worst day at work ever or what?
September 30, 2009 12:33 AM   Subscribe

My coworker came to work and shot himself today. I was the only person to talk to him and was one of the first people to reach him after he did it. I'm planning on speaking with the grief counselors they're bringing in tomorrow. But I'm wondering if there are any resources I should know about for people in a situation like mine, specifically: witnesses of the suicide of a coworker or friend. In case the details are relevant: they are below.

My coworker, J called in from the front door (which is locked) needing to be let in. I went to open the door for him and he was visibly drunk. I asked him if he was okay, he said no and as he headed for his cubicle, I grabbed our HR person to let them know that J had just come in and didn't look good, seemed drunk. About 5 seconds later our IT guy started yelling "oh my god" and I ran over to the cubicle.

J was bleeding from his head and ear, I didn't know what it was at first, but I could smell the burning hair. Someone else called 911; I asked if we needed to check his pulse but there was a lot of blood and I was scared to touch him.

I wasn't so close with J that we hung out outside of work, but we were on the same web/technology team so I talked with him almost every day. His mom had died a few months ago and he took it pretty hard. Some of my other coworkers were closer with him, and had been reaching out to help him. I guess it was too late for that.

I keep seeing him in my head, and I can't get the memory of the smell out of my head either. If I try not to think about it, I start worrying that ignoring it is bad too, and I guess I'm just trying to figure out what is "normal" for a situation like this. I think what I'm looking for is, perhaps, some information about how others have dealt with similar experiences.
posted by nerdcore to Human Relations (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Wow, rough.

Well, the fact you just composed such a coherent and self-critical question speaks volumes about how well you're handling it.

There's no real 'normal' in handling trauma; it's a very personal thing. You'll certainly remember the sight (and smell) for years to come, but there's nothing unusual or bad about that, unless it escalates to the point that you can't think about anything else for days at a time. If you can ignore it most of the time, ignore it. If it comes to mind, feel free to think about it. As long as this isn't crippling your life, you are doing 'well' dealing with it as best you can.

Again, the fact you're so clearheaded right now suggests that you won't have a serious problem.
posted by rokusan at 12:40 AM on September 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry you were involved in such a traumatic scene

To me it sounds like you are having a very normal reaction to being exposed to a scene of catastrophe. The visceral sensations are going to go through your thoughts for a while. If this individual had reached the end of their mental breakdown at home I'm sure you would be affected by it but I doubt you would be dwelling on it late at night or feeling a need to bring it to a forum like this. I think you're just processing sensations and the very natural physical and sympathetic reactions to being so close to a tragic and violent death. I think time will mostly do the work of moving past it. I would bet that you will not need a lot of special support to deal with this in the long run, and I think doing your best not to dwell on it is probably both normal and healthy. Of course you will have to process your thoughts and sadness but that doesn't mean you can't actively think about other things than that particular upsetting scene.

It sounds like you are pretty level headed about your role in this but it is probably worth reminding you that despite your connection and proximity, in the end this was all about your coworker and his mental breakdown, and not about you. There isn't anything you could have done - we just aren't equipped in every day life to anticipate this sort of thing. In a real sense it is something like a car wreck or fire. Take care of yourself, try to get rest and don't expect too much of yourself until you get some distance from the shock of the event.
posted by nanojath at 1:08 AM on September 30, 2009

I've been sort of debating whether to link this question as its More Inside has some pretty graphic details about an accident victim, but I really thought of this when I read your question. There is a lot of discussion about dealing with the aftermath of being tangentially but closely involved with a traumatic event that I think you might find relevant. You don't need to read the detailed question to get the gist of the situation and appreciate the answers (including some first-hand experiences related).

Gave cell phone to a fire victim.
posted by nanojath at 1:18 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's no such thing as a normal reaction when the situation isn't normal. This isn't a normal situation.

I'm sorry for your shock and loss; for your coworker's sadness; for this terrible situation.

I have never had to respond to a suicide. However, I can say that for me, going through the "rituals" associated with death are helpful (collecting any photographs, boxing up personal items, attending the funeral, writing condolences to family/friends, taking that extra action that means something to you).

