Witnessing the suicide of a stranger
December 1, 2008 11:55 AM   Subscribe

How do I find other people who have witnessed the suicide of a stranger?

Last week I was driving over the SF Bay Bridge and watched someone get up on the railing and jump off. I found out later that he died and was picked up by the authorities.

I did all the things I was supposed to do - called 911, checked in with the authorities, let myself cry before driving a vehicle etc. I've been in touch with friends who are therapists and gotten plenty of hugs and loving people to support me.

But the image of him getting up on the side of the bridge and the way his body looked as he jumped haunts me. I know it's probably too early to expect that it go away. I'm just struggling with what meaning to find in it all and how to find people who won't judge what I am experiencing.

I've looked for support sites online and have found a number of places that are for friends or family who have had someone they love commit suicide. But I don't even know this guy's name. I wouldn't want to be intruding on what is obviously a very sensitive time for someone who has a friend or family member die.

Part of what is making this challenging for me is that I don't know much about what happened, or why it happened. There is not much more information I can learn. I also have found that while some family or friends have tried to be helpful, they have had a tough time not assigning blame, being judgmental or otherwise putting their own issues about death and suicide onto my plate. Which feels even more confusing and alienating.

I'd like to find people to talk to who get what I'm going through. Are there support groups or online places for people who have witnessed the suicide of a stranger(s)? I think it might be really helpful to talk to someone else who has experienced something similar. Can anyone recommend a place to get support? I've googled but I'm not coming up with anything useful.

I welcome any thoughts or suggestions. email:zerzik at gmail dot com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Did you watch the documentary about this very thing? It's called 'The Bridge.' It might help a bit, in the sense of understanding a little better why they do it.
posted by HopperFan at 12:15 PM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would recommend that you talk to someone at Kara.
posted by madmethods at 12:18 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might try talking with cops, EMTs, or other "first responders", as they've likely been in similar situations. On the other hand, they're also likely to be jaded and irreverent about it, if only to protect their own emotional stability.
posted by orthogonality at 12:21 PM on December 1, 2008

You might ask CHP or SFFD who does their CISDs - Critical Incident Stress Debriefing. Those providers would be knowledgeable about providing counseling or resources to people who were "just" witnesses.

Also, seconding HopperFan- watching The Bridge might be helpful for processing. It might be difficult to watch, though, so I'd try to see it with an understanding friend or loved one.

This might sound hokey, but now is a good time to be especially gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to feel how you feel- even if that includes anger at the stranger, or other emotions that might seem "wrong."
posted by charmcityblues at 12:47 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I suspect that the folks at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline might be able to steer you to appropriate resources.
posted by ericb at 12:57 PM on December 1, 2008

Did you watch the documentary about this very thing? It's called 'The Bridge.'

BTW -- the film's website has a message board which includes many people talking about dealing with suicides, witnessing them, etc.
posted by ericb at 1:03 PM on December 1, 2008

You might ask CHP or SFFD who does their CISDs...

Just to add another possible place to ask...

If you know anyone who works in rail transport (commuter rail, amtrak, maybe rail yards, etc.), you could try asking them. The rail companies may have similar counseling groups for conductors who witness people jumping in front of their trains.
posted by CKmtl at 1:34 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Greg Knauss wrote about a similar experience here. Your experience of being tangentially involved in a stranger's death is more common than you might realize. If you know anyone in the health care field they almost certainly have been through any number of heart-wrenching experiences. Although they may be jaded, even a die-hard cynic such as myself still needs to vent/cry/whatever from time to time.
posted by TedW at 1:35 PM on December 1, 2008

Art Kleiner's article How Not To Commit Suicide is well worth reading. You've experienced a traumatic event; it will take time. If you pray, perhaps praying for the deceased, who was likely suffering a lot, will help. I'm not religious, except that I believe in praying; it's a great comfort.
posted by theora55 at 2:30 PM on December 1, 2008

For what it's worth, I witnessed someone's suicide inadvertently about 15 or more years ago. I was driving to work and was nearly there when a woman fell directly onto the street in front of the car just in front of me. They had jumped from the fourth or fifth floor of a parking garage next to the street, right into the street. I wound up getting out of my car and effectively watching the person die. It was haunting for a while to have watched something so serious and final; the last moments of a person's life. I did not know them at all, though, and it did not have a lasting emotional effect on me. I do remember that it was helpful for me to describe the experience to the folks at work and my friends, in a sort of "listen to this crazy thing that happened to me and sort of freaked me out" kind of way.

Not sure if this is helpful, but fwiw.
posted by onlyconnect at 2:36 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

As someone who has thought about suicide a few times, this question has a powerful message to me: Suicides can hurt a great many more than just those related to the one who commits.

Thanks for sending this question.
posted by tcv at 4:15 PM on December 1, 2008 [7 favorites]

I have been with two people during unsuccessful suicide attempts - one person I knew, one person I didn't. The lasting affect of both situations has been profound. For me, the most surprising thing was the way I was able to respond. In the midst of the emergencies, I found I was able to summon up strength and calm that I didn't know I had - a rush of adrenaline, maybe, I'm not sure - but it felt as though there was nothing else in the world except that one life to take care of. Later, I found I was shaky and weak for days. I was scared by the depth of pain that I had observed, but I was also scared by how critical each moment had seemed, and terrified by the idea that my actions might have saved a life - having such power is a very scary thing.

My advice to you would be to call the Samaritans, or another listening hotline. I have been a staffer for a similar listening service, and although taking a call from a suicidal caller is not the same as witnessing the suicide of a stranger, there are similarites, and peer listening people know how important it is to deal with your own feelings after witnessing such a thing.

Personally, I try to use this kind of experience as a reminder to myself of how fragile people sometimes are, and how much little things can matter to another person in a time of need.
posted by Cygnet at 5:39 PM on December 1, 2008

I watched a woman throw herself in front an express train in Russia when I was 13. I never felt I had resources to even talk about that experience, largely because I was on a school field trip and the trip was supposed to be entirely and unquestionably positive.

I still have nightmares about it, but I know there was absolutely nothing I could have done.

My heart is with you, although I have no advice.
posted by bilabial at 6:51 PM on December 1, 2008

I don't know how you would go about contacting them, but I know that quite a few BART train operators have witnessed suicides. Perhaps there is a therapist BART officials could recommend, or since they would have to deal with a situation like this on a semi-regular basis, they may have protocols or procedures in place to help these train operators cope with the tragedies they've witnesses.
posted by kuppajava at 7:46 AM on December 2, 2008

Contact the San Francisco chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They can lead you to support you need.

If you don't live in SF, see this page to find a chapter.
posted by jgirl at 12:43 PM on December 2, 2008

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