Dear reader: let me begin by expressing how truly sorry I am that you are reading this page. The loss of a loved one is always tragic and hard, but there is a unique pain when the loss is due to suicide. There are no words that anyone can say that will give you the closure you are looking for, no answers that will satisfy the burning questions that plague you.

What this page is designed to do is to give you general information about the world of being a suicide loss survivor, or an individual who has survived (or more appropriately, is surviving) the loss of a loved one to suicide.

The CDC estimates that someone dies by suicide every 12 minutes. Each loss leaves behind suicide loss survivors that are gripped with pain, shame, confusion, and despair. While the position you are in is terrible and tragic, please know that you are not alone.

Where to begin?

You got the news that changed your life forever. Everything you once knew has been thrown out the window. Depending on the timing of this news, you may still not believe what has happened. You may feel like your entire world has collapsed on top of you, and the idea of clawing your way back to the surface seems overwhelming.

Heed my words: you can survive this. These words may seem trivial and empty now, in fact surviving may be the last thing you want to do, but hold on to these words and know that you can survive this.

It will be hard. It may be the hardest thing you’ve ever had to endure. Knowing this will help you to prepare, to borrow strength from friends and family when you need it. The place to begin is the facts: someone you loved dearly took their own life.

Here are some more facts to ground you to begin this journey:

Suicide is most often the result of an untreated or mistreated mental illness such as depression or anxiety.

Suicide is never the result of one thing. One argument or one circumstance (such as a divorce or bullying) is never the sole cause of suicide. Suicide is complex and is the result of a combination of factors.

Your loved one’s decision to take their life was ultimately their decision. You are not to blame.

Your loved one’s suicide is not a reflection of who you are.

What do I tell people?

Explaining the loss of a loved one is a personal decision. Just like with any loss, you do not owe anyone an explanation. If faced with the question, “how did they die?” you can always respond with “they were sick” or deflect by saying “I don’t want to talk about it.”

If you are comfortable with explaining the cause of death, say it matter-of-factly. “They died by suicide”, “they took their own life”, or “they killed themselves” are all acceptable ways of stating a suicide. Generally in the world of suicide prevention we avoid using the phrase “committed suicide” because it suggests that the death was criminal in nature. As you’re now aware, the loss of a loved one to suicide is tragic, not criminal.

Because suicide is most often the result of an untreated or mistreated mental illness, some people find it useful to describe the death as “they died from depression” or “they died from anxiety”.

Talking about your loved one’s suicide may seem awkward or shameful at first, but with time it will become easier to talk about.

Acceptable:

I don’t want to talk about it

Died from a sickness

Died by suicide

Killed themselves

Took their own life

Died by depression

Died by mental illness

Avoid:

Committed suicide

Anything to describe the method (“shot himself” or “overdosed”)

Suggesting a single cause (“killed himself because of the divorce”)

What of Suicide Notes?

The last words of a loved one may provide a small amount of relief, or may assign blame, or may raise even more questions. Or, more likely, there may be no suicide note at all. In fact, most people who die by suicide do not leave a note1, so those without notes also struggle immensely with the lack of closure they feel a note should help supply. But then for those of you who have last words, you will attest to the fact that even with a note, closure is elusive in death by suicide. It is so sudden and so unwanted that the last words of your loved one will never feel like it’s enough.

Whatever the content of the note, understand this: an individual who takes his or her life was not in a healthy state of mind during the act. Because of this, notes may suggest confusing themes or emotions, or ramble in a way that doesn’t make sense.

If the note contains last instructions, as most notes do, it is entirely up to you if you would like to honor those requests. Again, your loved one was not in a healthy place when writing that note, so there is no requirement for you to fulfil the instructions written. If you choose to, you may find that the final wishes are a way to honor and remember your loved one.

Should I share the note?

Again, this is a very personal decision. Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to share the note on large platforms, such as posting it on a Facebook page or publishing it in an obituary, as this could lead to copycat suicides. However, sharing the note with close family and friends may be a comfort to you or to the friends and family.

What if the note assigns blame?

We cannot stress enough that suicide is never the cause of one factor. Even if a suicide note specifies one specific item that lead to their death, this is often a narrow view of a hurting mind. In most cases, suicide is the result of an untreated or mistreated mental illness such as depression or anxiety, coupled by stressing life events and a lack of coping skills.

Could I have done anything to stop this?

You will be grappling with this question for the rest of your life. The truth is we will never know. We can give you this comfort: the decision to take one’s life is ultimately in the hands of that person. We may say and do all of the right things, be the perfect parent/spouse/sibling/friend/etc., and someone may still choose to take their life.

Now What?

This is perhaps the most trying time of your life, and you will need support to get through it. You should not have the expectation of getting through this alone – so we highly recommend the following:

1    Start seeing a counselor or therapist that specializes in grief. Grief is going to hit you in a lot of weird ways and will take you on a rollercoaster journey, especially during the first year after your loved one’s death. Begin seeing a counselor or therapist that you trust, where you can experience and process your raw emotions. Stuffing your emotions or ignoring them will only make them come back at a later time even worse than they are now.

2   Reach out to local survivor groups. We have a few databases listed on our Support Groups pages that can help you find local groups of suicide survivors. By being around others who have also experienced a loss to suicide, you will find strength and comfort during a season that is hard to put into words. The strength and support of your fellow survivors will help you to survive as well.

3   Be honest with yourself and those around you. We process things differently, and people often don’t know how to react to a loss by suicide. Many people will offer empty platitudes or not speak at all for fear of making things worse. Be open and honest with your needs and your friends/family will gladly step up to the plate to help support you.

4   If/When you’re ready, become an advocate. Many survivors have found a great sense of healing by becoming suicide prevention advocates in memory of their loved ones. Reach out to local community groups to see how you can become involved. We recommend waiting at least one year after the loss of your loved one before reaching this step.

As always, if you are in emotional distress, you can always reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, call your local crisis intervention center, chat online at ImAlive.org or CrisisChat.org, or send a text to 741-741.

1. http://www.speakingofsuicide.com/2014/04/23/the-unwritten-goodbye/