How leisure activities can help people cope with losing a loved one to suicide

When Julia Froese was an undergraduate student in Manitoba, her closest friend took her own life. The loss came as a complete shock and the tragic event left Froese broken and hopeless.

“I was not OK. The loss of my best friend was extremely traumatic, and I was just kind of lost. For the next two years I wasn’t able or even sure of how to cope with the loss, and my efforts at grappling with the emotional chaos that I felt were all futile,” she said.

After taking a year off from school, Froese returned to her studies despite not knowing what she wanted to do with her education and life. By chance, she took a leisure lifestyle class that helped her deal with her pain and grief through leisure activities.

“In many ways, that class saved my life, and I found a purpose once again.”

Froese, now a University of Alberta PhD student in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, recently conducted a review of leisure literature pertaining to grief and bereavement.

“I think we talk a lot about suicide prevention, which is very important, but there is a large gap in identifying ways to cope for the people who are left behind to bear the loss,” she said.

“Engaging in meaningful leisure is one important coping mechanism we should be talking about.”

According to Froese, meaningful, engaging leisure can be anything that helps people make sense of their life, and can be anything that is personally, spiritually and culturally relevant to them. It could mean being physically active, but can also involve more sedentary activities like reading, listening to music, praying or going to the local coffee shop with friends.

Although these may seem like simple activities, they may have profoundly transformative effects on people who are grieving, she said.

Her review identified five ways leisure may help individuals grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide.

Joyful life

A joyful life is one where someone can experience positive emotions as they work through their pain, Froese explained. Because those trying to cope with suicide loss experience feelings of guilt, regret and shame, it’s important for them to also feel moments of joy, happiness, liberation and relaxation—all of which may be achieved through leisure.

Connected life

Research shows that leisure can bring people together and create a sense of support and connectedness. Froese noted this can help those grieving a suicide loss get through the feelings of isolation and abandonment they often experience because of the social stigma surrounding suicide.

Discovered and composed life

According to Froese, people grieving a suicide loss often feel they have been stripped of a major part of their identity—for example, they may no longer be a spouse or a parent. She said that in reconfiguring one’s identity, leisure can be very important for individuals in helping to create a narrative that weaves their past into their present to discover new ways of living. She added this discovery can also give people a sense of composure after having their lives suddenly turned upside down.

Empowered life

Leisure can elicit post-traumatic growth and resilience by allowing people to see themselves as potentially stronger, more compassionate, empathetic and understanding versions of who they once were. This growth and resilience can empower them to work through their grief in personally meaningful ways, said Froese.

“I can’t stress enough that grief is a very personal process, and that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to making your way through that grief,” she said.

During her review, she also found that the loss of a loved one due to suicide may produce a different grief cycle than losing someone to natural or health-related causes.

“The sudden and often unexpected loss can leave individuals with feelings like shame, guilt, blame, anger and abandonment,” said Froese. “Social stigma and isolation are also associated as elements of the grief process because others often don’t know how to comfort and support those grieving a suicide loss.”

In fact, Froese said that in some cases, individuals grieving the loss can experience their own suicidal thoughts and attempts.

“My hope is that this paper brings to light the ways in which people might be able to move through their grief through meaningful leisure that can help them sustain hope and optimism for their future.”

Froese’s study, “The Other Side of Suicide Loss: The Potential Role of Leisure and Meaning-Making for Suicide Survivors,” was published in the Annals of Leisure Research.

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