Four years ago, I awoke to an email from my supervisee. She thanked me for being a great supervisor, and I thought, “Oh good, she’s going to find another supervisor for a diverse perspective.” But then I quickly realized that this wasn’t a typical exchange. In the next few lines, she said she was ending her life. The tone was resolute and final.
When I read those words, everything stopped. My vision blurred. It felt like I had entered a dark portal that was transporting me into an empty, dark abyss; the portal disappeared behind me, removing any chance I had of getting out. I was stuck, floating almost outside my body. I was in shock.
Moments after the loss
The word supervisee feels so formal and professional, almost sterile. It falls short in describing my connection to this person I had lost. We had spent over 100 hours of supervisory time together during the three years I had been her supervisor. That’s a lot of time. Our relationship was primarily professional, but she had attended my dissertation defense and met my wife, so the professional sometimes merged with the personal.
In the moments after reading the supervisee’s email, my mind started to race with thoughts: Is this real? When did she send the email? Is she alive? Maybe she tried and failed. Is she in pain? How did I miss this? Why would she do this? I have her address; I’m going over there. I should call her.
There is something in our spirit that wants to deny the reality of a deep and sudden loss.
In the email, she thanked me for my supervision, my encouragement and mentoring, and she encouraged me to “fight the good fight.” My first thought was, “Easy for you to say.” But then I realized that it hadn’t been easy for her.
During supervision, she talked about being recently diagnosed with a mental illness and how challenging it was for her and how she didn’t want to keep living like that. I wanted to let her know she wasn’t alone, so I shared that I had witnessed how difficult it could be because I knew someone who had the same mental illness.
I also wanted to tell her that one of my close family members currently struggles with this mental illness, but I didn’t. Sometimes I wonder if disclosing that would have made a difference — not the difference of her dying or living but helped her feel less alone. But maybe that is just the natural feeling we get after loss where we think we could have done something more.
Advice for coping with suicide loss
I have lost several clients to suicide, but I have always been able to differentiate myself from my clients and their decisions and struggles, even ones that result in them ending their lives. I tell my counseling students, “Attach to the person. Detach from their outcomes.”
But the loss of my supervisee was different. It was unfathomable. Because I had been her supervisor, I felt a greater sense of responsibility to her, and this caused me to reflect more on how I could have done things differently. I think it’s natural to evaluate your role when things go wrong. With time and consultation with a mentor, I realized that I had done everything I could. But some of the weight of this loss still remains with me today.
Classes don’t prepare us to cope with client losses, much less the loss of a supervisee. So, I doubt anyone has received training on how to cope with this unless it has been by a mentor who has experienced something similar. Loss by suicide is something we should talk more about — for ourselves as humans and clinicians.
Losing my supervisee to suicide taught me a few things about grief and loss. Although my experience is unique to me, I hope that by sharing what helped during this difficult time, I can help other supervisors and counselors who may experience the loss of a colleague or client at some point in their careers.
Let yourself feel — without judgment. I realized early on that I needed to allow myself space and freedom to feel a host of emotions, such as sadness, hurt, anger, betrayal, guilt and empathy. I never thought this would happen to one of my supervisees, so allowing myself to experience these emotions without judgment helped me process what I was feeling.
We also have to remember that we need to embrace and process these feelings before we act or attempt to find a new purpose. After the memorial service, I sat in my car and thought about what I would do differently because of her death. But my emotional part spoke up and said, “You need to wait. You need to feel your grief before you discover some grand new purpose.” I am grateful I listened to that voice inside me. Allowing yourself to feel before thinking and doing is a healthy response to a shocking loss.
Seek support from others. In my 20-year career as a mental health counselor and 13 years as a counselor educator, I have realized that we do not talk enough about how therapists can cope when a client dies by suicide. So, when it happens, counselors often find there is little professional or peer support. I realize the loss of a supervisee is uncommon; anecdotally, I asked 12 supervisors who had a cumulative 290 years of supervisory experience, and none could recall ever losing a supervisee through suicide. Trust me, you would more than recall if it happened to you. It is forever etched in my heart and soul.
