Breaking the Silence about Suicide, Grief & Family Survivors

Breaking the Silence about Suicide, Grief, & Family Survivors; www.DrChristinaHibbert.comI am no stranger to death and suicide. My sister died of an overdose of alcohol and acetaminophen in 2007, leaving behind her two young sons whom my husband and I are now raising. We’d already lost my brother-in-law to skin cancer just months before, and my youngest sister to kidney cancer when she was eight, not to mention grandparents, an aunt, and several others. Then, just a few months ago, my dear friend left her youngest child, my daughter’s best friend, at my house for the day, and then took her own life.

 

I don’t know why I’ve been so surrounded with death in general, and suicide, in particular, but so it is. And so it is I simply must write this article—because suicide is so much more complicated and messy than death, and we simply must start talking about it.

 

 

The hardest part about coping after suicide…

Several months ago, I published my memoir, This is How We Grow, about the years after the loss of my sister and brother-

My sister, Shannon, and I at ages 3 and 4. I miss and love her dearly every day.

My sister, Shannon, and I at ages 3 and 4. I miss and love her dearly every day.

in-law. Since then, I’ve received countless comments–online, in person, in book clubs, and in my private practice–from individuals and families who have experienced the sting of suicide and are trying now to carry on. They all say the same thing: “The hardest part about suicide is that I can’t talk about it. It’s supposed to be kept a secret. People don’t want me to talk about it.”

 

That, for me, is the hardest part of coping with the suicide of a loved one, too. It’s hard enough because you’re coping with death, and even harder because it’s a death you’re not supposed to talk about. Well, I’m done with that. I’ve started talking about my own experiences with suicide in my book, and I continue here. I mean no disrespect to anyone who feels they simply can’t talk about it yet. All I’m saying is, “I simply must do my part to break the silence.”

 

 

12 Truths About Suicide, Grief, & Family Survivors

 

The truth is we cannot heal, or help others heal, until we start talking about suicide. The following list shares some things I’ve learned, personally and professionally, about suicide. It’s just a small start, but it’s my hope these will at least get the conversation going. It’s time to break the silence and open the door to greater compassion, support, and healing for any and all scarred by suicide.

 

 

1)   It’s extra hard to handle death by suicide, because it’s not something people feel they can talk about. We can’t post on Facebook, “My friend killed herself,” like we can, “My friend passed away after a long battle with cancer,” or even “My friend was murdered.” It’s just not something we do, because we want to respect the deceased and we want to respect their family. Suicide feels like “a secret,” and, like I said before, for many, this is the hardest part. It makes it much harder to receive the support and understanding we need after suicide when we can’t even say the truth of how our loved one died.

 
 

2) “Suicide” carries a huge stigma–for the deceased, and for his/her family. There’s no denying this fact; we all know it’s true. Death by suicide carries a huge stigma. This is probably the biggest reason families feel the need to keep silent–they don’t want their loved one remembered for how they died; they want them to be remembered for how they lived.

 

 

3) Surviving family/friends often feel judged, or they feel like their loved one is judged. Let’s face it—with such a huge stigma surrounding it, people can be pretty judgmental about suicide. Too many people see suicide as evil, as weakness, as “taking the easy way out,” or worse. They say things like, “They were too weak to carry on, even though the rest of us are able to.” Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, but I have to say it’s very hard on family and friends. The truth is an estimated “90% of people who die by suicide have a potentially treatable mental disorder at the time of their death—a disorder that often has gone unrecognized and untreated.” [i]

I see suicide differently than many, probably because of 1) my experiences working with suicidal clients and families of those who’ve committed suicide, and 2) my two dear loved ones whom I have lost. I know my sister and friend could not have been in their right minds when they took their lives. They were in pain, deep pain. This quote explains it well: “Suicide is not chosen; it happens
 when pain exceeds 
resources for coping with pain.”[ii] I have greater compassion when I can acknowledge this—compassion for them and for myself. There is always so much more to the story of suicide than we, or anyone, will ever know. We must stop the judgment.

