The holiday season is upon us. Thanksgiving is past; Hanukkah and Christmas are here with a speed that defies readiness. With the coming of the seasons’ festivities, we are nourished by good words like family, cheer, love, joy, festivity, lights, decorations, and food. For some, however, these are tough days. Many people struggle through the holiday. For those who suffer from depression, this time of year can be lethal.
Depression is an illness that often requires professional support and medication to help individuals get through the challenges of daily living. Sometimes, however, depression goes viral and a person descends to a mental and emotional state that ends in suicide. When a client or a client’s family member takes his or her life, we can be stunned into either inactivity or silence. Even thinking or saying the word “suicide” can numb us to the place where we don’t know what to do or say or how to reach out to those we serve.
We read more about suicide today than we did 10 years ago. What we have learned is that understanding and taking care of our mental health is just as important as diet, exercise, and periodic visits to our doctors. Our clients and colleagues who struggle with depression and its related illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia face issues none of us can possibly imagine.
What follows are a few suggested responses we can make to our clients should the unthinkable happen:
First, be a presence to your client. What hurting people need from us is not our commentary or explanation or even well-meaning clichés. Presence is the needed gift. As soon as you can, find a way to get to your client, look into his or her eyes as you place a caring hand on the shoulder and share that you are there and want to offer support. Hurting people never forget a heartfelt gesture. Simply show up.
Second, focus on the living while not going silent about the deceased. Your client may need to offer an explanation. You can say to them in an affirming way, “I sense overwhelming pain. I’m here because I care about you.” A family that has a parent, child or relative who has struggled with depression knows a brutal pain the rest of us cannot imagine. As you listen with love, let them know there is much living beyond this moment and that you will be there for them.
Third, find ways to reach out to your client in the weeks and months to come. Circle the day one month out, then two and six months out and give them a call on that date to let them know they are loved. Most individuals work through grief over a six month to one-year timeframe. When it comes to suicide, grief can become a tenured resident that will not be evicted. Be mindful of that possibility. Being there for your client(s) and finding ways to communicate your care will help more than you imagine.
The holidays can be, for many, the most difficult season of the year. Some of those people are your clients. While other advisors look the other way immobilized by fear, you be the professional who knows your clients so well, you know in your heart the very ones who need tender, personal gestures of care, support, and love that will be a gift they will long remember.