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Healing the Wounds of Suicide

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Even when every preventive effort is made, not every suicide can be stopped. When a Veteran dies by suicide, VA Pittsburgh’s postvention team helps survivors heal.

Sometimes, even when every preventive effort is made, a suicide cannot be prevented. When a Veteran does die by suicide, a special team of social workers and chaplains come together to provide postvention. Suicide postvention is immediate and ongoing support to those impacted by a suicide loss. It is critical for healing.

VA Pittsburgh’s suicide postvention team consists of social workers Sarah Woodring and Vanessa Beck and chaplains Gretchen Hulse and Katie Maul. Together, they help grieving families during what for many is  the worst ordeal of their lives. Team members provide a safe space, a listening ear, and any available resources that may be needed.

“There’s a lot of sorrow, sadness and anger, and we reach out to family and providers in the midst of that,” said Maul.

For every life lost to suicide, 135 people are exposed, said Woodring. Postvention is crucial because knowing someone who died by suicide increases one’s own risk for suicide. Follow-up is just as important, she said, because everyone grieves at their own pace.

The postvention team works with Veterans’ families and VAPHS staff who treated the Veteran – all are affected by the death. The team also hosts an Annual Day of Remembrance, now in its third year, to bring family and staff together to remember the deceased.

Beck said the Day of Remembrance is a way to honor Veterans, as well as to provide postvention to staff. It is often the only opportunity for Veterans’ providers to come together to grieve and remember.

In addition to providing spiritual and moral support for survivors, the postvention team also can assist families with funeral arrangements, life insurance and 401(k) benefits.

“We make sure nothing is lost in the system for a family member,” said Woodring. “It’s hard enough to grieve without worrying about that stuff.”

Follow-up includes regular mailings to family and staff to remind them the team is there, if they need them.

The postvention team’s mission has been made even harder by the coronavirus pandemic. Beck said the traditional rituals of funerals and burials have been disrupted by social distancing, so team members use virtual tools such as Zoom meetings to reach survivors. Any connection to help survivors grieve, she said, is important.

“Death really needs to be marked when it happens,” Beck said. “If not, it complicates grief.”

Each member of the team takes their special responsibility to heart. Beck said she values her postvention work and compares the team to a lotus flower, which blooms from the mud – that out of tragedy, something can grow.

“We try to bring something beautiful and meaningful out of grief,” said Beck. “It’s a true privilege to be let into people’s lives over something so intimate and personal and provide meaningful support.”

Editor’s note: To get in touch with a member of the team, call the Suicide Prevention Office at (412) 360-3412.

We encourage Veterans to engage in VA care well before they are in crisis: Of the 16.8 Veterans who died by suicide each day in 2019 (most recent data available), 11 were not enrolled in VA health care. Veterans not enrolled can call 412-822-2222 to check their eligibility/enrollment or Apply for VA benefits online at www.va.gov/health-care/apply/application/introduction.


Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, their families and friends can contact the free, confidential Veterans Crisis Line anytime by calling 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, texting 838255 or chatting online at veteranscrisisline.net

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