Suicide Death: Help for Family and Friends Still Asking Why

Updated on August 6, 2019
janshares profile image

Janis is a licensed professional counselor in Washington, DC. Areas of specialty include grief, loss, life transition, and trauma recovery.

Families Ask Was It Intentional

Those left behind wonder indefinitely about whether suicide was a choice.
Those left behind wonder indefinitely about whether suicide was a choice. | Source

When Someone You Love Dies By Suicide

The sudden shock of a suicide is one of the most devastating events a family can experience. Even if signs and red flags were present, indicating that the deceased person was at risk, it is most often unexpected. No one wants to believe that their loved one, regardless of the severity of personal difficulties, would actually follow through and take their life. But it happens more than we want to admit and at alarming rates.

While the notion of suicide as "choice" has generated much controversy and internet debate, those left behind continue to grapple with making sense of how and why. Although the majority of suicides have an obvious mental health component, particularly clinical depression, questions remain about the act of following through on the permanence of such a decision. It is therefore, I contend, important to make "suicide by choice" part of the discussion to gain understanding.

Suicide seemed to me the greatest kind of freedom, a release from everything, from a life that had been ruined a long time ago.

— Natascha Kampusch

The Prevalence of Taking One's Own Life

According to 2018 statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that the rate of suicide has increased by 30% since 1999 in all 50 American states. In 2016, 45,000 people lost their lives to suicide. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that about 800,000 people take their own lives every year around the globe. And sadly, it was reported in June of 2018 that members of the United States military, to include veterans, active duty, and reservists, die by suicide at the alarming rate of 20 per day.

Suicide is now viewed as a public health problem. It seems that we are hearing more and more news reports of celebrities killing themselves. We are shocked by the breaking news of our favorite and most beloved stars who seem to have everything, choosing to end their lives so tragically. But the truth is they are just people like anyone else - - human beings with human problems who join the massive numbers of ordinary people who kill themselves on a daily basis, leaving countless families distraught and bewildered.

Shock, Numbness and Blank Stares

The act of suicide leaves one feeling numb and searching for answers.
The act of suicide leaves one feeling numb and searching for answers. | Source

Losing Someone Close

Have you lost someone to suicide?

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Understanding the Suicidal Person's Perspective

As a mental health professional, I offer anecdotal knowledge based on my experience with counseling suicidal clients, family members left behind, and from providing training to law enforcement managers. I have worked with a number of depressed people who viewed suicide as a choice. It was not the best or seemingly rational one, but a choice made sometimes with strategic planning and rationalizations, given the alternatives they saw before them. After receiving medication treatment and/or hospitalization, some clients participated in counseling sessions and were able to share their thought patterns that led to suicidal thought or intent to engage in self-harm.

People rarely consider suicide out-of-the-blue, impulsively, or without histories of suicidal thoughts or gestures. For the majority, they are using extreme means to escape from emotional pain; most have had several prior attempts. Over a period of time, they think about their situations and find ways to rationalize that their choice to die is best under the circumstances. We see it as awful because it runs against our religious, spiritual, and moral beliefs about ending our own lives. But never the less, some people see it as a willful choice and a right to choose death.

It is important to note another interesting CDC statistic which states that 54% of people who died by suicide had no known mental health condition. On some level, this points toward the notion of choice, accounting for a small percentage of suicides. However, it more likely indicates the number of people who had not yet been diagnosed with a mental health condition, those who did not receive adequate treatment or timely intervention, or those who had not reached out for help.

Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don't kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive. When somebody dies after a long illness, people are apt to say, with a note of approval, "He fought so hard." And they are inclined to think, about suicide, that no fight was involved, that somebody simply gave up. This is quite wrong.

— Sally Brampton, "Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression"

Trying to Escape Unbearable Circumstances

Inability to stop emotional pain is at the core of suicidal thoughts, gestures and attempts.
Inability to stop emotional pain is at the core of suicidal thoughts, gestures and attempts. | Source

Impaired Judgment or Conscious Choice

In my years of counseling, I have listened to mothers and fathers who no longer believed they were good enough and that someone else would do a much better job of taking care of their children. The overwhelming shame and inadequacy overshadows their parental abilities and love for their children. They are no longer aware of the child's love and need for them, and only see themselves as flawed. They are convinced that the child needs better parenting and will be better off with other family members. Whether or not their parenting skills are lacking, this pattern of thinking points to the distortions that easily take over the suicidal person's frame of mind.

People struggling with financial problems, business failure, severe debt, or impending loss due to marital discord, perceive these events as insurmountable and see suicide as a viable alternative. From their point of view, it would be better to exit the situation by their own doing rather than having to face the shame and embarrassment that often accompanies failure. They don't want to be anyone's burden. This view is often skewed by impaired judgment, depression, acute stress, or unresolved trauma which impacts one's ability to explore other options and see beyond their pain.