 

 

4)   Suicide is isolating for surviving family and friends. Reading the above truths, is it any wonder? Feeling like Breaking the Silence about Suicide, Grief, & Family Survivors; www.DrChristinaHibbert.comyou can’t talk about the death, like you’re disrespecting your deceased loved one or other family members, or feeling judged and stigmatized can all make suicide a very lonely experience for family survivors.

 

 

5) The impact of suicide reaches far beyond the family. Often suicides end up on the news or at least as the “news” of the town. Even those who don’t know the deceased feel stunned by the loss, because it’s so tragic. Think about celebrities who have died from suicide (Heath Leger, Kurt Cobain, and as I finish writing this, Robin Williams). The world is saddened and heartbroken, and we don’t even really know these people. Suicide doesn’t just affect the parents or the spouse or the children of the deceased; it also tragically affects siblings, close friends, and any who are part of the deceased’s community. When my friend died, it felt like the entire community was grief-stricken. And the best part was that we came together in our grief. As we’ve been able to talk about what happened and be there for one another and for her family, we have found greater healing–together. That’s one reason I’m such a big supporter of breaking the silence on suicide. We need each other to heal.

 

 

6)   Suicide is traumatic, and this can complicate grief. Expeirencing the death of a loved one is hard and painful, but not all death is traumatic. Suicide is a trauma to family and friends. It is sudden, shocking, and sometimes, violent. Learning your sister or friend or loved one died by a phone call from the police is traumatic. It’s surreal, it’s unbelievable, and there is no preparation. As my husband and I said to each other, after my dear friend jumped to her death, “We couldn’t have been more shocked if she’d been murdered.” Suicide is a trauma, and grieving suicide can therefore be a long, complicated process. (Resources for Dealing with Grief, click here.)

 

 

7) How the suicide happens can make it even more difficult to cope with.  Details like whether someone was on drugs when they took their life, or whether they did so away from home so family and friends wouldn’t have to find them, versus publicly, or in a way designed to hurt others, can all make suicide even more traumatic and make coping with it even more difficult. My sister died as a result of too much alcohol, a sleeping pill, and tylenol. The knowledge that she was drunk when she took the pills somehow helps my family know she didn’t mean to do what she did, and that is a comfort to us.

 

 

8)  Anger is a huge part of suicide for surviving family and friends, and let me just say, “Your anger is justified.” It’s natural to feel angry when someone dies by their own hand, no matter how it happens. It’s natural to feel like, “This shouldn’t have happened!” I’ve had to deal with layers upon layers of anger toward my sister, and toward my friend. Your anger doesn’t mean you don’t love them. On the contrary, it means you love them very much and are trying to make sense of what happened and learn to forgive and move on without them.

 

 

9)  Guilt is a common emotion after someone dies from suicide. Even if you logically know it’s not your fault, it’s still common to feel or think, “What if…”–wondering what if I would have just stopped by, or called to check in, or been there when s/he needed me. This is another factor that makes suicide especially difficult for family survivors, and another complicating factor in grief.

 

 

10)   Suicide often leads to spiritual conflict in surviving family and friends. We may question “Why did this have to happen?” or rather, “How could God let this happen?” It’s a tragic loss, and that can lead to spiritual trauma that requires its own kind of healing.

 

 

11) Whether the suicide seemed accidental or not, surviving family and friends are left with the huge question, “Why?” Even in cases when a note is left behind, there remain many questions. For those who have no note, it’s likely there will never be any answers. As I wrote in This is How We Grow, “I have been filled with an abundance of ‘whys’ in my days. Some can be answered and provide deeper understanding, but many will never be answered in this life. Sometimes, in choosing to question ‘why,’ we choose to remain stagnant in our learning. We choose to stay in the dark–alone, frustrated, even angry.” (p. 32) Yes, the “whys” are often the hardest part of suicide.

 

 

12) We need to talk about suicide. We can’t allow it to be a secret family members are supposed to keep. We need to have compassion for not only those who feel so alone and in pain that they can’t carry on, but for their family and friends who are trying to pick up the pieces after they are gone. We need greater empathy for families of suicide victims. And yes, they are victims, because the truth is, anyone who feels so alone and desperate that they take their own life, is a victim. Families shouldn’t feel revictimized by others after the death. It’s time we break the silence of suicide. It’s time we decide to be there for one another with great love and compassion.

