Questions-and-Answers with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: Growth After Suicide Loss

Suicide survivors comforting one another

Q&A with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: Growth After Suicide Loss

May 22, 2020

Dr. Shauna Springer is the Senior Director of Suicide Prevention Initiatives at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Through telling the story of TAPS Peer Mentor and retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 3, Jon Ganues, Sr., “Posttraumatic Growth After Loss” explains how opportunities for growth are possible even after the trauma of losing a loved one to suicide. PsychArmor sat down with Dr. Springer to discuss the ‘story behind the story.’ 

A: “Dr. Frank Campbell (an internationally recognized suicidologist and greatly respected grief mentor to many in TAPS) gave us a term last year at the TAPS National Suicide Loss Seminar. That term was “remember the dash.” What this means is that it’s really important to remember how our loved ones lived, rather than focusing disproportionately on how they died. There are good things, great things, and some not so good things that all of us do. I would encourage people to concentrate on remembering the good and great things that defined the lives of their loved ones and to talk about these stories with others when they tell others about their loved ones.”

A: The TAPS Suicide Prevention and Postvention Team has a resident expert who helps survivors to tell their story. Matt Mabe is a West Point graduate, a Veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a one-time journalist who studied at Columbia. This is what he shared in response to this question:

“Telling one’s story of loss and grief can be immensely therapeutic for the teller while at the same time educational for audiences about subjects unfamiliar to them. That is, storytelling can be a personal and public good. This is as true for survivors of suicide loss as it is for Veterans who may have experienced some form of grief or trauma in the course of their military service.

The first thing I tell would-be storytellers who fall into these categories is that safety is paramount. Before writing, it is imperative that you do a rigorous self-assessment to determine whether you’re at a healthy place in the grief journey. If not, that is OK! You can always write for yourself! But when you do begin telling your story publicly, it is crucial that you are able to stick to a generally positive and hopeful message on the one hand and, on the other, that you can avoid details, themes, and tones that might inadvertently do more harm than good to readers and listeners.

The next step is to craft your story of loss, a process that is part science, part art. It involves knowing exactly the audience you are speaking to, figuring out precisely what you want to say (and how you want to say it), identifying the most vivid, poignant, funny, colorful, emotional elements of your personal journey, and then weaving it all together…among many other things. This is a process that can take mere minutes–or the rest of your natural life. And that is OK, too.

If you’re a survivor who would like to learn more about how to tell your story of loss, grief, and healing, please reach out to TAPS. We are here to help you get your story out to the world in an impactful and, above all, safe way.”

A: As a psychologist who has worked with many, many people who have suffered from traumas, I would say that people grow when insight is paired with action that is personally meaningful to them. Just gaining insight about how to grow is only half the battle- applying it to live into our deeper purpose, and developing close, and fully connected relationships with others is the other part. At some point, taking action on our values, regardless of our circumstance, becomes critical if we are to achieve post-traumatic growth.

In the follow-up conversation I had with Jon Ganues, this is what he shared:

“At some point, you have to get back into the groove of life where you are living – where you are regularly interacting with others and getting involved in activities and organizations outside of your home. You need to re-engage in this new life you’re now living without your loved one. It can be something as simple as getting involved in a sporting event, or supporting the work of a charity you believe in.”

A: There are many things we can do to remember our service members who have died by suicide, on Memorial Day and throughout the rest of the year. We can participate in a Memorial Day event like a march or a parade. We can go to their gravesites and lay a flag, some flowers, or a wreath on their gravesites. This is a practical way to honor their service and the life they lived. This also lets their loved ones know that they are not forgotten and their service is valued. If we have lost a loved one, we can take time to connect with our loved one, to remember and share stories of how they lived and served.  This is how we can carry this love forward with us.

I also think that it’s critical for us to remember that Memorial Day can be a painful trigger for many who have served in our military. I wrote about this in a piece for “Connecting Vets,” a CBS affiliate, last Memorial Day. This piece was re-tweeted thousands of times and reached an audience of over 200,000 on the day it published, which tells me that this struck a chord.

In a follow-up piece published just after this one, I suggested a new tradition for Memorial Day. 

A: Yes, it has been such a honor to collaborate with the field-leading suicidologists at TAPS for these past few years as the Senior Director of Suicide Prevention Initiatives at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. It has likewise been an honor to donate my time and expertise to support several of these NFL Foundation funded courses as a subject matter expert – our goal has always been to have a broad positive impact in support of those who are suffering.

I have transitioned from my prior role at TAPS, but will continue to elevate the expertise of my TAPS colleagues as field-leading experts in suicide postvention and supporting those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. I am still on mission, supporting those in the military and beyond, who have suffered all kinds of traumatic stressors. In one of my new roles as Chief Psychologist for the Stella Center, I will be helping advance clinical innovation in the area of trauma care. My colleagues at Stella Center and I believe that we need a new model for trauma care – one that fuses the expertise of those who provide biological interventions with high quality psychological support.

