What Not to Say to a Suicide Survivor

“Suicide is so selfish.”
“If he loved you so much, why did he hurt you this way?”
“Pray for your son so he can get out of purgatory.”
“Did he leave a suicide note?”
“He took the easy way out.”
“Did you communicate with your son?”

Suicide survivors constantly feel pain because of what others say. As a survivor of suicide, I have reflected on my grieving since my son Keith died “by suicide.” I decided to take a look at the process I have gone through, and I have tried to analyze my feelings. First, I made a list of all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions I had after Keith died; I hoped this list would somehow help other “new” suicide survivors. After looking at the list, I realized the one thing that was most apparent was my anger – the anger that I felt about the word “suicide” and the phrase “committed suicide.”

Dealing with grief is always a difficult process; dealing with a death by suicide is often even more complex. My son Keith died of untreated depression, an illness caused by an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain. It was just like any other illness, but my son’s illness carried the stigma of a “mental” illness. Others who have helped me through this process refer to it as “neurological” illness; I, too, prefer this latter terminology because it can help eliminate that image of someone in a straight jacket being taken away to a padded cell.

Since my son’s suicide, I have come to the realization that his illness was so intense and overwhelming that he could not escape the pain. Depression can cause immense suffering! When one suffers from depression, it prevents him or her from being able to look forward to anything. The depressed can only think about NOW and have lost the ability to envision a future devoid of pain. Many times, the depressed do not even realize they are suffering from a treatable illness. In fact, seeking help may not even enter their minds. They cannot think of the people around them, their families, or friends because of their illness; they are too consumed with emotional, and often physical, pain that becomes unbearable. They feel hopeless and helpless. They don’t “want” to die, but it’s the only way they feel their pain will end. For them, there is no choice involved in suicide—it is a reaction to agonizing pain.

When someone asks, “How did your son die?” a silence often follows my answer. It is a silence I have learned to expect. I consider this silence a part of discrimination. The person has decided in his or her mind that this kind of death is not acceptable because it is self inflicted. In their minds, suicide occurs because of weakness or lack of character. They do not understand that a neurological illness is an illness like any other illness.

I was brought up in the Catholic Church, so when I first learned of Keith’s death, my thought processes immediately went to God. I was being punished. I wasn’t a good enough mother. Where would I take my grief? I always felt that the priest in our parish would have the right words, because he represented a man of God. But apparently, the church had not trained our priest about suicide because he said nothing. It was hurtful to us because we felt the church should be there for us with the information we so desperately needed. Wouldn’t God reach out to those who suffered? It was that silence that I will never forget.

We have to do something to educate others about suicide. This could start in the church. I see in our church bulletin support groups for the separated, widowed, and divorced. How about a support group for those who are suffering with a neurological disorder? How about a support group for those who have lost loved ones (either physically or emotionally) because of neurological disorders?

I also think of the phrase “committed suicide.” As a suicide survivor, those words cause me great pain. I have tried to explain that the word “committed” was used during the Middle Ages because suicide was then considered illegal and sinful. However, it is now 2008, and we know more about neurological disorders. We know that neurological disorders can lead to suicide. So why do many people continue to use such outdated terminology? Let’s come out of the Dark Ages.

I am tired of being angry at the word suicide, but you can help. Every time you hear about a death by suicide, you can remember that this death was the result of a neurological disorder. Something went wrong with the functioning of the brain, and as a result, a suicide occurred. Then, talk to God and ask him to help others understand that our loved ones fought losing battles against an illness. I am not worried about how God feels; in my heart I know. Unfortunately, most people misunderstand suicide, so the myths are perpetuated.

I want people to educate themselves and others. Education can lead to better understanding, greater willingness to seek treatments, and compassion for survivors.

Carol Loehr is the author of My Uncle Keith Died (Trafford), which addresses children’s questions about suicide and depression. She can be reached through her website, www.TheGiftofKeith.org,.

Copyright 2008 by Carol Loehr

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Abel Keogh

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Abel is the author of the relationship guides Dating a Widower: Starting a Relationship with a Man Who's Starting Over and Marrying a Widower: What You Need to Know Before Tying the Knot as well as several other books. During the day, Abel works in corporate marketing for a technology company. His main responsibilities include making computers and software sound super sexy, coding websites, and herding cats. Abel and his wife live somewhere in the beautiful state of Utah and, as citizens of the Beehive State, are parents of the requisite five children. Learn more at http://www.abelkeogh.com.