 
 

What do you have to say about breaking the silence on suicide? I welcome your thoughts, insights, and personal experiences. Together, we can stop the stigma and start the healing. Please, leave a comment below.

 

 
 

Suicide Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Helpguide.org Suicide Prevention: How to Help Someone Who is Suicidal  

American Association of Suicidology: Survivors of Suicide Fact Sheet 

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Coping with Suicide Loss

 
 
 

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References:

[i] Understanding Suicide, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention https://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide

[ii] http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/ Suicide: Read this First

About Dr. Christina Hibbert

Clinical Psychologist, Mom of 6, Postpartum Couples DVD Producer, Non-Profit Founder, and expert on Parenting, Women’s Emotions, Pregnancy & Postpartum, and Grief & Loss, Dr. Christina Hibbert loves songwriting, learning, and teaching what she learns. She really hopes you’ll join the Personal Growth Group and choose to grow together!

Comments

  1. It is very frightening for anyone with a mental illness when a public figure loses the battle with mental illness to suicide. We need to talk about breaking down the stigma. Comparing my battle as against mental illness as a caregiver and losing a brother to cancer is impossible however I really wish I could talk about mental illness much more openly. You are right. We have to break the silence.

    • Thank you, Amy, for these comments. You are right–the idea of suicide is scary to all–especially to those battling mental illness. We absolutely must keep talking about mental illness, and suicidal thoughts and plans, and the truth about the aftermath of suicide, if we are to break through the stigma that holds so many bound and silent. I am with you, 100%. xo

    • I have lived through my own suicide attempt. I was an active alcoholic drowning my grief over my young brother’s death. We were only 16 months apart. I, being an R.N., felt that I knew how to grieve because I had helped others through the process. I was totally wrong. I remember saying to myself, “I’ll deal with this later!”
      Later came and went and I still was stuck in unresolved grief. The alcohol quieted my painful thoughts for a while. I sought mental health counseling, signed myself into a hospital psych ward, and finally admitted I was an alcoholic. I didn’t trust myself to stay sober so I reported myself to the board of nursing. I attended AA meetings immediately after being discharged from the hospital. The MD put me on an anti-depressant and klonopin for anxiety. I was a loose cannon. AA alone wasn’t helping me fast enough. I tried to admit myself into a rehab facility but my insurance would not cover it because it had been 10 days since my last drink. I had burned all my bridges with family and friends so I felt truely alone. I couldn’t sleep at all. I had continuous nightmares while I was wide awake. The fear was paralyzing. I felt trapped, I was terrified of my own thoughts, but I never stopped praying….
      One night, I came to the conclusion that I had too much pain and there was only one way out for me. I wrote letters to all of my loved ones and started taking 1 klonopin at a time while chanting my mantra to God. “Please forgive me, please help me, please send your angels to save my soul from hell, please dear Jesus, help me, forgive me….” all the while sobbing uncontrollably. I could not stop the suicidal thoughts,
      I didn’t want to die, I just wanted the tortuous pain to stop…at least for a moment but that moment never came. I had consumed about 45 pills and was working on the remaining 45 pills. I was awakened by my 17 year old daughter who stood at the foot of my bed with 2 police officers. She told me I had 2 choices…rehab or the state psych institution. I chose rehab as I had already chosen it….but somehow, God arranged for me to go that very day because my insurance finally said they would pay for my treatment because of the overdose! The crazy thing is I wanted to die “sober”
      from alcohol. It made perfect sense to me at the time. My suicidal thoughts are gone now but I have built a safety network around myself with family, friends, and MDS should they ever return.
      They know the symptoms to watch for and how to get me immediate help.
      I believe people that have these suicidal thoughts are too ashamed to talk about them. The secrets make the suicidal thoughts do push-ups!!! They get stronger and stronger until their voice is the only one loud enough to hear….regardless of religious practices or not. I am 100% positive that those who die from suicide are not directly condemned to hell! It is a disease of insanity and my God does Not punish us for being sick. On the contrary, His Love and Grace pours out to the poor tormented souls that He gave life to.
      I have been clean and sober since April 11, 2000.
      ~Terri

