The loss of a client to suicide is devastating. If as a therapist you experience this tragic loss, you may go through the familiar questions that beleaguer all suicide survivors. Could I have done something differently? Why couldn’t I prevent their suicide?
There is another question for mental health professionals that is not talked about as much: Should I go to the funeral?
The answer to this question may seem obvious to some, in either direction. Possible answers are:
Yes – of course. You cared deeply about the client. You are grieving, too. Going to the funeral would be a way to honor the client, provide support to the family, and have a ritual for your own healing process.
No – of course not. You would be unwelcome, trespassing on the vast terrain of the family’s grief. They may even fault you for not preventing the suicide. Your appearance at the funeral could be a cruel reminder of the unmet hopes that they had for their loved one’s recovery.
It depends. It depends on whether the family invites you, on whether the family harbors anger toward you, on whether your going to the funeral would help or hurt the family. Yes, attending the funeral could help you, but your needs are secondary to those who may not want you to be there.
I will talk more about the possible paths to take, but first, some background.
How Many Therapists Go to the Funeral after a Client’s Suicide?
Only a small number of therapists go to the funeral of a client who dies by suicide. In a study of 159 therapists who experienced a client suicide, 31% (50) went to the funeral.
That number was even smaller among psychiatrists in another study. Of 136 psychiatrists with a client who had died by suicide, only 18% (24) attended the funeral.
What Do Suicide Loss Survivors Want?
One study surveyed 71 survivors of suicide loss. In the cases where the therapist did not attend the funeral, 44% of survivors wanted the therapist to be there. (About 22% explicitly invited their loved one’s therapist to the funeral, but the study does not say how many attended.)
So, in that study at least, many families welcomed, or would have welcomed, the therapist’s presence at the funeral. However, it is worth noting that anywhere from one third to roughly one half of suicide loss survivors (the study is unclear) did not want the therapist present.
The study also found different results based on the suicide loss survivors’ attitudes toward the clinician. Survivors considering a malpractice lawsuit against the therapist were less likely to want the therapist at the funeral.
Fear of Being Sued
Just last week, I spoke with a mental professional who worked at an agency that recently lost a client to suicide. Lawyers with the agency advised clinicians not to have any contact with the surviving family. This included advice to avoid the funeral. The lawyers said it could make the clinicians more vulnerable to being sued.
At the same time, some experts believe that communicating with the family and attending a client’s funeral actually can protect clinicians from being sued. Your presence at the funeral sends the message that you cared about the client, that you are human, that you grieve, too.
Should You Attend the Funeral?
To guide your decision-making, consider these questions:
Has the family invited you to attend?
If not, have you approached them for information about the funeral? What were their reactions? Be careful to ask in such a way that the family does not feel obligated or pressured to invite you. One group of experts recommends putting the question this way:
“If it would help you at all, I would be more than willing to attend the funeral – however, if that does not feel right, that would be fine as well.”
Did the client have very poor relationships with his or her family? If so, then you might be perceived as an enemy. Again, follow the family’s cue.
Do you feel strong enough to provide support to the family? You should not place the family in a situation of feeling that they need to take care of you.
Each situation is unique. In deciding whether to attend the funeral of a client who died by suicide, you must place the family’s needs and wishes before your own.
If there are signs that your presence would hurt, then it may be wise to stay home. Otherwise, with sensitivity and authenticity, your presence at the funeral may help both the family and yourself.
Questions for You
If you are a therapist who has experienced the suicide of a client, did you attend the funeral? Why or why not?
If you are the survivor of a loved one’s suicide, would you have wanted your family member’s therapist present at the funeral? Why or why not?
© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com
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