EMS Tactics for Survivors Helpful for All Caregivers

The February 2010 issue of EMS Magazine offers a wealth of practical information about being helpful immediately after a suicide that is applicable not only to first responders but also to any caregiver in the aftermath of a suicide fatality.
In "Help Those Left Behind," EMS Magazine's editorial director, Nancy Perry, sets the stage for the magazine's feature treatment of survivor grief with these insightful words:

There's no question that those left behind in the wake of a suicide are as much the victims of the event as the person who has chosen to end his or her life.

In the cover story, "Life After Suicide," Tony Salvatore -- who is coordinator of suicide prevention services for Montgomery County Emergency Service in Norristown, Penn., and a survivor of his son's suicide -- spells out expertly, comprehensively, and in detail how caregivers can be "'respectful and sensitive to the needs of survivors'" and lead the way in meeting the "'unique need of suicide survivors'" (he takes those mandates from the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention).
In "Suicide Survivors," Chris Caulkins, a paramedic-firefighter in Woodbury, Minn., and a survivor of two suicides in his family, places helpfulness both for those at risk for suicide and for suicide survivors in the context of understanding mental illness and "taking away the stigma."
The article by Salvatore is aptly subtitled "How emergency responders can help those left behind," for it is nothing less than an authoritative and complete primer on the topic, covering the definition of postvention and the nature of suicide as a traumatic event, then explaining how to be most helpful to survivors. He outlines, for instance, the steps to "Postvention First Aid" and gives guidance for accomplishing each step:

  • Establish rapport with survivors.
  • Initiate grief normalization.
  • Let them discuss their feelings and concerns.
  • Facilitate understanding of critical incident processing.
  • Assist in mobilizing the support system.
  • Share information on community services.
  • Encourage follow-through.

His concluding paragraph alludes to a number of the ideas that are vital to helping survivors:

Suicide loss is a severe emotional trauma that no one is prepared for. Suicide loss has features that make it uniquely painful. Emergency responders are in a position to immediately help by being sensitive, by listening, and by sharing some simple information. Such basic caring may have a significant effect on how a family eventually recovers from its loss. It may help lessen their risk of grief complications and even additional suicides. Lastly, keep in mind that the suicide victim's death did not end the suicide emergency. It just changed in nature and impacted others, who need your help.

The power of Caulkin's article lies in his first-person account of the loss of his wife and then later of his brother to suicide. He takes that a step further by arguing against stigma among emergency responders by again telling his story in his own words:

How many times have you been dispatched to a "psych call" and heard your partner pine for a "real" call or complain about having to go on a "BS" run? I am embarrassed to admit that I have both heard it and said it many times. I had to learn the hard way by having this happen to people I love. No longer is it just another psych call when a person in my care has the same scared look and mannerisms my wife displayed.

[Reprinted with permission from Suicide Prevention News and Comment.]