  2. Stefani Lawrence says:

    Thank you for your words, Dr. Hibbert. In 1992, my ex-husband committed suicide at my home after I refused to reunite with him. Since then, I have hardly ever been able to talk about it; I didn’t feel like I could for exactly the reasons you listed: people, including his own family, said that he took the easy way out and there is a stigma. I felt like I was the only one who recognized that the pain he felt must have been a pain that I have never experienced myself. No, he was not in his right mind. We’d had a messy relationship and had I known that his pain was so deep, I would have done more to try to get him help. Thank you for talking about this as each time another person commits suicide, I feel the pain all over again.

    • Thank you, dear Stefani, for your thoughtful words. I am so sorry about the tragic loss of your ex-husband, and my heart goes out to you for all you’ve had to bear as a result. I feel the same way–it all comes back whenever someone else commits suicide–and it’s very hard to bear, even years later. I feel strongly that the more we talk and work to reduce stigma, the more those who are suffering may feel able to reach out for help and let it in. It’s such a painful issue, and I am grateful for you sharing your insights and experiences with us here. Sending big hugs to you. xo

  3. I am a Forensic Psychologist and in my family a suicide occurred with a 50 year old male, two MS degrees–one in engineering and the other in Computer Science. He was employed with top secret clearance, married, no children. His wife is employed earning circa 75 to 80K. He earned circa 150K He is a Narcissistic Personality disorder comorbid with psychopathy. Big spender, many expensive toys, big house, Ducati cycle, BMW, ATV, Camper, Ski trips, $100 shirts, $300 pairs of shoes, Imported suits/ties. Employer calls him in and says that his salary will be lowered 65K, or will be “let go.” Reason: they had hard evidence that he was not able to do the job. In short, he was “found out.” He had been promoted to his level of incompetence and carried it off by changing jobs every two years since his last degree in 1992. The family leaned heavily on me for answers. I declined giving details on diagnostic data points to spare his memory and to spare the family. I engaged in “fluff and accolades” in order to NOT talk about it factually.

    • I understand sometimes the circumstances make talking about suicide in families feel harmful, and if you feel that was the case in your family, I certainly respect that. For most families, however, it is more harmful not to be able to talk about it. That’s the point if this article–not to diminish anyone else’s experience, but to give families who wish they could talk about the truth a voice.

  4. I live in a town with about 7,000 people, so it is a small town. In the past 8 months there have been 4 suicides that I know about. The town is traumatized and I worry very much that more young people will turn to suicide. The oldest of these were in their mid to late 20’s and the youngest in high school. I feel sometimes that with news reports of celebrities committing suicide, sometimes seeming to make it feel like suicide was valiant with the person constantly in the news with people leaving flowers and teddy bears at memorials. For a young person in pain I think these images make suicide romantic. What can our town do to help stop this terrible trend without bringing more pain to the families of those that died by suicide? I have no desire to condemn or speak badly about anyone who died of suicide, but young people need to know the truth about suicide, without any Hollywood glamor. Is it possible to do this without bringing more hurt to the families of those that committed suicide?

    • Adra, thank you for this comment. You bring up such an important point. We also had another suicide just after my friend died, at our kids’ same school. And then, a young client of mine at the same school had been planning her death when her mother, fortunately, found her plans and intervened. Copycat suicides are very real, and it is something we need to talk about. We need young people to know, like you said, that it is not glamorous to take their life, and I agree the media does a poor job of helping with this. The answer, in my humble opinion, is talking and teaching and sharing the facts about depression and mental illness and suicide. Reducing the stigma and building the resources for and access to help. The more we talk, the more people in need will feel they can talk, too, and the more likely they will be to reach out for help. I don’t think it would be more hurtful for the families of those who have already died to talk about suicide in terms of prevention, awareness, education, and support/help. In fact, I think most families welcome that kind of education and help, because they know all too well the devastating consequences of not having it. Sending you and your community prayers of healing and hope as you work to pick up the pieces and move on.

