Some Frequently Asked Questions About Grief and Suicide
This is one of the first questions almost everyone asks after a suicide is: Why? Why would someone you love end their own life? How could I not have seen this coming? Suicide is very complicated, and it is almost always leaves many questions unanswered. Often, we never learn exactly why our loved one took their life. At least 90 percent of all people who died by suicide were suffering from a mental illness at the time, most often depression. The decision generally comes from a place of helplessness, hopelessness, and deep despair. People who are impulsive, or who use alcohol and drugs, are at higher risk. The choice to die by suicide may seem to have been made in a few impulsive moments of deep turmoil…or it may have been a decision that had been contemplated for some time due to unrecognized, untreated mental illness.
Sometimes, even close friends or family members don’t know that their loved one is depressed. People who are depressed don’t always act the way we expect they would. They may not seem sad, tearful, or withdrawn. Men who are depressed may seem angry or irritable rather than sad. As well, some people hide their intent so carefully that their families are not aware of what they are considering.
Suicide risk factors such as depression and bipolar illness tend to run in families. However, having a family member who is depressed or who died by suicide does not automatically mean that you will become depressed or die by suicide. Because family members may be at greater risk, however, people who have a family history of suicide or mental illness should be particularly alert to psychiatric symptoms in themselves and get an evaluation as early as possible. Another consideration is that when a suicide has already occurred within a family, this may appear to open the door for others to consider it as an acceptable way to end one’s life eg. well, Dad did it…so I will too!
Studies show that people do not start thinking about suicide just because someone asks them about it. If you suspect a friend or loved one is suicidal, tell them that you are worried and want to help them. Don’t be afraid to ask whether they are considering suicide, and if they have a specific plan in mind. Having a plan may indicate that they are farther along and need help right away. Sometimes people who are thinking about suicide won’t tell you so because they don’t want you to stop them. Your direct, non-judgmental questions can encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. Regardless of their response, if you suspect that the person may be suicidal, get help immediately.
A loved one’s suicide can be emotionally devastating and can trigger intense and overwhelming emotions. Some of these may be:
a) Shock. Disbelief and emotional numbness might set in. You might think that your loved one’s suicide couldn’t possibly be real.
b) Anger. You might be angry with your loved one for abandoning you or leaving you with a legacy of grief – or angry with yourself or others for missing clues about suicidal intentions.
c) Guilt. You might replay “what if” and “if only” scenarios over and over in your mind, blaming yourself for your loved one’s death.
d) Despair. You might be gripped by sadness, loneliness or helplessness. You might have a physical collapse or even consider suicide yourself.
Intense reactions may continue during the weeks and months after your loved one’s suicide — including nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal and loss of interest in usual activities – especially if you witnessed or discovered the suicide. Seeking support will help you to begin the journey through your grief. Consider a grief counselor especially during the early days. Finding a support group for families affected by suicide will also help. Sharing your story with others who are experiencing the same type of grief can help you to find good ways of coping and give you comfort and strength.
Language used when talking about suicide can have a negative impact on survivors and can prolong the stigma associated with suicide. Although we may hear that someone has “committed suicide,” most people find “died by suicide” to be more objective and less judgmental. The terms “committed suicide”, “completed suicide”, ‘incomplete’, ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘failed suicide attempts’ should not be used.
- The word ‘commit’ presents a particular problem since it is also used for criminal offences. It evokes a time when suicide was a criminal act. Suicide has not been a criminal act since 1972 in Canada.
- The word ‘committed’ can also have a negative religious inference as in committing a sin. This refers back to a time when someone who died by suicide was not allowed to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. In 1983, a papal decree reversed this prohibition.
- To describe a suicide attempt that does not result in death as a “failure” is misleading. To say it was a ‘failed’ attempt infers that the person was a failure for living.
- To say an action was an ‘unsuccessful’ attempt infers that to have died was to be successful. Obviously, the term “successful” does not match the meaning of the word with the action.
The preferred terms to use are died by suicide or died by their own hand – thesemore accurately describe the reality of suicide without judgement and respect the needs of those left behind.