Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US with 48,344 Americans dying by suicide in 2018 and 1.4 million estimated attempts the same year. In Canada, for every 1 suicide death there are: 5 self-inflicted injury hospitalizations, 25-30 attempts and 7-10 people profoundly affected by suicide loss. Worldwide stats report that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in the world for those aged 15-24 years with nearly 800,000 people dying by suicide in the world each year, which is roughly one death every 40 seconds. Individuals grieving a loss by suicide are 80% more likely to drop out of school or quit their jobs, and 64% more likely to attempt suicide, compared to individuals grieving a sudden loss by natural causes.
The first month after experiencing a loss from suicide can be so debilitating that the bereaved are 10 times more likely to think about killing themselves. These thoughts are termed suicidal ideation and though they do not necessarily lead to death by suicide, it does speak to how deep and debilitating this type of grief can be.
September is Suicide Awareness Month, and we wanted to share with you more than just an article that defines suicide loss. We wanted to dig deeper and talk to individuals and professionals in our community about grieving the death of a loved one from suicide, and how we might better support people experiencing this type of loss.
Full disclaimer: We here at TalkDeath fully understand that this can be a difficult topic to read about, let alone talk about—even more so than other types of grief and death. If you are grieving from this type of loss, or you know someone that is, please note that we do list resources at the end of this article. We have also included some crisis lines for Canada and the United States. You are not alone.
Language: What Should, or Shouldn’t I say when it comes to Suicide Loss?
It is important to clarify that there are two very different groups of people and associated suicide experiences: people who have survived suicide attempts and people who are grieving the loss of a death by suicide. Suicide attempt survivors and suicide loss survivors require different resources and support. For this article we are focused on the latter: loss survivors.
Like any type of grief, suicide loss is unique and deeply personal to each person who is experiencing it. There are different ways people die from suicide, and many different types of relationships these people had with the loved ones who survive them.
When talking about suicide, it is important to get the language right. For the longest time, deaths from suicides have been shunned by communities and the language around this type of death has caused harm for the survivors of both loss and attempts.
The professionals we spoke to for this piece had the same response to our question about language: never use the word “committed”. As Daniel J. Reidenberg, Executive Director for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education told me, “we want to avoid saying someone ‘committed’ suicide because that word is associated with crimes and sin. We also want to avoid saying someone had a ‘successful’ suicide because we don’t want suicide to be seen as successful or not successful like you would have in school or work.” These words can also oversimplify the complexity of suicide. Instead we should use the words “died by” or “died from” because that is exactly what happened. The person you loved died by suicide.
When Ronnie Walker started Alliance of Hope back in 2008, 13 years after her stepson Channing had died from suicide, she wanted to make sure she was creating a welcoming community. Walker explains that the way we speak about survivor loss, and the words we choose can have a big impact.
“I wanted to alter the predominant conversation in the culture that surrounded suicide, from ‘you never get over it’, ‘you just learn to live with it’, and ‘you have joined the club no one wants to join’ and offer something that had more hope, so we changed the conversation to ‘forever altered, able to survive, and even go beyond just surviving, to have a happy, meaningful and contributory lives.”
Walker was able to create a shift in the conversation and Alliance for Hope has developed a community forum that operates 24/7 as a professionally supervised space where loss survivors can connect with each other for support when they need it most. These types of spaces are essential to healing as the grief a loss survivor goes through can be more complex than other types of grief.
How Suicide Survivor Loss is Different from Other Types of Grief
Death by suicide is a traumatic and complex loss, making it different from other types of grief that happen from “natural causes.”
According to the psychologists Wortman & Latack (2015), a death is considered traumatic if,
In the 12 years Walker has been working with loss survivors she has learned a lot from being present and reading their posts on the Alliance of Hope forum. Through her work she has observed common experiences of loss survivors despite the varying differences in types of death by suicide and relationships the survivor has with the deceased. These common experiences include:
- Shock and disbelief – very common in the beginning of the grief journey.
