The ones left behind: Beyond the Blue

The unexpected loss of an Airman to suicide creates a void that echos far beyond the empty chair at their workstation. The unit’s focus must now shift from preventative efforts to fostering recovery for the ones left behind.

The journey through grief is unique to every individual and if not properly managed, increases their risk of transitioning into a prolonged mourning referred to as complicated grief.

In 2020, the Department of Defense released a postvention toolkit containing various resources to help units cope with loss. Airmen now have instant access to checklists, memorial guidance, standard operating procedures and more, immediately following a crisis.

The toolkit is designed to assist and guide units with support responses to effectively rebuild their communities.

“We want to train our Air Force community to be able to identify other people at risk, and make sure they get the care needed to get through a grief process that is different than other kinds of grieving,” said Dr. Mary Bartlett, Air University associate professor and suicidologist.

This is a grieving process that Master Sgt. Samuel Prentice, 22nd Security Forces Squadron first sergeant, has personally experienced after losing an Airman to suicide.

“Time has almost stopped since that day,” said Prentice. “You feel the responsibility and wonder, ëdid you do enough?’ That scenario has probably changed me for the rest of my life.”

Complicated grief is a persistent grieving experience, characterized by extensional angst and inability to recover from a loss. Following the death of his Airman, Prentice struggled with finding acceptance and managing an overwhelming sense of guilt.

“No one is anticipating a loss by suicide,” said Bartlett. “So, when a survivor starts to disconnect it becomes a risk factor for them.”

In recent years, the Air Force has increased its emphasis on using postvention as prevention in the battle against suicide. Postvention focuses on the proactive supportive responses following a death to facilitate emotional healing for those that have been impacted, and provide the opportunity to rebuild the Air Force community through healthy grieving.

“It can be very easy to just assume someone is okay and that may not be the case,” said Prentice. “I don’t think that every Airman is wired the same way and if you make the assumption that we all are, then that’s when you run the risk of missing one.”

A 2018 study by The American Association of Suicidology has shown that for every one death by suicide, more than 134 individuals are impacted in some way. The impact may vary, but can manifest as stress, changes in mood or increased anxiety or thoughts of suicide.

The ability to identify those who fall within the suicide aftermath crater of impact is crucial.

To accomplish this, Bartlett stresses the importance of individuals in a position of leadership developing authentic relationships with Airmen and fostering an environment where they feel valued and secure.

“I’m very open about what I’ve gone through because I want my Airmen to go get help like I do,” said Prentice. “Everybody’s story is a little bit different, but by the slightest of actions you can change people’s lives and careers.”

Airman of all ranks can access a variety of additional postvention resources at www.resilience.af.mil/Postvention-Tools.

If you or someone you know is struggling with grief or having thoughts of suicide, contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, then press 1 or access the online chat by texting 838255.

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