After suicide, support those left behind

One of the profound and misunderstood human acts within our everyday world is the act of suicide. Throughout history the motives for suicide are rarely fathomed and whose completion can create profound grief for those who remain. To add insult to injury, suicide brings with it shame and disenfranchisement. We just need to look at the recent response to Robin Williams’ death to see this first hand.

As a culture, death is not a topic placed very high on the list of things to talk about. If the death is a suicide, it’s likely removed from the list altogether. Or it finds itself added to another list. A list of prejudice and institutional judgments about an act long a part of our history and community. From here negative statements arise, statements based in fear and ignorance.

We often attack what we don’t understand.

The following words offer a suggestion for how we might, as human beings, offer support to someone in this situation, regardless of the particular viewpoint we may hold for ourselves. Our role is as companion and fellow traveler, not as a proclaimer of agenda and judgement. We can be a source of solace at a time when nothing makes sense. In the times when suicide touched my life, it was those companions and fellow travelers that made all the difference.

It’s up to us, if we can be brave enough.

Words and Data

To begin, it seems important to set some ground regarding suicide. Before we can even begin to offer support to someone, it can be helpful to get the lay of the land. After all the likelihood of the person being traumatized is high and we do not want to add to the negative energy present around them.

The most recent data available comes from a 2011 National Center for Health Statistics report. The data is compiled by the American Association of Suicidology:

  • In 2011 there were 39, 518 suicides. 108 a day. One every 13.3 minutes. In 2001 it was every 17 minutes.
  • Of these, 90% suffered from some aspect of mental illness, most commonly depression. Time magazine reported that by 2020 severe depression was predicted to be the second leading cause of death or disability by the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • 1 old person every 1hr 20min. 1 young person every 1hr 49min. It’s the 2nd highest cause of death for youth.
  • In the last 15 years we’ve seen a 150% increase of suicide with 10 to 14 year olds. Since 1950 there has been a 60% increase of suicide worldwide.
  • There are 987,950 attempts annually. One every 32 seconds. For every completed suicide there’s at least 10 to 25 attempts.
  • Each suicide intimately affects at least 6 other people. That’s 4.8 billion survivors, or one in 64 people.

Despite this clear information and apparent increase, suicide continues to be mired in an attitude of guilt and shame. The awareness remains limited and narrow. For example note the comments about Robin Williams using terms like “coward” and “selfish”. Yet if one in 64 people are touched by a suicide, this means we likely are that person or know them. Would we say such things to a friend or a family member? I hope not.

Where does this attitude stem from? Some of it derives from the fact that not long ago suicide was considered a crime against the state and church. Many traditions still hold this to be true. They may not punish the act in the same way, but the basic belief of shame remains. Those values seep out into mainstream media, especially since it takes very little to express yourself to millions of people in an instant.

Here language becomes an important component. What we say and how we say it can and does have impact. Notice that an active word connected to suicide is the term “commit”. Curiously when we talk of other kinds of death we do not say that someone “committed cancer” or “committed a heart attack”.

We do, however, commit murder.

Although no longer a capital offense, the language remains. The stigma remains. So understanding the language surrounding suicide and utilizing a mindful approach in how we might speak with someone becomes essential for change to occur. Sadly the understanding as to why suicide earned this stigma remains limited. Those that express the negativity more often than not just repeat what they learned from their belief system, without understanding how that rule got there in the first place.

More on that later.

For now, what should we say? Less is better. We can acknowledge that we don’t know what to say, that words would fail to describe their experience. We could simply say – “I’m by your side through this”. We tend to want to fill space in those moments, which is usually when the regrettable statements get made.

Regardless, here are some suggestions. One dies of suicide or by suicide. One completes suicide, has suicided or taken their life. The phrase “killed themselves” reflects some of the issues surrounding “commit” expressed above. These word choices may not seem to make much of a difference, but your awareness of these differences have great impact. Those that survive already hold enough shame and confusion for a lifetime. Bringing awareness to your words reduces this.

A Public Act

Another essential aspect to be aware of is suicide can become a public act. It involves police and rescue workers, as well as media attention. Imagine being Zelda Williams listening to the details of her fathers death televised on national television in a press conference. Even with less known people, the media becomes involved. Strangers interviewed for their opinion. Very public, very painful and out of your control.

As an example, it’s not uncommon for the person who suicided to be missing for several days before they’re found. Friends and loved ones organize a search, thinking perhaps the person is lost or that something bad happened to them. Media and police get involved, so that everyone knows the person’s face and name. The community keeps an eye out and becomes engaged.