Also... wow, this is where you work, and where you spend a good deal of your time. Dealing with the physical space that belonged to someone who has passed away is another weird process. Whether or not you feel uncomfortable at work after today (like I said, there's no such thing as a normal reaction here), please give yourself the space to freak out as needed. It might be helpful for you to consider moving desks, if only to give yourself a new perspective on the office set up.

Lastly-- definitely set up a time to chat with the provided grievance counselor. However, remember what I said above-- "There's no such thing as a normal reaction when the situation isn't normal."-- I have a caveat. If and when YOU feel that you're no longer reacting "normally" according to your own standards... THAT is when you go talk to a counselor. The counselor will help you to either a) realign your idea of a "normal" reaction or b) realign how you're reacting.
posted by samthemander at 1:19 AM on September 30, 2009

What a terribly sad thing to have to go through. Whatever you're feeling, it's normal. If you find you can distract yourself from thinking about it and push it to the back of your mind, that's normal. but if you also feel it bubbling up and can't stop thinking about it, that's normal too. I'm glad you'll be talking to a grief counselor, he can help you deal with your current reactions, and just as importantly, let you know what to expect in the coming days and weeks as you come out of the immediate shock of the situation.
posted by platinum at 1:25 AM on September 30, 2009

Many previous threads have information on suicide, including one about witnessing one. I'm sorry.
posted by salvia at 1:43 AM on September 30, 2009

I do not know you at all, obviously, but I tend to get kind of outwardly calm and jokey when I'm pretty freaked out. It's a way to distance myself from the situation. This might be you. If it is you, you might want to try to keep track of whether there's a distance between what you're saying and how you're feeling.

You might be more freaked out than you realize and if you are you should watch out for doing stuff like drinking and driving or picking fights -situations that people in stress sometimes put themselves into because they're trying to vent but don't really have a conscious handle on it.

Other than that, I think talking about it, seeking the support of the grief counselors and finding others who've been through traumatic situations -- what you're doing -- is the right way to go.

And as others said; there's no normal. You can take it in stride or sit in your closet and cry for an hour, and I think either one is normal in the spectrum of human experience.

I'm really sorry--that is truly awful.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:56 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: That really does sound like a bad day at work. Everything you're experiencing is a normal response to trauma. Remember that - no matter how much you're wigging out now (and it sounds like you're actually coping quite well), it is by no means inevitable that you'll suffer long-term post traumatic symptoms. Speak to the grief counsellor tomorrow, but also make plans to check in with a counsellor or psychologist over the next few months. Some people experience a delayed reaction after the initial coping period has ended.

Forgive the giant blockquote, but here are some helpful lists, courtesy of the Australian Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health and the Victorian Government's health promotion website Better Health Channel:

Common reactions to trauma:
The way a person react s to trauma will depend on many things, such as the type and severity of the event, the support the person has, other stresses in their lives, their personality and their ability to cope. Common reactions include a range of physical, cognitive (thinking) and emotional factors. These reactions are normal and show how the event has affected the person. Understanding this is the first step in coming to terms with what has happened.

Physical reactions
The following physical reactions may indicate traumatic stress:

* Fatigue or exhaustion
* Disturbed sleep
* Nausea
* Nightmares
* Restlessness
* Headaches
* Excessive alertness and being easily startled.

Cognitive reactions
The following thinking reactions are common after distressing or frightening events:

* Poor concentration
* Poor attention and memory
* Visual images of the event
* Intrusive thoughts
* Disorientation
* Confusion.

Emotional reactions
Common emotional reactions to trauma include:

* Fear
* Numbness and detachment
* Avoidance
* Depression
* Guilt
* Oversensitivity
* Anxiety and panic
* Withdrawal and tearfulness.

Behavioural reactions
Common emotional reactions to trauma include:

* Avoiding reminders of the event
* Inability to stop focusing on it
* Getting immersed in working for recovery
* Losing touch with normal routines
* Losing time – the person doesn’t know where the time went
* Difficulty doing anything except familiar routines.
Immediately following a traumatic event:

* Spend time with people who care
* Give yourself time
* Find out about impact of trauma and what to expect
* Try to keep a routine going – work, study
* Return to normal activities
* Talk about how you feel or what happened when ready
* What can you do right now….?
* Do things that help you relax
* Do things that you enjoy


* Use alcohol or drugs to cope
* Keep yourself busy and work too much
* Engage in stressful family or work situations
* Withdraw from family and friends
* Stop yourself from doing things that you enjoy
* Avoid talking about what happened at all cost
* Take risks
posted by embrangled at 1:59 AM on September 30, 2009 [14 favorites]

If your firm is employing a grief counselor, do speak with them, and follow their recommendations, even if not all your co-workers do. Talking about the experience helps some people move on, whereas others prefer to let the matter drop from conversation, as soon as possible.