- Grief, sadness and despair – often explained as being the worst pain the loss survivor has ever felt.
- Suicidal ideation – loss survivors are more prone to the thought of ending their own lives due to the depth of pain they are experiencing
- Wondering why – it is common to have the need to create a narrative of what happened and want to know why it happened.
- Guilt and blame – related to seeking the answers to ‘why?’ Some people can blame themselves, feel guilt for not doing enough, blame others, even blame the person who died.
- Anger – from the irritability caused by a deep depression, or anger towards the deceased.
Finding meaningful ways to help other people has been a critical part of my healing.
Many of these emotional repercussions came up in my conversation with Emma Payne, the founder and CEO of Grief Coach. When her husband Barry died from suicide, she was thrown into a tailspin.
“I met Barry when I was 19, and married him when I was 26. At 31 I was widowed, when he took his own life at a park in Quebec [Canada]. Barry’s funeral was the first I’d ever been to. All these years later I still think in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’ he died, and know that the experience altered me in many, many ways (some of them good). I have become a more empathetic and patient person I think, and also found a determination to make the most of every day I am given. For me, finding meaningful ways to help other people has been a critical part of my healing.”
Payne remembers the turbulent thoughts and emotions she experienced daily after Barry died. One day she would think of Barry as a murderer – he killed himself. The next day he was a victim – as if he was tragically hit by a bus. The anger she held towards him on some days was extreme, and sometimes her anger was internalized and she was the murderer for not doing more to help him and prevent his death. “That duality is hard to deal with,” Payne told me. “That extreme feeling that is in opposition to a conflicting emotion can be very hard to manage.”
Blame also played a large role in her grief journey, which was intricately tied to the never-ending question of “why?” “Not getting answers can be very difficult,” Payne says. “With suicide there will always be hundreds of questions.”
Ronnie Walker from Alliance of Hope points out that “the idea that someone is going to end their life… it’s really just something that is outside what we are programmed to think about. Suicide often involves some sort of violence, and it leaves people with a grief that is larger than other grief because it contains components of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The emotions that people feel after this type of loss are very powerful and often extremely debilitating. We (grievers) have lots of anxiety, generalized anxiety, powerful anger, powerful despair bordering on suicidal ideation.”
Payne could spend her whole life trying to understand why Barry took his life, but that wouldn’t be possible because she could never understand the pain he was in. Her mind does not work the same way. More importantly does she really want to? “Maybe you don’t, and you can learn to let that part go.”
The Power of Sharing
My own experience with suicide loss happened 8 years ago. My dear friend killed himself, and it ripped a hole in my universe that has never healed. We shared a special bond I have rarely shared with anyone else in my life. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about him, and it is still hard from me to talk about him out loud without crying. Shortly after his suicide I suffered from a nervous breakdown and was fired from my job. This sent me into a psychotic breakdown and a yearlong stress leave after which I was diagnosed with PTSD. It took me a long time to get my life back to something close to functional, and it is the sharing of this story – his story – that is central to my healing process, and for the healing process of other suicide loss survivors. As Walker observes, “there is something about a suicide that opens up a door to us thinking about it even more (than other types of death).”
Beatriz McKee lost her brother Oscar to suicide. He was 7 years younger than her and held a position in the military where he was thriving. He had a child around the same age as one of her own, which brought them closer together despite her living in Pennsylvania and him in Texas. One day she received news she would never forget. Her father called and told her to sit down because he needed to talk to her: her brother was dead. It was a sucker punch to her gut.
Life wants you to get back to normal, but you can’t because you are not normal. You are not the same person.
Oscar had always wanted Beatriz to come visit him at his home in Texas to meet his close friends and family but she never got around to making that trip until his suicide. At his funeral that she planned, Beatriz heard so many lovely stories and met all the people who loved him. But Oscar was not there and it felt so unfair. He was cremated in Houston and had a military funeral on March 13th, which was the same day they had originally planned to see each other.