Many counselors receive supervision at the agencies or hospitals where they work. However, since I am an independently licensed counselor in private practice, I was not receiving weekly supervision when my supervisee died. I was just doing monthly consultation. But I knew that I needed more than a monthly check-in during this time, so I asked a colleague who is a trauma-trained supervisor to be my regular, weekly supervisor for the next several months. I knew it was important to have additional and consistent professional support through this season of my life. The supervisor knew about my loss and was always mindful of ways in which I might have been projecting my grief onto my clients or any traumatic countertransference I may have been experiencing. The supervisor was comfortable addressing and exploring these concerns with me if they arose.
I advise colleagues to join a suicide support group. I know that support groups can feel daunting for some, and there may be an issue where the therapist knows the clinician leading the group or has clients in the group. You could also talk to a friend who is a suicide survivor or reach out to your support systems or another mental health professional. Lean on the people who love and support you.
Begin or revisit individual therapy. In addition to supervision, it’s important to be in therapy when coping with suicide loss. I hadn’t seen my therapist in several months, but it helped me find relief and validation for how I was feeling. After I told her what had happened, she looked at me with a blank stare and said, “I never.” Those two simple words resonated with me and affirmed how I felt in that moment. I never thought it would happen either.
Counseling provided me with a safe space to express the unfathomable. It also served as an additional source of support and gave me insight and awareness I would not have had if I were only in supervision. My therapist helped me explore the helper part of myself, which provided perspective around this loss.
Change your perspective. Metaphors, sayings and stories can help us find meaning during difficult or confusing times and help us gain new perspective. For example, the metaphor “Grief is a stone you carry in your pocket” reminds me that grief is always with us, even in times when we don’t realize it is present. It also illustrates how sometimes grief is smooth and contains wonderful memories, but other times, it has sharp edges that can prick you.
After my supervisee died, I resonated with the saying, “What is grief if not love persisting?” This quote allowed me to see how my grief also illustrated how much I cared for this person. If I hadn’t cared, I wouldn’t have felt it so deeply.
Books can also be a great source of comfort. A colleague and friend suggested I read Albert Hsu’s Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope. I’m thankful for this recommendation because it helped me further process my grief and provided helpful examples from a survivor’s faith-based perspective — something that is important to me. Hsu explained that sometimes suicide survivors view their lives through the lens of the death: Everything becomes what happened before or what happened after the loss. On a spiritual level, that is my truth.
An ongoing process
In the months after my supervisee’s death, I found myself obsessively reading her email over and over again. It was like I felt obligated or compelled to memorize it. Maybe I thought that memorizing it would help me not forget her. I wish I could say that I don’t feel compelled to read it now four years later, but I still do. Every year on the anniversary of her death, I find myself reading it again. My therapist recently asked if part of me is still searching for something in her last words. I don’t know the answer to this question yet because I’m still processing through the loss. Grief is an ongoing process after all.
I hope that none of you will ever face a loss like this. But if you do, know that you’re not alone. Give yourself space to grieve and care for the person you lost and rely on the support of others while you try to find comfort and make meaning of the unfathomable.
- Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope by Albert Hsu, 2017
- Myths About Suicide by Thomas Joiner, 2011
- “Supporting survivors of suicide loss” by Dana M. Cea, Counseling Today, 2019
- Why People Die by Suicide by Thomas Joiner, 2007
Keith Myers has worked in clinical mental health for almost 21 years and is the founding clinic director of Ellie Mental Health in Marietta, Georgia. He received his doctorate in counselor education and supervision from Mercer University. He is a licensed professional counselor, approved clinical supervisor and an adjunct professor with both Mercer University and Richmont Graduate University. Much of his research focuses on traumatic stress and military issues, which resulted in his first book, Counseling Veterans: A Practical Guide. He works with veterans, first responders, couples and trauma therapists who are experiencing secondary traumatic stress.
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