  5. I’m going to tweet this for you. I hope that it can find the right people. I have attempted suicide more than once and have a long history of mental illness. I know there is a lot of shame about it and misunderstanding. Your quote about how the pain is beyond the capable resources a person has is spot on. I’ve had suicidal urges since I was 16/17 and I am now 24. It isn’t a fun way to live. I hope that your sister and friend have found peace, whatever it may be.

    • Thank you for this comment, Sebastian. I hope they have found peace, too, and I hope you and all who struggle with this pain will be comforted and know you’re not alone. The way I see it, we’re all in this crazy life together. Best wishes to you.

  6. My sweet, precious, absolutely beautiful friend died of suicide this week. I’m searching for answers that will never come. My grief is overwhelming and I feel like I’m on a roller coaster with the emotions I am experiencing. Reading this is helping me see I am not alone. Thank you.

  7. Shannon Brehmer Allsworth says:

    I was a classmate of Shannon’s. Though we lost touch after high school, I was deeply saddened to hear of her death. I appreciated reading your story about her a few years ago. I am so sorry for all you have been through. Your rendition of your story is so humble, but you heroism is clear. I know sweet Shannon is grateful for you. My family has gone through this as well and I whole heartedly agree that the shame and silence surrounding suicide can make this traumatic event even more devastating. I’ve had a few episodes of crushing depression and I was afraid to talk to my family and ask for help because I couldn’t bear the thought of 1) infecting them with try horrible pain and 2) disappointing them with my weakness. I make it a point to speak openly with my children about suicide and mental illness. It horrifys my parents, but so do many of my other parenting choices (e.g. “refusing to take kids to McDonalds is just un-American”). I agree with you that shining a light on suicide is very important step towards healing and prevention. In regards to Adra’s comment, I feel the taboo adds to the romanticism and if we allow ourselves to discuss it openly, the tragedy as well as the anger, shame and trauma, it will invite those struggling with depression to join in the conversation. The way so many of us suffer in shame and silence just pushes our struggling loved ones deeper into the shadows.
    Thank you for this article. I’ll share it with my family as well.
    Best wishes for you and your beautiful family.

  8. olivia Chavira says:

    Hello Dr. Hibbert,

    I don’t know how I came across your blog, but I am so grateful I did. My baby sister (18 ys) took her own life one month ago (05/03/15). I have never known a pain like this and my “grieving” is all over the place. I am a very emotional person. I feel just about everything. But with the loss of my sister, I am a lot different. I only cry when I am alone. It’s even hard to cry or show emotion about the issue with people. I struggle with the “whys” all the time. I have anger towards her at time (but all in love). She was one month away from graduating high school. She was top 2% in her class. She just received student of the year. she was beautiful. we all knew she was struggling with anxiety, and healing from a major surgery. But not even knowing those things prepared us for this. I look back through our text messages, and I start to see the “signs”. Then the guilt comes flowing through my veins telling myself “how did you miss that”. I come from a very spiritual, God-loving family. We have used our faith as our biggest crutch which is helping tremendously. I feel a lot of my old relationships are not the same. I’m trying so hard to feel the happiness and excitement of love with my boyfriend the way I once did. And lately, I just feel so blank that I am unable to be that loving, happy, supportive girlfriend that I once was just a short month ago. I was in church the other day, and this lady gave a testimony about how she came close to taking her own life, but was able to over-come it. Those stories are always the ones that hurt me the most. Trying to live with the fact that my sister will never be one of those “I was able to overcome” success stories. She is gone, and nothing in this world can change that.

    I am so very sorry about the loss you have endured in your family. I am one of those few people who can say “I know how you feel”. Like you mentioned, we are grief differently and have our own unique experiences. However, losing a sibling is something we do have in common. Thank you for shedding your light on this very touchy subject. I am going to send this link to my family members that are dealing with the loss of my baby sister as well.