We spoke for nearly 2 hours over the phone. I listened carefully as she shared her experience with suicide loss. When I asked her what had helped her the most with her journey, she told me it was telling her and Oscar’s story, and never being afraid to let the tears flow and let it all out – two things she often does in group support sessions with other loss survivors. “Life wants you to get back to normal, but you can’t because you are not normal. You are not the same person.”
Beatriz says that there is a connection between her and others that is hard to explain, but whenever she talks to someone who has also experienced a death from suicide there is an instant connection. That connection here is healing.
This type of sharing is a form of narrative therapy. It is the ability for the loss survivor to piece together their own narrative of events that are woven into their memories of the deceased. As Walker so eloquently points out, “The quality of the narrative also gives them the future they will live into.”
To help facilitate this healing process, Walker works with people to create a narrative around the death of their loved one as well as things they can say to casual acquaintances who ask about the suicide. She suggests that loss survivors develop a short and succinct few sentences for casual occasions – similar to an elevator speech – to describe the loss. They get to choose how they share the story of their loved one, and this can also include deciding not to talk about it if it is simply too painful.
The elevator pitch or short conversation can be broken down into three parts: 1) you introduce the person, 2) you say a little bit about them, and 3) you mention how much you miss them. This validates them, you tell a piece of your story, and you validate yourself and your memory of them.
This is Walker’s story:
“My stepson Channing was an extraordinary young man. When he was 16, he developed bi-polar disorder. It was a devastating genetic disease that caused his moods to swing. He rose to the challenge of the disease for 4 years, but at the age of 21, when he was a junior at Stanford, he fell into a deep depression and ended his life. It was a devastating loss for our whole family.”
We get a real sense of the kind of young man Channing was, how he struggled, how much Walker and the rest of her family missed him, and that he was loved. He is more than the way he died.
How Can You be a Good Support for the Griever?
We all want to help someone who is in pain. We often have good intentions, but we can also feel stuck and afraid. The simple truth is many people don’t know what to say when someone is suffering. There is a lot of information out there that focuses on what people shouldn’t do or say, which can lead to supporters potentially feeling hesitant in reaching out.
Marisa Vicere, president and founder of the Jana Marie Foundation, stresses that “when supporting a survivor of suicide loss (someone who lost someone to suicide) try to walk beside them on their grief journey. Everyone grieves differently, so allowing that space and time is really important. Try to ask what they need, rather than making assumptions. And when the time is right, provide resources such as support groups to help with the grieving process. For me, it was also helpful when someone said Jana’s name. Sometimes I think we shy away from that, but for the grieved, we remember our loved one every day. It’s nice to know others think of them too.”
If you want to help someone, help them in a way that is authentic to who you are and to the relationship you have with that person. And remember, it will always be awkward. Payne explained to me that this is hard for everyone because no one ever teaches us what to do around suicide. So be yourself, be present, and that can be enough.
We need to support one another in these dark times. There are many loss survivors who suffer from suicidal ideation after a death from suicide, and that can be terrifying and isolating, especially if they are someone who has not had a history of mental health issues in the past.
Payne’s company, Grief Coach, was created so that no-one would ever have to grieve alone. Grief Coach sends personalized text messages all year long, to people who are grieving, as well as to the friends and family who want to help but may not be sure how. Payne emphasized in our conversation the importance of being there for one another, and that it is okay to feel discomfort and awkwardness, as well as fear and guilt. Loss survivors need to be able to feel all these bad feelings and not be judged.
When I asked Beatriz what a support person can do to help a loss survivor, she emphasized that listening authentically is paramount. “Sometimes you don’t have to say anything,” she told me, “just giving them a real meaningful hug can make a difference.”
There is a common misconception with support people to assume that the loss survivor doesn’t want to talk about their person. However, avoiding bringing them up can further isolate the survivor. Be direct with any questions you have for them and realize you might make them cry. As Beatriz told me, “these tears are good, these are tears of love.”
