Jennifer K. Logston, MSW, LCSW
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Each year nearly 43,000 people die by suicide and for every person who dies, 25 others have attempted to take their own lives. Despite these staggering figures, suicide is still something that people don’t want to think about and try desperately to avoid talking about except in a flippant way. There is a stigma around mental illness and suicide that impacts the access to help, as well as the healing of survivors of suicide loss. Well meaning people say things all the time, in ignorance, that perpetuate the stigma; “I can’t believe how selfish he was. She was nuts. They took the easy way out.” These statements may express the feelings of anger, resentment and confusion that are a part of processing suicide death, but when they are held on to or perpetuated as beliefs about suicide in general, they create a barrier to healing for those struggling with suicidal thoughts, as well as those dealing with the loss of a loved one to suicide.
Suicide is different from other deaths. Many of the feelings that others who have lost loved ones have are there; anger, sadness, despair. But shame, guilt and isolation are so much more prominent for survivors of suicide loss. Grieving the death of a loved one who took their own life is often shrouded in stigma and silenced by shame. Survivors struggle to understand, to find ways to explain what happened and are frequently tormented by the “what ifs and if onlys”. Survivors want comfort and not more questions. Often well meaning, the questions about what happened only serve to trigger the shame and guilt and remind us of all the unanswerable questions we have about the death as well. In our attempts to manage our own pain, it is a struggle for many survivors to acknowledge to others that the death of their loved one was a suicide.
With any loss, we go through phases of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and eventually Acceptance. Much of this is the same no matter the type of loss. But anger, a normal part of the grieving process, is complicated in suicide bereavement. It is normal for survivors to experience anger at that which caused the death; cancer, a drunk driver or some other senseless tragedy. With suicide, our anger at the cause is frequently anger with the person we have lost. This is a confusing and heart wrenching experience that can complicate the healing process. Acceptance is further complicated by the societal stigma of mental illness in general. If we can’t talk about the loss, fearing judgment or shame, it makes it very hard to progress through the stages of grief and get to acceptance.
For all these reasons, support groups specifically for survivors of suicide loss are so important. Having a place where survivors can openly discuss what happened is essential for many people. Knowing that there are others that have a shared experience and that there will be understanding and compassion for them and for the loved one who died by suicide, can make all the difference.
When suicide has been in the top ten causes of death for over 40 years, and we still can’t give it the level of serious attention it deserves, we know things have to change. We need to consider mental illness a real and present issue deserving of the same level of attention and compassion that we give to victims of cancer or other illnesses. Don’t hide it. Talk about it. Together we can end the stigma.
If you have lost a loved one to suicide, or you know someone who has, there are places to seek help. Both the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Association for Suicidology have numerous resources to help those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Jennifer K. Logston, MSW, LCSW is a Therapist at Fox Valley Institute in Naperville, IL. She has a specialization in working with survivors of suicide loss, individually as well as through a twice monthly support group at Fox Valley Institute. Jennifer is also a survivor of her father’s suicide in 1983.