Working Together in Treating Suicide Loss Trauma
Author: Jennifer Keeling
TAPS and Home Base
Survivors dealing with grief may also be coping with trauma, so it helps to understand how this impacts healing.
Trauma can be experienced from many life events like accidents, crime, disasters, war, medical emergencies, or violence. Trauma can produce emotional and physical responses as a result of exposure to extreme, unexpected, or horrifying circumstances. The degree to which any given person will react to these incidents is as unique as the person or situation.
Jennifer Keeling and Equine Friend
This is why the TAPS Suicide Prevention & Postvention team developed the TAPS Suicide Postvention Model — a comprehensive framework for healing and growth. This three-phase approach to postvention care offers a pathway to survivors in navigating the aftereffects of a traumatic event, specifically suicide loss. The three phases are Stabilization, Grief Work, and Posttraumatic growth.
The loss of a loved one to suicide can be a highly traumatizing event, especially for those who witness the death or discover their loved ones. When left unaddressed, trauma can be a major obstacle that keeps people feeling stuck in the chaos and confusion of trying to piece one’s life back together. This can often interfere with the ability to grieve the loss, move toward grief work and eventually achieve posttraumatic growth. Therefore, it’s important to address the symptoms of trauma as soon as possible.
Recognizing the need for a program specific to treating survivors’ trauma, TAPS partnered with Boston’s Home Base program in 2017 to offer treatment to survivors of suicide loss. Home Base is a Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital program dedicated to healing “invisible wounds” that afflict veterans, service members, and their families through world-class, life-saving clinical care. Home Base describes the program as “a two-week outpatient program that treats co-occurring PTSD, Prolonged Grief Disorder, and depression. It is a service of the Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital. The two-week Intensive Clinical Program for Families of the Fallen (ICPFF) provides 63 hours of treatment and starts these survivor family members on a path of recovery from their grief and re-connection to themselves and to hope.”
Together, Home Base and TAPS created a program to offer specialized trauma treatment combined with peer-based support to those grieving the loss of a military loved one to suicide.
Participants go through the ICP with a small cohort of peers, usually between 10 and 12 fellow suicide loss survivors, and engage in activities like individual and group therapy; stress reduction and resiliency; fitness and nutrition; integrative therapy such as yoga, art, tai chi, and equine therapy; and evening and weekend activities to help deepen peer connections and bonds. Thanks to Home Base and generous funding from Wounded Warrior Project, the two-week program is offered free of charge to TAPS suicide loss survivors and includes travel, lodging, meals, and program treatment fees. To date, nine cohorts have completed the program — seven cohorts of spouses and intimate partners, and two cohorts of parents.
Home Base, TAPS and Families of the Fallen Challenge Coins
For TAPS, this partnership has been a game-changer since it has provided the missing link to trauma treatment, allowing us to provide life-changing trauma therapy for survivors. Survivors who graduated from Home Base have shared some of the following feedback:
“Thank you so much for everything and for not giving up on me. I feel like everything just got clear for me. One thousand pounds lifted off of my chest. I am so grateful and can now have the ‘normal’ family that I had always wanted. I just had to get out of my own way. I am so much at peace and will use my tools.”
“Home Base taught me that I was not to blame for my husband’s death. I died when he died five years ago, and I stopped feeling anything. When I returned home from Boston and hugged my grandkids, I felt it. For the first time in five years, I FELT it!”
“The last two weeks were some of the most difficult days, ripping off all of the band aids to every emotion I pushed far away in order to survive. I am forever grateful to Home Base and to TAPS for the life-changing opportunity. I know there will be good days and bad days. I know that it’s okay. I know I am NOT broken. I am relieved to know I am not alone…to have found a group of amazing (former) spouses who have lived similar experiences.”
Most ICP participants complete the program feeling as though they have finally broken through the roadblocks of trauma. By stabilizing their grief, working on themselves and their grief, and focusing on what might come next in their lives, they can begin to experience forward momentum toward posttraumatic growth. This process requires strength, courage, and an enormous amount of hard work, but it is the key to finding a “grief rhythm” that promotes healing and growth after loss.
Jennifer Keeling is the surviving spouse of Army 1st Sergeant Ronald R. Keeling and the Senior Coordinator, Suicide Prevention & Postvention
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Keeling and Carla Stumpf-Patton.