One thing that Beatriz told me that really stood out was that a support person should never hold a loss survivor to their own expectations. Grief can be unpredictable, and triggers can be everywhere. Holidays can be especially challenging for loss survivors during the first year. This doesn’t mean that you don’t invite the loss survivor to an event, but don’t judge them if they change their mind. Also don’t make a big deal out if they do show up. Being able to change their mind and their plans when things get overwhelming can be a useful coping mechanism. Give them the space they need. It is on their time and, as the supporter, you can tell them that they need to do what they are comfortable with.
The first two words of the Alliance of Hope’s mission statement is ‘Kindness Matters’. No two words have ever been truer. It is important to show up and be present with the person you wish to support. Whatever you can provide for them – from a check-in text message, to a home cooked meal – they will be better for it.
Closing Thoughts and Resources
“I think sometimes people feel there is this time limit on grief. We don’t like to see our loved ones hurting and we want them to find healing. However, grief stays with you and there is no time limit. Over time, we learn ways to cope with the emotions and then memories begin to provide warmth. However, there will also be times when the grief can come back. And that’s all okay,” Vicere explained to me.
Sharing your story with other loss survivors and connecting with them is the best way you will get through this.
While researching this article, I asked every person I spoke to what was the one thing they hoped my article would convey. Some told me to make sure I used the proper language, which is vital when tackling such a specific and complex topic. Others mentioned the endless nature of this topic. There is so much more to say, and we will try and revisit this soon.
I would like to end by reflecting on what Beatriz told me about the importance of connection. It is paramount to explain to all of you who are still with me, reading this winding article, that sharing your story with other loss survivors and connecting with them is the best way you will get through this. It has been 8 years for me, and the conversations I had with everyone to write this article really impacted me on a deeper level than any interviews I have done. There is a common connection despite the relationships we had with the person who died, despite how they died by suicide, if we can reach out to each other we will find love and community.
Suicide Loss Resources:
As promised, here is a list of resources for you to get support as a Loss Survivor.
The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention in the United States offers support for both loss survivors and people struggling with thoughts of suicide.
In Canada, there is Crisis Services Canada and the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention. Crisis Services has a 24/7 lifeline at 1-833-456-4566, and there is the Kids Help phone, as well as this list of numbers broken down by provinces.
Thank you for joining us on this journey. If we have missed any resources, please let us know in the comments section. If you have your own suicide loss story, we would love to hear from you. You can leave us a comment, or if you want it to remain between me and you, you can contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
The best way to end stigma is to talk about it, to share our stories where we can and to educate ourselves and others about what it is like to deal with this type of grief, and how we can support each other in our communities.
Ronnie Walker- Alliance of Hope
Ronnie Susan Walker is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor with a personal experience of loss by suicide. In 2008, she founded the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors. Today the Alliance of Hope’s website provides a comprehensive resource for survivors and the professionals who serve them. Its online community forum operates like a 24/7 support group, with more than 17,000 members.
Emma Payne – Grief Coach
Emma Payne is a seasoned entrepreneur and change agent, who launched her first web company before Netscape was born. Today she is the Founder and CEO of Grief Coach, a company she created so that no-one would ever have to grieve alone. Grief Coach sends personalized text messages all year long, to people who are grieving, as well as to the friends and family who want to help, but may not be sure how. Because grief is hard, but it’s a little easier when we have people by our side.
Daniel J. Reidenberg, Doctor of Psychology
Daniel J. Reidenberg, PsyD is an internationally recognized expert in the field and a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience. He also wrote the best practice endorsed guide Coping with Loss for survivors of suicide loss. He is currently the Executive Director – Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, Managing Director – National Council for Suicide Prevention, and Gen Secretary – International Association for Suicide Prevention
Marisa Vicere – Jana Marie Foundation
Marisa Vicere is president and founder of the Jana Marie Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit located in Central Pennsylvania. The mission of the foundation is to harness the power of creative expression and dialogue to spark conversations, build connections, and promote mental well-being among young people and their communities. To learn more, please visit janamariefoundation.org