The work I have been doing with those who have been traumatized – over the past decade of my career – has never been more relevant. In the context of the global health threat of COVID-19, many Americans are feeling a level of grief and trauma that is familiar to many military service members, Veterans and their families. The connection between this work and what is happening across the world right now has allowed me to expand the number of people that I can support with the insights I’ve gained from walking with countless warriors and their families. Lately I have been doing projects, interviews, and articles for CNN, “VICE,” “Business Insider,” “Thrive Global,” “Philadelphia Tribune,” CBS Radio, NPR, “US News and World Report,” Anxiety.org, “Psychology Today,” “Military Times,” and many other media outlets. I am trying to keep these updated so that anyone can access these resources and efforts on my website.

The last thing I want to mention is that I just published my latest book, WARRIOR: How to Support Those Who Protect Us. I wrote “WARRIOR” to scale insights that will help us understand the full range of invisible injuries – beyond the classic understanding of PTSD and TBI as the identified “invisible injuries” that can impact us. I also wrote WARRIOR to give us a way to help ourselves – and others – to grow in the midst of trauma. I have already had two groups purchase more than 500 copies of WARRIOR to help spread the critical insights I’ve learned from a decade of work with warriors. With the right support, I am hopeful that we can change the way we support our military service members and their families, and that we can learn to better support each other during this unprecedented time of trial and trauma.

How acute grief can be dangerous. All other things being equal, the times when I was most worried about losing my patients to suicide was when they had suffered the recent loss of a fellow veteran. Sometimes they lost battle buddies in combat. Death is a fact of war, but accepting this does not lessen the impact of grief. After losing a battle buddy to combat, my Veteran patients were gripped by a sense of helplessness, covered by rage. They wanted to be back in the combat zone. They often expressed that if they had been there, maybe this might not have happened. They wondered aloud whether they could have spotted the enemy’s improvised explosive device or if they could have been killed in their brother’s place, an outcome some voiced as preferable to the pain of the loss.

Compared to combat deaths, losses to suicide were even more dangerous. In cases of suicide loss, the rage was palpable. Rather than being directed at a flesh-and-blood force of enemy combatants, however, the rage had no single clear target. Sometimes the death was felt as a personal betrayal, and the rage was directed at the person who died.

Reasoning that they had fought a war together, literally, trusting each other with their lives, they wondered why that trust had failed at their friend’s time of need? Why did their battle buddy not tell them that he felt hopelessly over-matched by his demons? In response to the suicide of a battle buddy, the deepest cry of many of my patients was this: “Why didn’t he understand that if he had just told me what was going on, I would have dropped everything and gotten on the next flight to come to him? Why didn’t he trust me enough to give me that chance?”

Sometimes, rather than directing the rage at their buddy, the rage was instead directed at themselves. This showed up in a shame-inducing string of toxic thoughts, as in “What does this say about me that she could not tell me how much she was struggling?” or “How could I have missed the signs of his pain? He was closer to me than my own family, and yet I never noticed that he was suffering.” In cases where rage was directed inward, there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

In addition to rage, there was often fear. Could they catch the wish to die by suicide and leave their own family bereft? Could they fall prey to their own demons at some point, and be taken out by the same silent sniper that took their friend’s life? This fear was especially strong when the warrior who died was perceived to be a leader among his peers. If the fear had a voice, it would say something like: “He was so strong, and yet he died by suicide, so what does that say about my chances?”

These sessions were heartbreaking and had high stakes. In coming to TAPS, I learned so much about how to help people grieve in a healthy way, material which has been covered in earlier courses in this TAPS-PsychArmor series.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Springer. PsychArmor’s next course in this series, “Unit Stabilization After Suicide Loss,” launched on PsychArmor’s website today, on Memorial Day.

 

About the author

Victoria Carlborg is PsychArmor Institute’s Education Manager. She can be reached at vcarlborg@psycharmor.org.

Q&A with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: Growth After Suicide Loss

May 22, 2020

Dr. Shauna Springer is the Senior Director of Suicide Prevention Initiatives at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Through telling the story of TAPS Peer Mentor and retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 3, Jon Ganues, Sr., “Posttraumatic Growth After Loss” explains how opportunities for growth are possible even after the trauma of losing a loved one to suicide. PsychArmor sat down with Dr. Springer to discuss the ‘story behind the story.’ 

A: “Dr. Frank Campbell (an internationally recognized suicidologist and greatly respected grief mentor to many in TAPS) gave us a term last year at the TAPS National Suicide Loss Seminar. That term was “remember the dash.” What this means is that it’s really important to remember how our loved ones lived, rather than focusing disproportionately on how they died. There are good things, great things, and some not so good things that all of us do. I would encourage people to concentrate on remembering the good and great things that defined the lives of their loved ones and to talk about these stories with others when they tell others about their loved ones.”

A: The TAPS Suicide Prevention and Postvention Team has a resident expert who helps survivors to tell their story. Matt Mabe is a West Point graduate, a Veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a one-time journalist who studied at Columbia. This is what he shared in response to this question:

“Telling one’s story of loss and grief can be immensely therapeutic for the teller while at the same time educational for audiences about subjects unfamiliar to them. That is, storytelling can be a personal and public good. This is as true for survivors of suicide loss as it is for Veterans who may have experienced some form of grief or trauma in the course of their military service.