There is some evidence that people who have witnessed a shocking scene do better if they are able to sleep normally in the days immediately afterwards; it is as if their sub-conscious minds do better at integrating the experience through dreaming and other sleep processes, than do those who have difficulty sleeping afterwards. Accordingly, if you are not offered temporary sleeping medications, you may want to stock up on Benadryl, or other over the counter sleep aids, or take a warm bath/have a glass of warm milk/eat a pint of ice cream before bed/etc., and whatever else you find helps you make an effort to get your normal sleep, or perhaps a little more, as soon as you can.
posted by paulsc at 2:01 AM on September 30, 2009

I can't really compute this, but off the top of my head, I would immediately request at least a week off (at least) and further request that when you return to work, your work unit has been moved to a different physical location. During your (minimum) week off I would speak to a counsellor who specialises in trauma victims.

Don't make the mistake of constructing a labyrinthine plot wherein you are somehow responsible. "I should have seen the signs" or "I dissed him once about his choice in shoes/food/women" or "I shouldn't have let him in blah blah". It's all bullshit.

Of course, I don't know you or your psychology so you might not need to do anything at all.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:53 AM on September 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

My roommate was murdered a couple of summers ago. Fortunately I did not witness it, but experienced many of the same feelings described here. The strongest advice I can offer is to seek grief counselling, if you feel like you want to talk about it, because in my experience, friends, and even those affected can feel like they want to pretend everythings ok, and want to forget about it. I needed to talk about it to process my own feelings on the matter. I am fairly well adjusted about it now, but don't think I would be without the counselling I had.
posted by nunoidia at 2:53 AM on September 30, 2009

There are many support groups out there find one you like when you are ready, the sooner the better. You will need to find the tools necessary for you to deal with post traumatic stress disorder. I'm in agreement with the majority of the people who responded, you are obviously an intelligent well balanced person and you can get through this but you need to be aware of the stages of grief as well as trauma.

This is going to take time. Suicide is so difficult to deal with on any level. Be gentle with yourself that helped me a great deal in dealing with my own losses.
posted by gypseefire at 3:55 AM on September 30, 2009

I just wanted to tell you that I'm sorry and that you'll find peace. Please be kind to your self.
posted by tcv at 4:10 AM on September 30, 2009

It looks like there's a support group in your neck of the woods (via http://www.suicide.org/support-groups/california-suicide-support-groups.html):

Name of Group: Survivors of Suicide
Sutter VNA & Hospice
Bereavement Services
1110 N. Dutton Avenue
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Contact Person: Valerie Waidler
Margo Requarth
(707) 535-5780
Meetings per Month: Every Monday from 12noon-1:30p.m.
Fee: No

Nthing all the previous sentiments: There's no normal reaction, and don't try to pin any blame on yourself. Hang in there, and take care of yourself.
posted by usonian at 4:25 AM on September 30, 2009

Best answer: I keep seeing him in my head, and I can't get the memory of the smell out of my head either. If I try not to think about it, I start worrying that ignoring it is bad too

I haven't dealt with exactly this situation, but I have had situations/stresses which cause these kinds of intrusive thoughts. I don't know if this will help, but here is a sort of modified version of what I do, for your situation:

When you have an overpowering image or thought, stop what you are doing for a moment (assuming you're not driving or something). If you're working, put your hands on your lap, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Acknowledge to yourself however you are feeling at that moment, anger, guilt, hate, sadness, emptiness, whatever. Tell yourself that these feelings are okay. Take another breath and give yourself a moment of silence/respect in which you acknowledge the life of your co-worker. Tell yourself that you will take the time to remember him and deal with your feelings at the counsellor's and that today you have to work (in other words, give yourself permission to temporarily ignore the event in the context that you're in because you have set aside a context in which these thoughts and feelings will be the primary focus).

