When Suicide or Suicide Attempts Happen in our Older Adult Family Members

The topic of suicide has somewhat been a taboo subject in families all across the world. The idea that someone, of any age, would take their life is overwhelming. Even more devastating is the thought of an elderly person attempting to or taking their life, but it is happening at an alarming rate.

Suicides among the elderly has been on the rise and currently the highest increase has come among white males. Suicide not only affects the individual who are dealing with this mental health issue, but impacts family and friends connected to the victim.

Elderly Suicide Can be Destabilizing to the Family

The impact of someone attempting to or taking their own life can be a hard thing for people to deal with. Immediately questions arise, emotions run high, and moments of reflection are looking you right in your face. So what happens when an older adult family member attempts or commits suicide?
Often times the first emotion experienced by the family is Guilt:
• Was there care or negligence during the time of the suicide attempt or time of death?
• Who were main caretakers? How was that decided by the family?
• What was the family’s response? Conscientious or Dismissive?
• Red flag: compassion is absent

Next, the process of Blame and Accusations occurs:
• Sibling disagreements and difference of opinion
• Suspicion of neglect or are they/have been neglectful

While for some, many questions may exist without answers, there are a portion of people who feel the emotion of Relief:
• Sometimes families may feel a sense of relief after a loved one dies. This sense of relief can be expressed as healthy or dysfunctional.
o Was there long-term suffering: chronic illness or mental health.
o History of abuse? Sexual or emotional? Families may feel they no longer have that person to represent the pain associated with the abuse.

When a person commits suicide, the aftermath of the situation can potentially put people in a chaotic state that may be hard to press through. So what does a family feel after a person commits suicide?
Bereavement after suicide holds unique challenges that differ from those who have been bereaved by other types of death. It has been noted that those grieving from this type of death experience higher incidences of rejection, blaming, shame, stigma, and the need to conceal the cause of death among those bereaved by suicide as compared with other causes of death.

What is the family’s response?
The response of the family of someone who has committed suicide may vary, but all go through both an emotional and question period. Often times the response is based upon the role that the older adult played in the family.
• Was it significant?
• Were they the Matriarch/Patriarch?
• Who is being passed the “mantel”?
• Is the family’s structure flexible enough to respond?
Adding to the emotional and question period, families experience the possibility of having to have hard discussions that would not otherwise be opened. For example, family secrets may come to light; things that may bring shock waves of uncertainty and insecurity.

Resources:
Mental Health Provider Locators:
– www.therapistlocator.com
– www.aamft.org – American Association of Marriage and Family therapy
– www.psychologytoday.com
– http://www.apa.org/topics/aging/index.aspx – American Psychology Association
– http://fuquacenter.org/Services – Fuqua Center for Late Life Depression; The Fuqua Center is an initiative of Emory University, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
– http://www.gmhfonline.org/gmhf/about.html – Geriatric Mental Health Foundation

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