As a suicide educator, there is a powerful message that draws me to the Māori creation story again and again – that message is: Mai I Te Pō Te Ao Mārama (from the darkness into the light). This is the idea that new life emerges from the void.
I walk and work in two worlds – the world of light and life (Te Ao Mārama) and the world of darkness (Te Pō). I see a great deal of darkness, suffering, pain and despair. I also have the privilege of seeing how people find the courage and resources to find the light and continue living after being impacted by suicide.
A lot of work I do happens in the void (Te Kore), the space between the darkness and the light. For me, the void is a state of chaos, possibility and potential for growth and transformation. This is how I see the world of trauma, suffering and suicide.
For the suicidal, the void is the thing that pulls them towards suicide. It is the promise of silence, an end to the suffering they experience or the burden they think they cause others. It is a painful place, a place of helplessness and hopelessness.
For the bereaved, the void is a space they find themselves in after suicide. There is a void in their life. They have been gutted, lost someone close to them, grieve for their loss and long to see them again. The void is also the silence and lack of support or compassion they encounter from others; it is difficult to understand what it is like to lose a loved one to suicide and that lack of understanding means people don’t know what to say or do to support others. The void is also the silence of the bereaved themselves. They don’t know how to explain it to others. Grief is exhausting, they don’t have the energy to teach people how to support them.
Suicide education is about prevention, intervention and postvention.
In terms of prevention, we educate people about what the risk and protective factors are for suicide and how to address them at an individual, family/whānau and community level; how to identify vulnerable groups and individuals; how to reduce stigma towards mental illness and suicide; how to promote help-seeking; and how to offer support and refer people to professional and other forms of support.
Intervention means educating professionals, clinicians and first responders about how to engage with someone who is suicidal; the key principles of supporting suicidal people; risk assessment; how to promote coping; the use of safety planning; and aspects of culturally responsive and ethical practice.
And for postvention we educate people who support those affected by suicide and the bereaved about how suicide affects those left behind; the needs of the bereaved; and how to offer effective support.
Supporting and educating people who are suffering involves listening, hearing, acknowledging and showing you understand and validate their experience; being emotionally present with them and attuned, having an open heart and mind.
Being a suicide educator entails being an ‘expert companion’ – sitting alongside survivors rather than trying to ‘do things’ to them. I have learnt over the years that people’s suffering is not mine to own. It is mine to understand, bear for a little and then give back in a way that makes it easier for them to carry on.
Carl Jung says finding meaning in suffering makes bearable what would otherwise be unbearable. Lionel Corbett, a Jungian analyst and ‘depth’ psychologist, asserts in his book The Soul in Anguish: Psychotherapeutic Approaches to Suffering that suffering can be developmentally useful, enabling wisdom and understanding we might not otherwise have had. Suffering can change our worldview and values and even reveal aspects of our character that were previously unknown. We can see suffering as a burden or as something that can lead to transformation.
The root of the word ‘suffer’ is also the root of the word ‘fertile’, so it is also related to the idea of bearing fruit. Psychologically, then, suffering can produce something; it’s not random or meaningless, nor merely something to get rid of. It can act as either a fertiliser or a poison.
Suffering can make us more empathic, compassionate and appreciative of everyday life. It can deepen our spiritual life, dissolve problems such as arrogance and lead to post-traumatic growth and resiliency.
Suicide educators can help survivors understand this. That new life and development can come from the dark and chaos of the void.
Another way we help survivors is by teaching them realistic strategies that promote resilience. Survivors often need to learn how to cope with overwhelming grief, to be reminded of the knowledge and strategies they already have, and to draw on prior experience and learning.
According to depth psychology, the only way to move past suffering is to engage with it, go deeper and allow it to transform into something else. We can’t change what has happened to survivors, we can’t undo the undoable, but we can help them adjust and adapt.
One of the ways we can do this is by teaching them how to change their narratives about suffering. I try to help survivors understand that the stories we tell about what has happened shape who we are, who others think we are, our identities and our ways of being in the world.
Encouraging them to tell their stories, explore them, challenge them and edit them slowly can lead to changes in thinking, feeling and behaviour.
For example, we might encourage them to focus on the enduring love they have for someone rather than the means by which that person took their life. Or to tell a story about someone who had a great influence on them. We are effectively encouraging self-creation – for people to move from the darkness into the void and then into the light with a new identity and narrative.
When we teach survivors how they can reinterpret and rewrite their experiences, we promote the hope that they do not need to be trapped in victim narratives. We help them reposition themselves and empower them.
Suicide educators also work with the people who support the suicidal and bereaved. We educate professionals and volunteers about evidence-based practices (what works), secondary trauma and how to engage in self-care and work sustainably.
It takes courage to work in the void, to enter the dark night of your soul and live with uncertainty – never knowing if the people you work with are going to make it. But we need people to remember, the darkest hour comes just before the dawn and there is always the possibility of transformation.
This is an adaptation of ‘Working in the void: Suicide, suffering, trauma and transformation’, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s inaugural Faculty of Education Annual Lecture.