Why Suicide Death Is Different

After Andrew, a 20 year-old New York University student ended his life by suicide, some of his student friends wanted to hold a vigil in his memory at the library. Their request was denied by university officials who did not want to bring attention to a student suicide.

When Andrew’s mother learned of that decision, she became upset with the university. She lamented, “They wanted to sweep Andrew’s death under the rug. A student wanted to have a vigil at the library where it happened so he and others could acknowledge Andrew’s life, to pause and reflect. It was relayed to me that the school did not want to allow it because they did not want to glorify the event. Within hours of the death, they just wanted to get back to business.”

Of course, if Andrew’s death had been the result of an auto accident or from a life threatening illness, the university would likely have approved a vigil in his memory. That one incident clearly demonstrates that death by suicide is different from all other deaths.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, there are nearly 35,000 deaths by suicide per year in the United States. Left behind to grieve those losses is a sizeable, wounded population made up of parents, siblings, children, spouses, partners and other extended family and friends.

Every person who loses a family member to suicide begins a grief process that is burdened because the death was not due to natural causes, illness or accident. Those who wish to support suicide grievers need to understand ways suicide loss is different and how to be an effective comforter. Here are some guidelines:

— Suicide loss is highly traumatic. It is unexpected, sudden and frequently violent. Often, suicide means dealing with police reports, an autopsy and press inquiries. All of this intensifies the grieving process, leaving some survivors not only in shock but with lingering post-traumatic stress disorder. One suicide survivor said, “The impact of discovering my wife has left a permanent scar. I don’t see any way I will be able to erase the image etched in my mind of when I found her.”

How you can help — As soon as you learn of the death, be there with an open heart and an open mind. In her book First Steps Through Bereavement, Sue Mayfield offers these suggestions:

• Do ask them what they most want and need, rather than assume you know already.

• Do allow them to be honest.

• Do encourage them to talk, but also respect their right not to talk.

• Do allow them to express sadness or anger without judging them or insisting that they “think positive.”

• Do allow them to grieve in their own way and to go at their own pace.

— Suicide loss is viewed by some as an unforgivable sin. At times in the past, the Church has taken a harsh view against suicide. Exclusion from Christian burial was the response of the Church. Though this has changed greatly in the present, there continues to be a lingering sense that suicide cannot be condoned or forgiven.

How you can help — Focus on God’s unconditional love. Let your expressions of support be shaped by this wisdom from ethicist Lewis Smedes who was asked, “Is suicide unforgivable? What is the biblical hope we can offer a suicide victim’s family and friends?” Dr. Smedes responded, “Will Jesus welcome home a believer who died at her own hands? I believe he will, tenderly and lovingly. My biblical basis? It is the hope-giving promise of Romans 8:32, that neither life not death can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

— Suicide loss is isolating. Unfortunately, there is still shame and stigma attached to suicide, Within families, there can be disagreement and tension over acknowledging or disclosing the circumstances of the death.

How you can help — There are two ways. First, encourage honesty in speaking about the death. Mary Ann was in her 30s when she learned that her mother had died from suicide. Her advice to other suicide grievers: “From the outset, I was determined that I would speak openly and honestly about the death. ‘Mom killed herself’ is what I told family and friends. She did not ‘just die.’

When someone has lost a loved one to suicide, they have to say what it is. Don’t hide it away like it’s a big dark secret, like people are going to point a finger at you. When I started talking to my colleagues and being straight with them about what happened, I found out that one of my very closest friends lost her dad in almost the same way.”

Second, recommend a suicide support group. For those who are dealing with suicide loss, the best source of help can come from other suicide survivors. While there are many general grief groups, you can help your friend by researching and suggesting a group specific to suicide loss in your community. Groups to support those who have had suicide loss are often sponsored by funeral homes, hospitals, churches and other community organizations.

Suicide loss generates unproductive second-guessing. When someone dies after a life threatening illness, the reason for the death is easily understood. A death by suicide however, is far more complex. There are painful questions about “why” was this done. Those are followed by “what if” questions whereby the survivor begins second-guessing. Why wasn’t I there? Why didn’t I notice? Why couldn’t I see what was really going on? Etc. All this can create deep self-doubts. Previous confidence in life can be eroded significantly.

How you can help — As a friend you can provide a “reality check.” Here is some advice that can guide you in responding to a suicide survivor burdened with second-guessing. In their book Handbook for Those Who Grieve, Martin Auz and Marueen Lyons Andrews write, “ ‘If only I had been there!’ is a frequent lament of the survivors of suicide.

They inaccurately believe that being with the loved one somehow would have prevented the suicide. What most survivors fail to realize — but must come to terms with — is the fact that their loved one had his or her own agenda. The reality is that if someone intends to end his or her life, it will happen. The day and time may change because you or someone else was present at a particular time. But it will occur, sooner or later, if that is the choice. You could not have prevented it.”

— Suicide loss is spoken of in a negative way. Consider the two words most commonly used about death by suicide: “committed suicide.” Those two words are loaded with judgment and set an instantly negative tone because the word “commit” is so often associated with illegality or immorality — committed adultery, committed murder, committed a felony, committed a crime. All other types of deaths are described without judgment. For example: She died in an auto accident. He died of cancer. She had a heart attack. The statements describing all other deaths are neutral. Therefore, when a family member dies by suicide, the loss is described differently and negatively.

How you can help — Consider the insight of Doris Sommer-Rotenberg. After her son, Andrew, ended his life by suicide, she remembers thinking: “Commit suicide. Two words traditionally used to describe the act of self-killing. I had never questioned the use of this phrase until my son took his life.”

To help others she advises, “We might begin by considering the words used to describe this destructive act — particularly the phrase ‘commit suicide.’ Its connotation of illegality and dishonor intensifies the stigma attached to the one who has died, as well as to those who have been traumatized by this loss. It does nothing to convey the fact that suicide is the tragic outcome of severe depressive illness and thus, like any other affliction of the body or mind, has in itself no moral weight.”

She advises that those who wish to help grievers to completely eliminate the phrase “commit suicide” from their vocabulary and use these better alternatives to talk about the loss: death by his own hand, self-inflicted death, a casualty of suicide.

— Suicide loss invites self-blame. Immediately after learning of a suicide death, those left behind can easily slide into self-blame: If only I hadn’t been so distant, perhaps he would have talked to me about his problems. If only I’d met her for lunch when she asked. If only I’d returned his calls. I feel badly that I didn’t spend more time with her, etc. These types of questions can become extremely self-punishing.

How you can help — Offer gentle reminders that the grieving person is unrealistically blaming and condemning him or herself for failing to prevent the death or to intervene effectively. Your reminder can offset the tendency of the griever to overestimate the ability to have affected a different outcome.

MR. PARACHIN writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.