The first thing I tell would-be storytellers who fall into these categories is that safety is paramount. Before writing, it is imperative that you do a rigorous self-assessment to determine whether you’re at a healthy place in the grief journey. If not, that is OK! You can always write for yourself! But when you do begin telling your story publicly, it is crucial that you are able to stick to a generally positive and hopeful message on the one hand and, on the other, that you can avoid details, themes, and tones that might inadvertently do more harm than good to readers and listeners.

The next step is to craft your story of loss, a process that is part science, part art. It involves knowing exactly the audience you are speaking to, figuring out precisely what you want to say (and how you want to say it), identifying the most vivid, poignant, funny, colorful, emotional elements of your personal journey, and then weaving it all together…among many other things. This is a process that can take mere minutes–or the rest of your natural life. And that is OK, too.

If you’re a survivor who would like to learn more about how to tell your story of loss, grief, and healing, please reach out to TAPS. We are here to help you get your story out to the world in an impactful and, above all, safe way.”   

A: As a psychologist who has worked with many, many people who have suffered from traumas, I would say that people grow when insight is paired with action that is personally meaningful to them. Just gaining insight about how to grow is only half the battle- applying it to live into our deeper purpose, and developing close, and fully connected relationships with others is the other part. At some point, taking action on our values, regardless of our circumstance, becomes critical if we are to achieve post-traumatic growth.

In the follow-up conversation I had with Jon Ganues, this is what he shared:

“At some point, you have to get back into the groove of life where you are living – where you are regularly interacting with others and getting involved in activities and organizations outside of your home. You need to re-engage in this new life you’re now living without your loved one. It can be something as simple as getting involved in a sporting event, or supporting the work of a charity you believe in.”

A: There are many things we can do to remember our service members who have died by suicide, on Memorial Day and throughout the rest of the year. We can participate in a Memorial Day event like a march or a parade. We can go to their gravesites and lay a flag, some flowers, or a wreath on their gravesites. This is a practical way to honor their service and the life they lived. This also lets their loved ones know that they are not forgotten and their service is valued. If we have lost a loved one, we can take time to connect with our loved one, to remember and share stories of how they lived and served.  This is how we can carry this love forward with us.

I also think that it’s critical for us to remember that Memorial Day can be a painful trigger for many who have served in our military. I wrote about this in a piece for “Connecting Vets,” a CBS affiliate, last Memorial Day. This piece was re-tweeted thousands of times and reached an audience of over 200,000 on the day it published, which tells me that this struck a chord.

In a follow-up piece published just after this one, I suggested a new tradition for Memorial Day. 

A: Yes, it has been such a honor to collaborate with the field-leading suicidologists at TAPS for these past few years as the Senior Director of Suicide Prevention Initiatives at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. It has likewise been an honor to donate my time and expertise to support several of these NFL Foundation funded courses as a subject matter expert – our goal has always been to have a broad positive impact in support of those who are suffering.

I have transitioned from my prior role at TAPS, but will continue to elevate the expertise of my TAPS colleagues as field-leading experts in suicide postvention and supporting those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. I am still on mission, supporting those in the military and beyond, who have suffered all kinds of traumatic stressors. In one of my new roles as Chief Psychologist for the Stella Center, I will be helping advance clinical innovation in the area of trauma care. My colleagues at Stella Center and I believe that we need a new model for trauma care – one that fuses the expertise of those who provide biological interventions with high quality psychological support.

The work I have been doing with those who have been traumatized – over the past decade of my career – has never been more relevant. In the context of the global health threat of COVID-19, many Americans are feeling a level of grief and trauma that is familiar to many military service members, Veterans and their families. The connection between this work and what is happening across the world right now has allowed me to expand the number of people that I can support with the insights I’ve gained from walking with countless warriors and their families. Lately I have been doing projects, interviews, and articles for CNN, “VICE,” “Business Insider,” “Thrive Global,” “Philadelphia Tribune,” CBS Radio, NPR, “US News and World Report,” Anxiety.org, “Psychology Today,” “Military Times,” and many other media outlets. I am trying to keep these updated so that anyone can access these resources and efforts on my website.

The last thing I want to mention is that I just published my latest book, WARRIOR: How to Support Those Who Protect Us. I wrote “WARRIOR” to scale insights that will help us understand the full range of invisible injuries – beyond the classic understanding of PTSD and TBI as the identified “invisible injuries” that can impact us. I also wrote WARRIOR to give us a way to help ourselves – and others – to grow in the midst of trauma. I have already had two groups purchase more than 500 copies of WARRIOR to help spread the critical insights I’ve learned from a decade of work with warriors. With the right support, I am hopeful that we can change the way we support our military service members and their families, and that we can learn to better support each other during this unprecedented time of trial and trauma. 

Thank you for your time, Dr. Springer. PsychArmor’s next course in this series, “Unit Stabilization After Suicide Loss,” launched on PsychArmor’s website today, on Memorial Day. 

 

About the author

Victoria Carlborg is PsychArmor Institute’s Education Manager. She can be reached at vcarlborg@psycharmor.org.

2020-05-22T16:40:02-07:00May 22nd, 2020|