Suicide Death: Help for Friends and Family Still Asking Why
Families Ask Was It Intentional
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
Losing Someone Close
Have you lost someone to suicide?
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.
Trying to Escape Unbearable Circumstances
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"
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
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.
What Do You Believe?
Do you believe suicide is a choice? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.
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.
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.
© 2018 Janis Leslie Evans