Grieving for Suicide

by Zak Meghrouni-Brown | 1/8/15 11:34pm

The Dartmouth community has endured its share of sorrow over the suicides of community members or loved ones. Just this past November the community was distressed by the suicide of a Geisel student.

Community members who have grappled with the suicides of loved ones said that grieving for suicide is a complex process. For some, the loss affects many facets of their life, including their interactions with their communities, their close ones and their schools.

Aaron Ellis ’15, who has struggled with the suicides of three friends, none of whom were Dartmouth students, while in college, said that the experience has profoundly influenced his time at the school.

“It was such a life-changing event for me,” he said. “After that, nothing was really the same.”

Blaine Ponto ’14 was finishing her sophomore summer when a fellow Dartmouth student and close friend died by suicide. She recalled the shock she initially felt at the news of the death.

“Obviously you don’t know what to think at first, so it’s this atmosphere of mass not-knowing-what-to-do, and that’s the problem with suicide in general,” she said. “Regardless of where you are, it leaves you saying, ‘Oh man, how could that happen?’”

Ponto noted that the resources available for her to lean on emotionally were comprehensive, even though she ultimately did not rely on them. After hearing the news of the death, Dick’s House made their counselors on-call to speak with students who needed help, she said.

“There was very clear support, but at the same time we were all still trying to deal with it in our own individual ways,” Ponto said.

Still, Dick’s House counseling has been found to have mixed results by other people grieving for loved ones who completed suicides. Ellis also sought counseling from Dick’s House. He said he was initially discouraged by lackluster treatment, noting that the counselors sent him elsewhere to find help outside the College.

Notably, since 2012, the College has overhauled its counseling services. Ellis has been back to Dick’s House since his freshman year and said that he has seen improvement in their services.

While reaching out to a professional can be helpful, Ponto found that these services were not sufficient for her to continue on as usual. Her friend’s death occurred close to finals, but when it came time to put pen to page or fingers to keyboard, Ponto could not focus on her work.

Despite the heightened attention and sensitivity that this sort of grief requires, after a grace period, students are expected to resume their lives according to plan — plaster on that veneer and dive back in.

“A lot of us just needed more time and were having difficulties finishing out the term because we had been really strongly impacted,” Ponto said. “But I didn’t feel like there was a lot of practical response from the College in that vein. My dean just told me it would be better if I powered through it.”

Sylvia Langford, associate vice president of student affairs for discovery and engagement at Syracuse University, was a Dartmouth dean when three students completed suicides in a short time frame in 1995. She wrote in an email that the deaths by suicide caused the community to question its own self-assuredness.

“Students rarely discussed not being star students or having challenges at home or struggling with finances or being deeply in love,” Langford wrote. “So this terrible series of events caused students to ponder what was going on for them.”

Howard Lunche, a clinical social worker and grief expert, said that because society codes grief as painful, people often try to bracket off their grief immediately. When people emphasize getting back to normal, sometimes the bereaved lose a valuable opportunity to come to terms with the death.

Ellis said that although he believes people should talk about suicide more frequently, he recognizes that discussion can render some uncomfortable.

“I think it just kind of makes it too real for a lot of people,” he said. “It’s still stigmatized to the point where people blame the person who committed suicide. They think they should have done something, and they’re at fault.”

Kristina Heggedal ’17, whose close high-school friend died by suicide, said that she now stresses discussing difficult issues like depression, anxiety and suicide. Heggedel believes we fool ourselves by tip-toeing around the topic and using more amenable vocabulary.

“Saying the actual, difficult words [is] sometimes really powerful,” she said. “You need to say them to get to talking about the more painful parts.”

With truncated academic terms and stressors both academic and social, it can be hard to make time to address grief. Nothing at Dartmouth will wait for you. Once the news settles in, what happens next?

Lunche delineated grief from depression. Grief, he said, feels emotionally charged, while depression can feel “blue, muted, dampened.” Lunche identified grief stemming from a suicide as particularly animated. Because some perceive suicide as a choice, they may feel angry at the person who completed a suicide. Some people jolt between extremes of anger, sadness and hope, he said.

“Grief is very alive. It’s all over the place,” he said. “People can laugh pretty easily. People can talk about the person. People can be down one day [and] be more hopeful the next day. People can be really angry.”

Still, he emphasized that grief can thoroughly interrupt daily life. Some effects include distraction, loss of sleep and turbulent emotional states.

Grieving for suicide also takes on its own particular complexity, Lunche said, because some view the death by suicide as preventable.

When describing her own grieving process after her friend’s death, Ponto echoed the complexity of grieving for suicide. Because the death was so sudden and felt seemingly preventable, she said her grieving felt almost frustrating.

Langford, who met twice a week with one of the students who completed suicide in 1995, wrote that she felt personally culpable.

“I couldn’t help but wonder if I had missed something, or if there was something that I should have done but didn’t,” wrote Langford. “Did I miss that he wasn’t getting better — or that by getting better, he was then able to do what he had been thinking about all along?”

Ellis said he felt that an emphasis on uncovering the motivations behind a suicide, as if the action is a “puzzle” to be understood, was unproductive.

Grieving for suicide has no constants — grief shows many different faces to those afflicted. For Langford, response to deaths by suicide requires an appreciation for this variability.

“During times like these, students grieved in many different ways, and professional staff needed to be mindful that some students didn’t show their grief and some did; some students were able to focus on their studies and some students couldn’t focus at all,” Langford wrote. “In short, the many campus responses were as diverse as the students, and there was no one way or a right way to grieve.”

Staff writer Kalie Marsicano contributed reporting.

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you love is considering suicide, there are resources available for you.Dick’s House: (603) 646-9442 during work hours or (603) 646-4000 at other times.National Suicide Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255