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In Their Own Words: Perceived Experiences and Family Functioning of Suicide Survivors Before and After Suicide Loss
Research Day
  • Wendy Shallcross Lam, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
  • Theresa Erbacher, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
  • Rosemary Mennutti, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Philadelphia Campus
Start Date
7-5-2014 1:00 PM
This research explored the unique experiences of relatives of individuals who have died by suicide, termed suicide survivors, in an in-depth fashion using qualitative methods. Those individuals left behind after a death by suicide are understudied and may be at risk for developing complicated grief responses, future suicide attempts, as well as other psychiatric and medical hardships post-loss. Additionally, according to the literature, families are profoundly affected and typically experience dysfunction, changes in communication and interaction patterns, low cohesion, marital dissatisfaction, and collectively face stigma and social isolation/social network destruction in the aftermath of suicide. In contrast, some experience a resulting strengthening of the family and report heightened feelings of closeness and safety. Through a semi-structured interview, the present study explored how families dealt with general stress prior to the experience of suicide loss, how they handled the loss of a family member to suicide, and what the individual interviewee has used to cope in the hereafter. A major focus of the investigation was to explore whether the event of suicide dramatically altered family dynamics or if families continued a pre-existing interaction pattern established prior to the loss. The results revealed that there was overall consistency in their patterns of interaction both prior to and post the experience of suicide loss. Thus, family members who tended to communicate openly with one another and spent time in each other’s presence largely followed this pattern after suicide loss. Conversely, family members who reported interpersonal disconnection and dysfunctional patterns within the family prior to the loss (e.g., substance abuse, mental health concerns, family discord, poor communication, etc.) tended to experience continued family strain and perceived interpersonal distance post-loss. Results also revealed that the suppo rt of friends was integral to the participants’ well being. In addition, content extracted from the interviews were conceptualized into an explanatory model containing relevant individual and family factors that are proposed to exist in a given victim’s history that are deemed contributory to the likelihood of completing suicide. With an eye toward future intervention design, these interviews included investigation into what has been of particular help to suicide survivors in their grief and what they would have sought out had it been available. Results revealed that mainly seeking out the support of others who have a shared experience of suicide loss was helpful in terms of mutual support and the instillment of hope for the future. Additional processes of healing are explored and promoted as authentic options for mental health providers to use in their work with the particularly vulnerable population of suicide survivors.
Citation Information
Wendy Shallcross Lam, Theresa Erbacher and Rosemary Mennutti. "In Their Own Words: Perceived Experiences and Family Functioning of Suicide Survivors Before and After Suicide Loss" (2014)
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