Then the body is found in a car by some isolated place, with a tube running into the car from the tailpipe. It becomes clear that the death is a suicide. Now it’s those images that the news starts to show. Reporters want to know why it happened. What went wrong? They ask anyone who wants to speak, so before long neighbors and acquaintances give their opinion on the 7 o’clock news. Being interviewed is powerful and any number of things can stumble out of a persons mouth.

Families suddenly need to deal with the police and their investigation. This can take time, especially if a body is not found right away or it’s unclear how the death happened. If the death happened in the home, that home is now a “crime” scene. A loved one suddenly has strangers all around them. Strangers taking finger prints and examining evidence. Strangers restricting them from where you can go in your home.

Often the process of grieving gets delayed or shut down completely in these moments. Suicide is a complex loss on its own. When these other layers get added, which is common, it can take a long time for someone to work through their grief. This is why it’s crucial they get good support. Crucial that the people in their lives take a moment to think about the trauma of the event, rather than speak judgement without thinking.

Doubts and Meaning

In moments, this private act is made quite public and a loved one will likely undergo difficult questions that they do not have the answers for. For many understanding the “why” becomes a haunting space. The person may not have left a note or any information that might guide loved ones as to why they made the choice they did. No information about their struggles in those last days. Loved ones and friends might even feel that things were good. They were happy, feeling better about their lives.

Even if they did leave a note, the message might not be clear. It might be blaming or even negative. I see families find a note that only confuses them. Remember that this kind of death comes suddenly. No bedside sharing and long goodbyes. A note, or lack of one, gets infused with incredible meaning.

This leads to doubts and “what if’s”, especially in terms of feelings of failure. The sense that if they had just paid more attention or been nicer to the person, then this would not have happened. These feelings can be overwhelming. Coupled with that aspect of public shame, in which they feel people look at them as bad parents, spouses, children, siblings or friends, then the trauma can be hard to overcome.

They may struggle with how their faith tradition viewed this particular loss. I see families told that the person has gone to hell and violated a basic tenant of God’s will. In their conversations with their faith leaders they get few answers and more discomfort, simply because those leaders are unsure of what to say.

Interestingly major spiritual traditions do not have a consistent or clear attitude regarding suicide. Many do not condone or support suicide as an option. At least now. However in the history of some traditions (ones against suicide) you find suicide taking place without shame. Suicides that held honor and respect, even encouragement, in their day. These deaths were considered just, because they occurred from a place of sacrifice.

In the compelling book History of Suicide, by Georges Minois, we learn that our views of suicide today link back to values nourished in the 16th-18th centuries. Suicide shifted from something noble and excepted, to something punished. The reasons for this are complex. Often the church played a role in this shift, sometimes politics. The book recounts the ongoing reframing of the act of suicide, which by 1700 became the term used instead of self-murder. The story he tells in the book makes you realize that the past shapes us in profound ways, regardless of whether we know or remember it.

If we look at how we treat suicide today, we see a distain for those who chose not to live. For whatever reason they chose to stop this life. This choice embodies complete freedom. At the same time it pushes against a deep belief that life is precious and should be fought for. That we should want to live and be a part of society. One might say being part of society is a commitment to “live” in society and participate.

But what does that really mean? For someone fighting debilitating depression the fight can feel like a losing battle. For someone fighting a terminal illness, the thought of slowly losing function and needing full time care from their family is overwhelming. In those moments the ability to chose how life continues can be compelling. It can feel like one last independent choice in a sea of no escape. The choice of suicide pushes against this value of society. Yet, can we champion the value of independence then condemn someone for making a choice that is in its essence an act of independence?

Good luck finding the answer.

Bearing Witness

We’ve talked the last few weeks about the practice of Bearing Witness. Stepping into the experience of another to truly understand, not judge. The reason why someone chose suicide may ellude us in the end, but being willing to hold them in that choice regardless is essential. We step out of our confusion and set values to learn something greater. To suppose we might not know all the answers. To be curious where our values come from.

In this way we become a genuine support for those who remain after a suicide. We take the time to understand and sit with the difficult emotions that arise. We stick around knowing that the complex situation will bring with it complex grief. We do this rather than go on Twitter and work out a 140 character quip, or take the time to photoshop the image of the deceased in some cruel and unsettling way.

We have the choice to do this. To move past our limitiations. To bring care to another. Otherwise we remain in limited thinking. We stay on the side of fear. We can do better than that.

So time to be brave. Time to step up. Be the change. It’s up to you.


Perhaps this gives you some perspective and some tools if suicide should touch your life or the life of someone close to you. Please leave a comment or a thought. We want to hear from you.

As always – To Your Health.

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