To the casual observer, Mindy McCready’s recent suicide death reads like a bad country song. To those of us who have lived through some of what she experienced or are witness to in our work, it reads more like a roadmap to sure death. Last fall, in an interview, McCready seemed full of hope, gaining the upper hand in legal maneuverings to maintain custody of her older son. The bottom seemed to drop out when her fiancé and father of her 9-month-old son died by an apparent suicide last month on the porch of the home they shared in Arkansas.
“I have never gone through anything this painful,” she told a reporter about her fiancé’s death.
That is saying a lot, because McCready experienced a significant amount of pain in her life. According to Dr. Drew Pinsky, who played host to the country star on his “Celebrity Rehab 3” show, she was a “love addict” who never had good intimacy role models in childhood and was likely traumatized through these relationships. As an adult, she became “addicted” to achieving love through chaotic, abusive relationships. Other self-destructive behaviors, substance abuse problems, legal problems, and child custody disputes littered her life.
Being suicidal seemed to be one way that she coped. There were at least three suicide attempts between July 2005 and December 2008. Her death was not a surprise to country musician Billy McKnight, father of her eldest child. He lived through several of her previous suicide attempts and witnessed her suffering up close.
As a suicidologist, one of the things I have been taught is that the best predictor of suicide completion is suicide attempt. With each attempt, Mindy McCready’s risk for death by suicide increased. What is largely unknown is what role did the death of her fiancé play in her own final act?
As the survivor of my own husband’s suicide nearly 17 years ago, I know that it is one of the most painful experiences in life both emotionally and physically. The feelings of rejection and perception of being abandoned so publicly and unilaterally are almost unbearable. The judgment that others seem to project onto the act of your loved one – and thrust onto you as their caregiver – produce a shame and humiliation that are only dwarfed by the raw feelings of grief at their loss.
This has been borne out by the limited amount of research on this topic. Studies show that suicide bereaved spouses, usually wives, feel more shame at two months after the death than bereaved spouses from other causes of death. They also experience more feelings of abandonment, rejection, stigmatization, as well as difficulty accepting the death. Additionally, suicide bereaved spouses tend to report having poorer health and mental health and higher levels of depression 12 months after the death than other causes of death.
We know from research pioneered by Columbia University professor George Bonanno that social support often makes the difference in whether an individual can rebound from a traumatic event or not. When that event is an inherently stigmatized act, as is suicide, and is ignored and rejected by potential supporters of the bereaved spouse or partner, that potential social support is also lost.
As a researcher on the University of Kentucky’s Military Suicide Bereavement Study, a project funded by the Department of Defense’s Military Suicide Research Consortium, I hear stories every week that validate these concerns about how the suicide bereaved are perceived and treated by others.
Our study participants frequently tell me, in hushed tones, as if someone is going to commit them to a mental hospital or judge them harshly just by saying it, that they were suicidal after the suicide death of their loved one. Feeling suicidal after the suicide death of a loved one is not uncommon, I am finding. However, if there is one thing more stigmatized than the death of a loved one by suicide it is those feelings of one’s own suicidality after that loss. It is an unspoken, but often acknowledged truth, felt by the suicide bereaved. People who are not acutely bereaved feel that even having suicidal thoughts is selfish and not honoring the person already dead.
Unlike McCready, I pieced my life back together again deliberately and slowly, stitch by stitch, with the help of every health-care professional and member of the clergy who would listen. I did not necessarily feel like moving on, but made the choice to do it. There was no blueprint or roadmap for my recovery. I do not know the details of McCready’s life, but I do know that she was hospitalized and lost her sons to foster care in recent weeks. Her patched up life was becoming too threadbare to survive it seemed.
While the details of her inability to gain equilibrium are unclear, what is clear to fellow suicide bereaved, clinicians who treat them, and researchers who study them is that they are in intense pain. Edwin Shneidman, the founder of the study of suicide, once said that taking care of those who are suicide bereaved (postvention) is also prevention of suicide. While the mechanism for this is still unclear, there does seem to be anecdotal evidence for its truth.