Loss of identity and purpose are also major factors for those who fear facing separation and divorce, death of a partner, geriatric isolation due to aging, and loss of employment. Without a clear purpose, grounded in an identity, persons with suicidal thoughts convince themselves they can no longer live without that which defines them. Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a leading psychologist and researcher in the study of suicide, expounds on these psychic issues underlying one's intent, by dispelling myths about why people choose suicide.

Categories of High Risk For Suicide

1. Chronic Illness (Mental or Physical)

2. Aging and Isolation (Geriatric)

3. Loss of Partner to Death or Divorce

4. Peer Group Bullying (Teens)

5. Ostracization From Family or Community (Teens/Young Adults/LGBTQ)

Loved Ones Searching for Answers

The grieved persons left behind after a suicide are often referred to as "suicide survivors," which may be a misnomer. Loved ones who mourn this complicated loss don't feel as if they have survived anything. Instead they feel caught in a never-ending conundrum of unanswered questions, full of complexity and soul-wrenching grief. Suicide leaves a bitter void for loved ones, filled with mixed feelings of anger, confusion, betrayal, disappointment, guilt, loss and sadness. Efforts to sort through and resolve these feelings can linger for years, if not for a lifetime.

The unending difficulty with suicide is finding a way to live with the choice made by a person suffering from excruciating psychic pain. Unless a note or post was left to explain motives, the only one who really knows the answer is the deceased person. The act of suicide itself seems impossible to grasp, particularly if it grates against the grain of one's beliefs about this manner of death. The reality is that no answer will satisfy the bereaved or speed up the grieving process for this type of loss which is stacked with layers of complexity.

In the end, whether due to impaired judgment, mental condition, philosophical or existential justifications, some persons who die by suicide are making what they see, at that time, as a conscious choice to permanently escape from very individual circumstances, riddled with unrelenting fatigue and emotional pain.

10 Suicide Risk Behaviors

1. Verbalized statements of death wishes/self-harm

2. Written notes or social media posts stating threats/intent to self-harm

3. Giving away items of value

4. Withdrawal and isolation

5. Change in attitude, demeanor or physical appearance

6. Reckless, self-destructive acts/self-sabotage

7. Prior suicidal gestures or attempts

8. Calm resolve, elevated or "happy" mood

9. Preoccupation with violence or weapons

10. Alcohol/Substance Abuse or Addiction

Cherish the Good Memories

Family and friends are left with mixed emotions as they attempt to embrace good memories.
Family and friends are left with mixed emotions as they attempt to embrace good memories. | Source

Help For Healing From Suicide Loss

For those who are mourning the loss of someone close, here are some helpful suggestions to assist you in your healing process.

  • Don't blame yourself; punishing yourself is not productive nor conducive to healing
  • Recognize the traumatic nature of the event; your life has changed forever
  • Allow yourself to feel a mixture of emotions
  • Attend a grief support group or family counseling
  • Seek individual grief counseling for extra support
  • Cherish the best memories of the deceased
  • Let go of the need for specific answers and grieve the loss

If you know of someone close to you who is exhibiting behaviors indicating they may be suicidal, reach out to them by asking the question, "Are you thinking about hurting yourself?" Most of the time, persons just want someone to engage them so they can talk about their anguish. Encourage them to get help right away from professionals who are trained to listen.

By asking the question, you are not putting the idea into their heads or presenting suicide as a choice; they most likely have been thinking about it for a while. As a friend, family member or co-worker, you do not have to carry the weight of intervening alone. Use your love and concern to point the person in the direction of taking the first step toward getting appropriate support.

Resources for Support or *Immediate Crisis

The Wendt Center for Loss and Healing (East Coast)

*National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Information & Healing (PTSD) - Gift From Within

Our House Grief Support Center (West Coast)

*If a situation appears to have reached a level of crisis and you fear for the person's safety or your own, dial 911 immediately.

What Do You Believe?

Do you believe suicide is a choice? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.

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This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Janis Leslie Evans

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      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        6 months ago from Washington, DC

        Love to you, Eric. You've come a long way, fulling your purpose and giving back. Thanks for stopping by.

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        6 months ago from Washington, DC

        Sending angels of grace to you this evening, Patricia. Thanks for stopping by, wishing you peace.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        6 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Saw this pop up again and again thank you. Went through of tough oncology patch. My kids all called me up. I knew what they were doing. Good on all folks who love. Like you.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        6 months ago from sunny Florida

        Having lost two people who were and still are important members of my life I appreciate to stating your thoughts on this topic It is such a complex one is it not? For us learning to accept that we would never know the 'why' it happened has been one of the biggest hurdles Of course as you know the loved person who chose this nonanswer is the only one who can provide that answer time has helped distance us from this end of lives but the pain remains It is more dull but it is there Now we do remember more the life of those who left us too soon Angels are on the way this evening ps

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        7 months ago from Washington, DC

        Farrah, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Your insights and observations about suicide, based on your own experience, are very valuable. I hope you will continue to thrive and serve as a beacon to others who struggle with depression. I appreciate you taking the time to read this article and leave a generous comment.