I'm really sorry. I hope you feel better soon.
posted by carmen at 5:26 AM on September 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

If I try not to think about it, I start worrying that ignoring it is bad too, and I guess I'm just trying to figure out what is "normal" for a situation like this.

Trying to put it out of your mind is not "bad." In fact, I think the notion that everyone needs to "process" in the same way -- by thinking about and telling the story of a traumatic event multiple times -- has been more recently scrapped, and that people who want to "put it behind them and move on" actually adjust quite well to a traumatic event.

Basically, don't dismiss your own instincts in favor of some widely accepted notion of how people grieve and adjust to trauma. If your instinct is "I'd rather not think about this now," then ... allow yourself not to think about this now, if you can. It's not a disservice to your co-worker to take care of yourself in the way that seems best to you.
posted by palliser at 5:47 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow, that sucks. It's one thing to want to kill yourself. It's another to cause other people so much trauma.

I would agree with the people who say to allow yourself to feel the emotions and memories as they occur. Don't feel bad about any feeling you feel- just process it and organize it as you see fit. I would also say that it's probably a good idea to go to work soon or right away. You know how you get that weird "something has changed" feeling after returning from a vacation? I would imagine that would be about a hundred times worse after something like this.

But I think palliser's answer is helpful too- you need to strike a comfortable balance between processing what has happened and not letting it drive you nuts. It's OK to save something for later, but if you never "let it out", it tends to fester and cause weird problems. But at the same time, you don't have to force yourself to process something when you don't want to.
posted by gjc at 6:33 AM on September 30, 2009

This website - Survivors of Suicide - was recommended to me after my cousin committed suicide 2 years ago (I did not witness it). It's geared towards friends and family members, but reading their stories may help you process your experience. I'm so very sorry you had to see this and wish you well.
posted by desjardins at 7:26 AM on September 30, 2009

To embrangled's list above I would add this: make sure you eat and drink plenty of good stuff, and get exercise. It's common to forget to do these when you're going through something like this. Take good care of yourself, take a few days off if you can, reach out to friends. I feel for you.
posted by mareli at 7:42 AM on September 30, 2009

Best answer: I am so sorry. I experience (but, thankfully, did not witness) the suicide of a friend/co-worker about 8 years ago. It was really difficult, and it's still with me.

You sort of sound like you're in shock. Do see the grief counselor. Maybe get a recommendation for some ongoing therapy to help you sort through it. Some of the previous posters have given good links, and I think survivor advocacy groups would be good for you to contact.

Though you weren't necessarily close, you ARE a survivor of suicide. It's important not to discount your needs in this situation. It's good that you're being so proactive in seeking coping strategies. This may take a while to sort through - go easy on yourself. Your emotions are valid, and you should give yourself permission to feel and deal with this as you need to.

My thoughts are with you and the others who are dealing with this. I'm so sorry.
posted by dryad at 8:23 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine had her office mate commit suicide. My friend had problems after his death because:
1. His death, and the circumstances around his death, were not communicated clearly across the office. A vague email was sent out to a subset of the team and others came to her for information.
2. People didn't understand why this man took his own life, so she was constantly questioned about his demeanour before his death and why he would do such a thing.
3. She experienced a lot of guilt about not being able to reach out to him sooner.

Items 1 and 2 you can mitigate by taking quick action now. Before you leave for the day (and you should leave for the day), talk to your boss and the HR person about the communication plan for this man's death. Make it clear that you want them to communicate this clearly to your co-workers at large, so you will not have to field unnecessary questions. Talk to the grief counselor specifically about answering questions about his death. You can choose to redirect coworkers to the people that have agreed to talk about it or you can retell the story yourself. Keep in mind that it will be quite taxing to repeat yourself over and over.

There are good strategies for dealing with guilt above.

