About something that happens and you can’t plan it, your hands are bound and you can do nothing against it, and you might even feel guilty about it. It’s about the rare occasions when you face a suicide amongst the members of your community.
Everyone knows how to react when they read a suicide threat (immediately inform the police, don’t judge if s/he could be just kidding, try to gather all relevant information to help police finding and – if need be – saving him/her). But some times there is no threat. There is no Goodbye posting, no letter to the community, nothing that could prepare you for a community member actually killing him/herself.
About two years ago, one of my community members committed suicide.
John Doe was a very active and contributing member, known in the community as a helpful person, that knew every inch of our product.
He took his life on a weekend, when I returned to my desk on monday morning, I found a message from an acquaintance of his, informing me about his death.
As I received a message from John on friday and left it to answer on monday, I was more than shocked. I read that message over and over again, looking for a hint that could have saved him. Did he sound different? Was there a suicidal undertone that I missed? I found nothing and still felt guilty because I didn’t answer.
I knew that he had no family and that the community was kind of family substitute in his eyes. Maybe I could have talked to him about this, I could have said “Look John, it’s great that you’re such an active member of our community, but don’t you think some social life offline would be good for you?”
However that would have been offending, and above of all: simply not my job. I’m not a psychologist or psychotherapist. Though being a community manager does mean to be really involved in your community it does not mean that you’re responsible for the psychological well-being of your community members.
I got in contact with some distant relatives of John that took care of his funeral. They didn’t want the community to know that how he died or even that he died. Though I had to accept that I felt relief as another community member that was close to John, got an “okay” from them on posting in a thread where the community was looking for him, that he died. It was about 2 month after his dead, and didn’t got as much attention as I would have wished for him.
So what can you do if something like that happens?
Normally when a member of the community dies I would participate in any obsequies and let his/her friends mourn for him/her. I’ll try to integrate his/her name into one of my next RP-texts “E.g. This event is held in memory of…”
When it comes to suicide it gets complicated, because it is hard to understand for others. Everyone will understand “he got hit by a car and succumbed to his injuries”. Understanding “he got hit by overwhelming wish to die and succumbed to his suicidal thoughts” is way more complicated.
And whenever people are online and don’t understand something, there is the risk of despiteous comments, of disrespectful behaviour. It is a sad fact that in an online community some people feel no shame or respect. That is why I would always prefer not to make the fact public that it was a suicide, if possible.
I learned that a very hard way, about two month after Johns death, when I took notice of some very disgusting fights between two groups of the community based on his suicide. One group claimed that the other had bullied him into death, the other that his suicide was a stupid act to get attention. That got really ugly, I’ll not talk about any details here, I could calm that with help of our customer support, but we had to block out two members permanently in the process.
No matter if or how your community will react, you will react for sure. And if you are a passionate community manager it will hurt you that one of your community committed suicide. That is when you shouldn’t be alone. Talk to colleagues and friends about what happened, maybe drink a glass of wine on him/her. If you’re part of a huge company, you might even have the chance to get psychological supervision for a short time. Don’t try to block your emotions out, telling yourself “Well I didn’t know him/her for real, it’s just part of my job, nothing to bother with in my free time”. Because it isn’t. It is not just another part of your job.
- It can happen that you feel somehow guilty like I did.
- It can feel that you discover that you’re one of those that does not understand how a person can take his/her own life.
- It can happen that you feel like you should feel more about this death.
As you can guess from reading this entry of mine I still think about his suicide. And I don’t think John or Johns Death will be forgotten by me anytime soon.
But talking to colleagues (thanks Chris, Mel, Phil) took this feeling of guilt from me quickly.
When I think of him today I think of all the content he offered the community (many of his Tips & Tricks are still referred to), and second of the sad man he must have been killing himself.