The first time I remember hearing about suicide was in the late 80s when I was in high school, and a kid in my grade was found hanging in the bathroom during school hours. The bathroom was closed for a bit, but other than that, there was really no mention of what had happened—only gossipy whispers in the halls. There was no school announcement, no counselors called in to support students, no change in schedule, no open discussion—just whispers. Fifteen years later, an uncle died by suicide. I clearly remember the family’s reaction, horror, shock, and then… the shame and guilt no one spoke of.
Another seventeen years passed, and I again collided with the tragedy, more intimately this time, when my husband, Glen, died by suicide in 2016. As I trudged through the mire of trauma, grief, loss, and recovery, I learned the world was beginning to have vital conversations about suicide in an effort to save lives and help survivors of suicide loss speak openly and release the shame and guilt often tied into this type of loss.
Suicide has finally gained international attention as a health crisis. Grief workers have been concentrating for decades on trying to destigmatize and educate people about suicide. We no longer use the term “committed” suicide because the word implies a crime has happened. Instead, we use “died by” or “died from” just like any other disease or accident. We don’t “commit” a heart attack or cancer, nor do we commit suicide. Suicide is the result of disease.
Awareness and education are growing,
but suicide is still considered a criminal act in about twenty countries (https://unitedgmh.org/knowledge-hub/suicide-decriminalisation),
but it has been decriminalized in the US and most other countries.
The Suicide Awareness world’s push to relieve the stigma around suicide helps support the people who are left facing a life without their loved ones. Regardless of the cause of the suicide, whether it is profound depression, fear, trauma, overwhelm, another form of mental illness, or even an accidental overdose, the person who dies by suicide still needs to be grieved and remembered for who they were and not only how they died. The loved ones of those who die by suicide need all the same support that any loss requires, including open, shame-free discussion of and understanding of the way their loved one died.
“Suicide is a major public health problem with
far-reaching social, emotional and economic consequences.
It is estimated that there are currently more than
700,000 suicides per year worldwide,
and we know that each suicide profoundly affects many more people.”
– World Health Organization, 2023
Today, we have countless organizations that are designed to support suicide loss survivors and educate the public about suicide, and there are even programs designed to educate people determined to be at high risk of suicide with the goal of prevention.
In fact, September 10, 2023, is designated as World Suicide Prevention Day. The World Health Organization states, “World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) was established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO). The 10th of September each year aims to focus attention on the issue, reduce stigma, and raise awareness among organizations, governments, and the public, giving a singular message that suicides are preventable.”
September is now known as Suicide Prevention Month and Suicide Awareness Month.
After Glen died, I began to hear a lot about all of the organizations focused on suicide prevention, I found the thought of prevention very upsetting.
Suicide loss survivors, aside from the profound grief and possibly trauma due to the suddenness of their loved one’s death, often face intense guilt. “If suicide is preventable, why couldn’t I have seen this coming and prevented it?” I hear this daily in my grief groups and from clients—the guilt is so powerful.
The extreme guilt I suffered after Glen’s death was nearly as destructive to my mental health as the trauma in my experience. What I came to realize after years of recovering, therapy, and grief studies is that if someone is determined to die, there isn’t really a way to prevent it.
That doesn’t mean Suicide Prevention Month is ineffective. Awareness and programs do help. Not everyone who is suicidal completes the act, and prevention works for those people. But if you’re reading this and you know someone who died by suicide, please do your best to let go of the guilt. You did not cause your loved one’s death, and you are not responsible for it.
David Kessler, world-renowned grief expert and author of Finding Meaning, told a story during my Grief Educator Certification course that put this all in perspective and gave me a sense of relief. He shared that he visited a hospital designed with state-of-the-art suicide prevention in mind. Every feature of this hospital ward was focused on keeping inpatients struggling with suicidal thoughts safe. The most highly-trained nurses and physicians in suicide prevention work there. And although they save many people, suicides still happen there.
I recently spent time with a suicide attempt survivor. She had a semicolon (;) tattooed on her wrist to remind her that her attempt was not the end of her story. We talked about my husband, and she reminded me once again, “When someone is suicidal, they have tunnel vision. No matter what you said to him, no matter what you did, it wouldn’t have made a difference. You could not have stopped him. I got lucky,” she continued, ”that someone found me in time to save my life after my attempt. I understand now, after my mental health crisis passed, how awful it would have been for the people I would have left behind and how much more life I have to live. I just couldn’t see it then.”
I understood her “tunnel vision,” as she put it, was a result of her extreme discomfort, a mental/emotional misfiring, and a disease.
Even after many years of focusing on releasing my guilt, it helped me to hear her story. I thanked her for her words and for staying with us. Our conversation lives in my heart, helping me maintain clarity and compassion. These conversations are vital to increasing awareness and support for everyone who has suffered an attempt or has suicidal thoughts.
Awareness is crucial in September and every month. Suicide is a world health crisis and a personal crisis for many people who have survived attempts and for the loved ones of those who did not survive. What can you do to help? If you know someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, no matter how long ago, or whatever the circumstances were, reach out to them. I can guarantee you they are still grieving. Have a conversation about suicide awareness because suicide needs to be talked about. Help alleviate the shame and guilt that adds needless pain to an already unacceptable situation. If you are hurting and thinking about suicide, you are not alone. There is support for you. 988 is a crisis line dedicated to helping people with mental/emotional needs. Please reach out by call or text.
Through conversation and getting the support we need, we can work toward healing ourselves and healing the world.