Sorry for your loss.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:43 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by ShadePlant at 8:44 AM on September 30, 2009

how terrible. i'm very sorry.

lots of good suggestions upthread. my only comment would be to reiterate the idea of letting yourself have whatever reaction you have. there is no "appropriate" or "inappropriate" reaction. cry, make jokes, whatever you need to do to process this.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:47 AM on September 30, 2009

I recall seeing some statistics linked elsewhere on MetaFilter recently about how most people who attempt suicide do so rather impulsively without a lot of planning. So don't dwell too much on what you could or couldn't have done -- the guy probably made the decision to kill himself very quickly. He may have even made the decision AFTER he talked to you, even though very little time had passed. It's quite possible that he carried a gun regularly for self-defense anyway, then in his depressed and inebriated state was suddenly overcome with the impulse to pull it out and shoot himself in the head.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:52 AM on September 30, 2009

Best answer: My partner had a remarkably similar experience three or four years ago. Though I haven't experienced this myself, I can tell you what I know from someone who has:

-- Do get the counseling, both immediately and again every few months. Don't talk yourself out of it. I'd disagree somewhat with the very first comment in this thread, which says that since you're so coherent, you're obviously dealing with this well. Not that you *aren't* dealing with it well -- you are -- but you're also very likely in shock.

-- Counseling will help, but those images and memories aren't going to go away anytime soon. In fact, they probably never will. Don't panic. That's okay. Over time, you'll figure out how to react to them in a way that doesn't evoke grief or anxiety. (The counseling will help with this.) Be realistic, though, and understand that this will always be a part of you. And that's okay.

--Do not go down the path of "what if I had only...." Talk to your counselor every time this thought comes into your head. (And it will.)

--Over time, this will fade from The Incident and turn into that-thing-that-happened. But every once in a while, something will trigger the memories. Something you see on TV, or something someone says that reminds you of it. Again, that's okay. You're going to learn how to incorporate this into your life in a way that doesn't elicit a strong, painful reaction every time it comes up. And that's what you need to work toward -- not an all-out memory wipe.

I'm very sorry that you've had this experience. I know how hard it is, since someone I love has been through it too.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:42 AM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Unfortunately, I have a clue as to what you're going through. I did not see a friend commit suicide but I've seen friends with bullet wounds caused by another person, and that was a very traumatic event as well.

From my experience, I can tell you that the thing that helped most for me was listening to myself, I mean to my needs. If I felt the need to be surrounded with friends, they knew the situation and I could just call them up and be with them. If I needed to be alone, I knew the people around me would understand as well. If I felt the need to talk about it, I let the people around me know and started discussing it, but during the days when I needed a break I told them that, too.

Just listen to your body/mind. It knows best what's good for you. Remember that you don't have to share all the time to get over it, you don't need to be with people all the time in order to forget, you don't need to keep living as though nothing happened (I took a week off both my jobs), but you also shouldn't withdraw (I didn't stay home all day while I was off work).

Second thing that really helped me was finding the right treatment. Other than going to my regular psychotherapist (who was great, really) I found out about a form of EMDR treatment (used for patients with PTSD) and was very surprised to discover it had helped me, so you should try giving that a thought.

Sometimes you'll have days where you want to talk about it all the time, and others you'll have days when you'll beg people not to remind you. On both days, honor your mind's choice. It kinda knows what it's doing.
posted by alon at 6:38 PM on September 30, 2009

I highly recommend getting in touch with Kara.
posted by madmethods at 8:27 PM on September 30, 2009

Response by poster: I want to thank everyone for their responses here. I really appreciate the caring and supportive answers, and wanted to let people know that I'm doing okay. I have no idea when I'll be able to go back to work (although I did go in to my other, non-related job today, and that went fine). But I'm going to take it slowly and see how I'm feeling next week.

I was able to get a same-day appointment with a psychotherapist who led me through an EMDR treatment. I've also been making sure to take care of myself and adopted an adorable kitten yesterday which has given me something super positive to keep focusing on. Her name is Rahm Emanuel and I have to say: kitten therapy is pretty much the best thing ever.
posted by nerdcore at 8:10 PM on October 2, 2009

Thanks for the update, I'm glad you're doing okay, and I love the kitten's name.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:26 PM on October 4, 2009

omgkitten!! Yes, kittens are terrific therapy. Make sure to get a laser pointer for maximum efficacy.
posted by desjardins at 8:21 PM on October 4, 2009


I'm glad to hear you are doing as well as can be hoped given the circumstances.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:31 AM on October 6, 2009

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