You've probably heard a lot about suicide prevention recently. From PSAs about the warning signs to the launch of the new 988 dialing code for the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, it's often in the public consciousness these days. Less discussed, though, is how to act after a suicide has occurred, something called postvention.1
No matter how robust your workplace's suicide prevention and intervention efforts are, it will benefit from knowing what to do if one occurs anyway, as postvention serves not only to ameliorate the pain of a loss to suicide—it also serves as a form of suicide prevention itself.
Disenfranchised Grief in the Workplace
Disenfranchised grief describes what happens when the people around you invalidate your grief. This type of grief frequently emerges in those who are affected by a loss but are considered "too distant" for it to merit anything more than an afternoon off or a brief hug. It can manifest as comments like, "Why are you so sad? It's not like you were close," or, "Shouldn't you be over this by now?"
In essence, it occurs when others think your grief response is inappropriate in strength or expression. But it's vital not to be a gatekeeper of grief—rather than alleviate someone's mourning, disenfranchising it can exacerbate the grief and worsen mental health outcomes.
Because of the stigma and discomfort surrounding suicide, those recovering after a suicide death are more likely to experience disenfranchised grief—and it can be more difficult to address in the workplace, since coworkers aren't generally perceived as being especially close to each other (i.e., "worthy" or "deserving" of grieving a colleague).
"Don't forget the workplace," says Sarah Gaer, mental health advocate and trauma recovery specialist. "Coworkers are usually the forgotten grievers."
So, What Can Workplaces Do?
We have the agency to mitigate negative health outcomes from suicide loss both in the workplace and out of it. What you can do depends on your role within your own workplace but can include the following.
Understanding your occupation's risk of suicide
Safely communicating the suicide death
Offering help to those affected
Referring employees or coworkers to grief, trauma, and mental health resources
Restoring balance in the workplace
Drafting a suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention plan
We elaborate on these in the sections below.
Following a death of any kind in the workplace, higher-ups will need to let everyone else know what happened. However, suicide deaths require additional discretion that many other deaths don't.
First, families don't always feel comfortable publicly revealing the cause of death as suicide, often for fear of more isolation, shame, and discomfort. Be sure to ask loved ones how they would like the death reported in the workplace and respect their decision if they ask to keep it private.
Second, suicide deaths—even of those only distantly known to someone—can increase the risk of further suicides, a phenomenon commonly referred to as suicide contagion. To mitigate the heightened risk of additional suicides, attempts, and ideation, you'll want to follow some guidance when talking about the death.
Narrow it to the people who need to know. In a smaller workplace, this is probably everybody. But in larger workplaces, telling everyone about the death may not be necessary and can affect the mental well-being of those who didn't even know of the person.
Avoid demonizing or glorifying the death. No matter your opinion of suicide, resist condemning the suicide as malicious, selfish, or anything else that criticizes the person who died. Conversely, avoid language that makes it seem like a good option for people who are suffering.
Don't go into unnecessary details. Elaborating on the method and other details of a suicide can increase the risk of additional suicides. Always be trauma-informed when communicating about suicide.
Highlight the person's positive contributions. A vital element of the grieving process for many is honoring the memory of the person who has died. In the workplace, this can mean acknowledging how long they worked there, how they excelled in the role, how beloved they were by colleagues, and how much they will be missed.
For more guidance on how to responsibly talk about suicide, refer to the Resources section at the bottom of this post.
Offer Practical Help to the Bereaved
While bringing meals is a standard way of supporting the families of people who die, offering support to the bereaved can also be an integral strategy for workplace suicide postvention. It provides an opportunity for people in the workplace to be involved in a process that acknowledges that the death occurred and is affecting them, reducing the stigma. Also, the bereaved may not just be family members—it may include people within the workplace itself. Offering them assistance can reduce the stress of balancing grief with work and demonstrate that your workplace is a safe one.
What does practical help look like? It can include the following.
Cooking and delivering meals
Offering to pack belongings at the workplace and deliver them to the family
Offering flexibility in work hours, leave, and other workplace policies
Helping with the unexpected workload increase that can result from losing a team member
Bringing the resources to employees and coworkers, such as by actively referring them to employee assistance programs or bringing in mental health professionals (read more on this in the next section)
Expanding the definition of bereavement so that more employees can take leave as needed
Providing a private area in the workplace where employees can go to catch a breath
Bring Mental Health Resources to Employees
When someone is grieving, natural elements of the grieving process—for example, tough emotions like guilt and anger or physical distress such as fatigue, insomnia, and appetite changes—can impede one's ability to seek out resources on their own.
"Active postvention," says Louise Flynn, a psychologist from the Australian suicide postvention program Support after Suicide, "understands that people are so affected by the experience of suicide loss that they won't have the energy to reach out for support." Dr. Flynn also touches on how "stigma and shame can also prevent [one from] reaching out."
Even if your workplace has robust bereavement policies and mental health programs, employees may not always know about them—and, in the aftermath of losing someone, may not be able to seek them out. As such, it's important to actively and clearly communicate the resources available to them.
Restore Workplace Balance
When someone leaves the workplace, somebody else has to take on their role either temporarily or permanently. Often, coworkers will have to take up additional work. In the aftermath of a death, this only compounds the stress of grieving and working.
As such, it's important to maintain a sense of balance, whether that means hiring a temp or redistributing the workload more evenly.
Honor the Person Who Died
As mentioned earlier, a crucial long-term element of grieving for deaths involves positively remembering and acknowledging the life the person lived. This can be as simple as a workplace memorial or a wall where people place Post-its addressed to the person who has passed. However your workplace chooses to honor them, the goal is to find a sense of closure and community.
Draft a Suicide Prevention, Intervention, and Postvention Plan
Even if a suicide has already occurred, it's never too late to make a suicide prevention and intervention plan to reduce future suicides. Washington and Tennessee have comprehensive suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention resources for workplaces that you can use as guides for your own. You can also consult other resources in the Resources section for additional guidance.
Though more complicated than grieving other types of loss, you can heal from a suicide death and help those around you heal too—including in your workplace, where the grieving process can sometimes be at odds with professional obligations.
Suicide postvention starts with proper communication, creating an environment where grief can be safely expressed, and being respectful of the person who died and those that know them. And, ultimately, it entails supporting those affected by the suicide death as you would support them following any other death in the workplace.
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