Surviving Suicide of a Loved One
When I was in graduate school, I became good friends with one of my professors. Andy was wonderful. He was creative, kind, and saw the world in fresh ways. He called us doctoral students—“my doctor babies”. He was always taking us out to dinner because he knew we didn’t have much money. After I graduated, and moved away, we stayed in touch. A few years later, his alcohol abuse grew into full blown alcoholism. He lost his faculty position, his wife, and his status. A few months later, he killed himself.
I felt terrible. Even though I lived 3000 miles away, I felt that somehow his “doctor babies” had failed him. I wished that he had called me and asked for help. I look at his picture often and I still miss him 30 years later. Like many others, I am a suicide survivor.
Suicide was the 7th leading cause of death for males and the 15th leading cause of death for females in 2007. (NIMH). According the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, every 14.2 minutes someone in the United States dies by suicide. Nearly 1 million people make a suicide attempt every year. Suicide rates are the highest for people between the ages of 40 and 59. In 2009, over 36,000 people died from suicide. Both teens/young adults and older adults have high rates of suicide.
Since the beginning of time, suicide is a way that some people come to the end of their lives. And while we know this to be true, we still don’t really understand this self-induced act that ends a loved one’s life. Almost everyone understands the feeling of hopelessness, at least for a brief moment. While many of us understand a passing self-destructive thought, it is still hard to really comprehend the act. The belief that “my family and friends would be better off without me” is so far from the actual truth. Most survivors of suicide feel a deep sense of anguish over the death of someone they love.
Of the 36,000 suicides a year, there are tens of thousands more family members who are survivors. Ask your friends---so many of us have been touched by the suicide of a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker, a neighbor, a fellow student or a family member. This kind of death leaves us feeling sad, confused, and with a collective sense of guilt—why couldn’t we somehow have helped this person find hope? To survivors there is a sense that something must be wrong in the world or in our community, when we lose someone to suicide. And survivors want to understand the sometimes unknowable question---why?
As a clinical psychologist, I have had the opportunity to sit with scores of family members who lost a son, daughter, father or spouse to suicide. Sometimes, when a person has threatened suicide for years, as a form of manipulation or revenge, family members may feel both relief and guilt at the same time. Frequently, family feels anger and sadness together too--sad at their loss and angry at the person’s decision.
Regardless, survivors seek to understand the why’s of suicide. Clearly individuals with depression are at higher risk for suicide. Adults and teens with drug or alcohol abuse are far more likely to come to the end of their life in this manner. But sometimes, suicide comes without much warning. A youngster feels hopeless and helpless, doesn’t communicate with others, and is, as most teens are, impulsive—the perfect storm.
Fortunately, most suicide attempts are gestures—a piercing cry for help. Kids are found after ingesting pills or they make cuts on their arms that aren’t very deep. These gestures get adult’s attention and help is on its way.
Seek help. There are resources for survivors. The American Society of Suicidology has a web site for survivors (http://www.suicidology.org/web/guest/suicide-loss-survivors). Obtain a referral to see a therapist from your family doctor. Frequently, grief is far more complicated for survivors of suicide. Counseling can be helpful. Talking to understanding clergy can help family members sort out the spiritual confusion that may result. It may be hard to talk to friends about this kind of loss.
Grief comes in waves. As in any loss, grief comes with this territory and often comes in waves, over the years to come. Accept your feelings as they arise.
Let go of guilt and anger. Sadly, suicide is a natural way that some people come to the end of their life. This is just the way it is.