      • Isivwe Muobo profile image

        Farrah Young 

        7 months ago from Nigeria

        I've never lost anyone to suicide, but I was once so depressed, I contemplated suicide.

        Truth is, the only thing that held me back was my faith and the fear of the afterlife.

        I don't think people who committed suicide actually wanted to. They most like saw it as the only option they had.

        Like you rightly pointed out, nobody sees the battle the suicidal person had to fight and sadly, lost before choosing to end it all. All they see is a coward who chose to end it all instead if fighting like everyone else is doing.

        I'm glad I'm out of that dark, dark place and now that I've experienced intense depression first-hand, I know what to look out for and how to help these people if I come across them.

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        13 months ago from Washington, DC

        Robin, thank you so much for your comment. I hope this article will spread awareness, increase understanding of the complexities, and maybe heal a family and save a !ife.

      • profile image

        Robin Willis Washington, D.C. 

        13 months ago

        Janis, Thank-you so much for this wonderfully written insight on this most important crisis within communities. We are in a serious crisis, young adults are at risk and their choices, unfortunately, has been to take their life or attempting suicide. It can penetrate so many layers with loved ones left behind, friends, neighbors, and others that were touched by the person who left the earth with so much more to say and with their pain. Death is so final it can be so hurtful and painful and to experience a suicide event by a loved one will be a long life recovery. Robin Willis Washington, D. C.

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        13 months ago from Washington, DC

        Absolutely, Bill. Cherish the memories, live life to its fullest. Thanks for reading.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        13 months ago from Olympia, WA

        I've known four people who killed themselves...two good friends...it leaves the survivors asking why? what could we have seen? what could we have done? And it also leaves this survivor thankful for the time I had with them, and more appreciative of this gift of life.

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        13 months ago from Washington, DC

        You're welcome, Ms. Dora. Your thumbs up means a lot. I, too, found her observation compelling. It gave me a new perspective. It is my hope that this article will broaden others' perspectives as well. Thanks for stopping by.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        13 months ago from The Caribbean

        Thank you for this insightful, helpful article. There is so much we do not understand without explanations like this. I appreciate Sally Brampton's observation.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        13 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        I would appreciate it if you did more here on this subject. Your insight is a gift.

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        13 months ago from Washington, DC

        Thank you, Cynthia. I appreciate that, thanks for reading.

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia 

        13 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        Good work, Janis. You cover all the bases, with kindness, knowledge, and clarity.

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        13 months ago from Washington, DC

        Oh Eric, thank you so much for sharing your experience. It's so important for people who have been through it to validate others and show that there is hope. So glad it resonated with you, I appreciate your visit and comment. God's continued peace to you.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        13 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Janis this is outstanding. People who have never suffered from this kind of hopelessness, are not aware. I was asked to give a Eulogy just last October. Buddies since birth. Off a bridge.

        I have gone through points that could have put me on a bridge.

        It may sound crazy but I am glad for it. The big "C" and chemo was so bad. But had I not faced that ideation of "ending it", this now Eric would not be me.

        People like you bridge the gap back to reality. Thank you for your service.

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        13 months ago from Washington, DC

        Hi Laura, the issues you raise are on point. I agree that lifestyles have changed drastically in terms of how disconnected we are and that may play a role in loneliness. I do think there is a mean streak intersecting with competitiveness, expectation and judging each other via social media which may play a role as well. Assisted suicides is a touchy one due to it being sanctioned in some states. It is a very individual and understandable desire for people who are suffering and in need of relief when there is no alternative to getting better. It has most likely increased the number of suicides as a whole and given other people permission to end their suffering as well, without assistance. Thanks for the discussion, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

      • Laura335 profile image

        Laura Smith 

        13 months ago from Pittsburgh, PA

        Really insightful. Do you think that society/current lifestyles are partly to blame for the recent increases in suicides? We're all exposed to so much, trying to be everything, trying to make our lives worthwhile that we can't live up to those expectations along with the fact that personal relationships have changed over the years, and people are so disconnected from each other despite being super connected online that everyone feels alone? With the recent streak of celebrity suicides, each for different reasons, it feels like if they can't be happy, what chance does anyone else have? Also, what do you think of assisted suicides for the chronically ill or dying? I know they're illegal here, but how do you think those factor in to suicide as a whole?

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        13 months ago from Washington, DC

        Sorry, John, I meant Jodah.

      • janshares profile imageAUTHOR

        Janis Leslie Evans 

        13 months ago from Washington, DC

        Thanks, Judah. I really hope to make a difference with this article by increasing knowledge. Appreciate your visit and comment.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        13 months ago from Queensland Australia

        What a wonderful and important article, Jan. The statistics and increase in death by suicide is alarming and it is at the stage where it is rare to find a person who doesn’t know someone who has suicided or been affected by it. Your offer very valuable insights and I hope this is read by many.

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