In April 2016, Laura Taylor, a rockstar goalie on the University of British Columbia’s women’s hockey team, committed suicide. She was a local hero to classmates, colleagues, and the young athletes who she coached and mentored through the years. After a long battle with bipolar disorder and depression, she took her own life, leaving the community around her reeling.
Now, nine months after Taylor’s suicide, the community she left behind is still trying to figure out how to mourn the loss of the woman who inspired all who watched her on the ice and who worked alongside her as she pursued her medical degree.
How Communities Cope
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management examined how communities handle crises and what needs arise in the aftermath. The researchers identified three key points of tension surrounding community experiences of suicide.
First, the media serves as a significant source of tension between confidentiality and openness. Following the suicide of a high-profile member of the community, other members of the community clamor for answers, and the media responds by publishing as many details as possible, including the names of the victim and his or her family members. However, such blatant disregard for the privacy of the victim’s family often results in secondary traumatization, say researchers Enander, Lajksjo, and Tedfeldt.
Even when the victim of a suicide is responsible for taking his or her own life, community members look to blame someone for the incomprehensible loss.
The second point of tension is between the need for community support and a demand for accountability. Even when the victim of a suicide is responsible for taking his or her own life, community members look to blame someone for the incomprehensible loss. Accountability helps us make sense of a counterintuitive act like suicide. Is society to blame for not being more understanding of mental health issues? Are the parents to blame for making their child this way? Are the friends and colleagues to blame for not seeing the signs? No. While some people immediately demand accountability, others simply require support. In managing such tragic events, community leaders must address both issues and provide outlets for individual and group support.
The final tension that every high-profile suicide generates is between empathy and professionalism as displayed by community leaders. While some members of the community expect their leaders to be strong and make emboldened speeches to strengthen the community, others want to see that their leaders are as deeply affected as they are themselves. To counteract these tensions and move towards a space of healing, the researchers recommend meeting different emotions strategically.
Naturally, some community members will react in anger and negative outbursts while coping with their loss; these displays should be met with professionalism and a calm demeanor, say the researchers. Alternatively, sadness and grief should be met in kind with empathy. This can be extremely taxing for community leaders, however, to meet different reactions one after another. Though these leaders often see themselves as pillars that should never falter, it is paramount that our strong men and women leaders seek counseling, support, and self-care for themselves while they guide their community members through this challenging time.
Finding a Voice for Mourning at UBC
At UBC, Taylor’s family, friends, teammates, classmates, and fans are gathering for the aptly named “Mental Health Awareness Game” in Taylor’s memory. At the game, the UBC Thunderbirds will retire Taylor’s jersey, #29, and will encourage a discussion of mental health awareness. Though the University’s colors are gold and blue, UBC is asking fans to wear green to the game in honor of mental health awareness.
The University has also established a mental health awareness fund in Laura Taylor’s name that will be used for initiatives to eradicate the stigma of mental illness – a fight that Taylor was passionate about.
The loss of a beloved community member hits everyone differently. However, by acknowledging the grief and displaying unity through open dialogues and symbolic gestures, communities can begin healing together rather than each person fighting their own battle with loss alone.
If you’ve lived through a community tragedy, how did you cope together? Did you find it helpful?
Enander, A., Lajksjo, O., & Tedfeldt, E. L. (2010). A Tear in the Social Fabric: Communities Dealing with Socially Generated Crises. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 18(1), 39-48.