they are feeling at the moment and are willing to share.
  • Allow them to talk about the special endearing qualities of the loved one they have lost.

DON’T:

  • Assume you know best.
  • Tell the person you “know how they feel”, if you don’t. *Make comparisons, i.e., “I know how you feel because my Mother, Father, etc. died”).
  • Tell them what to feel. Allow them to feel what they are feeling, when they are feeling it.
  • Try to explain or change those feelings so that you are more comfortable, (i.e., pain, anger).
  • Treat them as though they don’t have sense enough to make decisions or understand what they are being told.
  • Preach to them. If religion plays an important part in their lives, they will draw strength from it when they need it.
  • Tell them it is God’s will.
  • Tell the person to call you if they need anything, anytime – unless you are prepared for a 3:00 AM phone call.
  • Try pushing anything at them that will help to quiet them, such as drinks, medications, etc. If medication is necessary, let a trained person do it.
  • Ask about things such as running errands, laundry, etc. JUST DO IT.
  • Try to stop them from talking about their loved one. *Remove tasks, responsibilities or activities from them without their permission. They may wish to remain involved in those things which they feel they can handle.
  • Stop seeing them.
  • Tell them what you would do or how you would feel if you were them. YOU’RE NOT.
  • Make the loved one’s name taboo. If no one speaks his/her name, it feels as though everyone wants to forget the person existed.
  • Alter his/her room in any way. Do not pick up clothes or clean the room. When the family is ready, they will take care of this in their own way or ask for help, if needed.
  • Let your own sense of helplessness keep you from reaching out to a bereaved family.
  • Try to find something positive (i.e., a moral lesson, closer family ties, etc.) about the person’s death.
  • Make any comments which in any way suggest that the care at home, or in the hospital emergency room, or wherever, was inadequate.
    (Families are plagued by feelings of doubt and guilt without any help from others).

 

Explaining Suicide to Children

A mother holding her child's hand while they are on a bed, the mother is trying to comfort the child

“What should I tell the children?” A question often asked after the suicide of a loved one.
The answer – the truth.

Many people still believe it is best to shield children from the truth, that somehow this will protect them. More often than not, the opposite is true. Misleading children, evading the truth, or telling falsehoods to them about how someone died can do much more harm than good; if they happen to hear the truth from someone else, their trust in you can be difficult to regain. Not knowing can be terrifying and hurtful. We’ve always been told that “honesty is the best policy” and just because the subject is suicide, that doesn’t mean this time is any different.

How do we explain suicide to children or young people? It may seem impossible and too complex to even try, but that’s exactly what we must do – try! Their age will be a factor in how much they can understand and how much information you give them. Some children will be content with an answer consisting of one or two sentences; others might have continuous questions, which they should be allowed to ask and to have answered.

What children might be feeling after losing someone they love to suicide:

  • Abandoned -That the person who died didn’t love them.
  • Feel the death is their fault – If they would have loved the person more or behaved differently.
  • Fear – Afraid that they will die too.
  • Worried – That someone else they love will die or worry about who will take care of them.
  • Guilt – Because they wished or thought of the person’s death.
  • Sadness – Becoming inconsolable over the loss.
  • Embarrassed – To see other people or to go back to school.
  • Confused – Unsure as to how to express their grief
  • Angry – With the person who died, at God, at everyone.
  • Denial -Pretend like nothing happened.
  • Numb -Can’t feel anything.
  • Wishing it would all just go away.

Children and adolescents may have a multitude of feelings happening at the same time or simply may not feel anything at all. Whatever they are feeling, the important thing to remember is that they understand it is okay; that whatever those feelings are, they have permission to let them out. If they want to keep them to themselves for a while, that’s okay too.

After children learn that the death was by suicide, one of their first questions might be, “What is suicide?” Explain that people die in different ways -some die from cancer, from heart attacks, some from car accidents, and that suicide means that a person did it to him or herself. If they ask how, once again it will be difficult, but be honest.

Some examples of explaining why suicide happens might be:

  • “He had a illness in his brain (or mind) and he died.”
  • “His brain got very sick and he died.”
  • “The brain is an organ of the body just like the heart, liver and kidneys. Sometimes it can get sick, just like other organs.”
  • “She had an illness called depression and it caused her to die.”

(If someone the child knows, or the child herself, is being treated for depression, it’s critical to stress that only some people die from depression, not everyone that has depression. And that there are many options for getting help, e.g. medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both.)

A more detailed explanation might be:

“Our thoughts and feelings come from our brain, and sometimes a person’s brain can get very sick – the sickness can cause a person to feel very badly inside. It also makes a per-son’s thoughts get all jumbled and mixed up, so he can’t think clearly. Some people can’t think of any other way of stopping the hurt they feel inside. They don’t understand that they don’t have to feel that way, that they can get help.”
(It’s important to note that there are people who were getting help for their depression and died anyway. Just as in other illnesses, a person can receive the best medical treatment and still not survive. This can also be the case with depression. If this is what occurred in your family, children and adolescents can usually understand the analogy above when it is explained to them.)

Children need to know that the person who died loved them, but that because of the illness, the person may have been unable to convey that to them or think about how the children would feel after the loved one’s death. They need to know that the suicide was not their fault, and that nothing they said or did or didn’t say or do, caused the death. Some children might ask questions related to the morals of suicide – good/bad, right/wrong. It is best to steer clear of this, if possible. Suicide is none of these – it is something that happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with that pain. Whatever approach is taken when explaining suicide to children, they need to know they can talk about it and ask questions whenever they feel the need, to know that there are people there who will listen. They need to know that they won’t always feel the way they do now, that things will get better, and that they will be loved and taken care of no matter what.

Suggested Reading:

Bart Speaks Out: Breaking the Silence on Suicide by Linda
Goldman, M.S. Child Survivors of Suicide: A Guidebook for Those Who Care For Them by Rebecca
Parkin with Karen Dunne-Maxim
When Dinosaurs Die -A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown & Marc Brown
The Grieving Child: A Parent’s Guide by Helen Fitzgerald Talking About Death: A Dialogue between
Parent & Child by Earl A. Grollman

SAVE -Suicide Awareness Voices of Education