    Best Regards,

    Olivia Chavira (24 ys)
    (California)

  9. Brittany says:

    Christina,
    I came across your page on Pinterest. I often look through the grief section to find insight, perspective, anything really that might help.
    I lost my dad to suicide almost a year ago (it will be 1 year in a week). There is no easy way to get through it. No button you can push to fast forward through the bad days. I really wish there was. I understand feeling like I can’t talk about it. I am “the woman whose dad committed suicide.” I finally am able to be honest when people ask me what happened. That has taken almost a year.
    I really appreciate everything you’re doing to raise awareness for us survivors. Its a hard thing to understand if you’ve never been through it. Its even hard for those of us who have gone through it. There are no answers. Only questions. Something that has helped me is to say “it hurts because it mattered.”
    Thank you again for your wisdom and for breaking the mold with talking openly about suicide.
    Brittany

  10. On April 28, 2015 my husband of 33 years took his life. He had many health issues such as fibromyalgia, myofacial pain syndrome, neuropathy and his back was so destroyed that the dr’s told him surgery would not alleviate the pain. His two options were to orally take morphine or a morphine pump implant. He ended up taking it orally. As time went on depression and anxiety took over. This went on for 11 years and we went to numerous doctors for help. He had a two month period in the summer of 2014 that we thought he was finally back to his normal self as far as the depression and anxiety. After the 2 months went by, he started slipping back into depression. He quit driving because he shook so bad. I had to shave him because the last time he tried he cut up his face because of the shaking. In December my daughter and her husband told us they were expecting our first grandchild in August. My husband did seem to be excited about becoming a grandfather. My husband was a very hard worker all of his life. He worked in a steel mill for 27 years. When he finished his job if someone needed help with pouring concrete or building a house or whatever, they knew they could count on Marc to be there. He was told numerous times to slow down that the human body would only be able to handle so much, but he never listened. As everything was getting worse he applied for Social Security Disability. After 2 years he was awarded his disability. On the day of April 28, 2015, I came home from work and Marc was sleeping. I changed my clothes and went outside to mow the lawn. We have 2 acres and Marc was so worried about the lawnmower not working. It really bothered him that I had to do this because he was not physically able to. I did not mind at all. It was my time to think. I just wanted him to know that “for better, for worse, in sickness and health,” meant what it was intended to mean. Anyways, I went to start the riding lawnmower and it wouldn’t start. I stayed out in the garage and tried jumping it. I came into the house around 6:00 pm to get a piece of electrical tape. When I looked up, I was startled because my husband was standing there. I never heard him walking into the room. The last conversation we had went like this with Marc saying, “Where you at?” I replied, “out in the big garage.” Then he just said “OK.” I went back outside and tried for about another hour and then I quit. When I came back in I checked on him and he was laying in bed and I thought he was sleeping. I checked on him 3 more times and on the last time I checked I noticed as I was halfway down the hall that he wasn’t shaking. I turned the hall light back on and went and grabbed his foot. His feet were always cold so that didn’t surprise me. Then I started shaking and yelling his name and that is when I noticed the blood coming from his mouth and eyes and the hole in his chin. I am tormented by this. Why did I go back outside? Could I have stopped this? What was his last thought before he pulled the trigger. He was a wonderful husband, father, son, brother and friend. I am so heart broken and my emotions are all over the place. I really, really loved that man.

  11. I lost my sister to Suicide two years ago. Your page is wonderful and I wholeheartedly agree that we need to TALK about suicide. I’m in Australia and I have only been able to start to heal since finding a suicide support group where finally there was a place to talk with others. I would urge others to seek out someone to speak with who can really understand. Long term though we need masses more education about suicide and mental health so these issues can be spoken about everywhere – then suicide will in itself probably become less of an epidemic. Thx for starting the conversation Dr Hibbert.

  12. Thank you for writing this. My sister passed away a month ago from suicide. It hurts to write this. And I still can’t believe it. I’m too hurt right now to talk about it with friends. Only my mom and my other sister understand. But when the time is right, I agree it should be talked about.

    I don’t have much else to say right now, other than I am glad I found this website. Thank you again.

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