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The Fear That Haunts Suicide Loss Survivors

How to support and help families who have suffered a loss by suicide.

Key points

  • Suicide loss survivors often experience fear that they may attempt suicide themselves.
  • Bringing up the topic of suicide does not put the idea into someone's head.
  • Asking questions without judgment and listening to someone discuss emotional pain reduces the stigma around the topic of sucide.

I didn’t know it then, but on January 10th, 2005, I received a single phone call that would completely change my life. On the other end of the line was my older sister Renata, struggling to put together the hardest words she had ever had to utter: our dad had just taken his life. I have only a vague memory of the following hours, days, even months.

Until that day, to my family and I, suicide had been this distant, “it only happens to others,” kind of thing, but I learned quickly that when self-inflicted death knocks on your door: it’s everywhere, hidden behind a thick wall of silence that has been built over the course of centuries, block by block, with layers of shame, guilt, and most of all, fear.

What kind of fear? The fear of what comes next, of what will never be again, of not having time to repair a relationship. And for many loss survivors, the most insidious fear of all: a lingering dread that we may be next.

Keenan Constance / Unsplash
Source: Keenan Constance / Unsplash

When someone close to us dies by suicide, the curtain of illusion between ourselves and the act is suddenly drawn wide open. Just as when a loved one succumbs to Alzheimer's, cancer, or mental illness, the possibility of suicide is suddenly made painfully real, compelling many of us to ask ourselves: could the same happen to me?

This is a topic that is rarely talked about when we explore the theme of suicide, but it’s a constant for many of us, loss survivors. And it’s an especially defiant aspect of the stigma I’ve dedicated my life to eliminate. I hope that if you know someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, some of the observations that follow will help you feel more prepared to support them.

First, a bit of a myth-busting.

It’s a common belief that bringing up suicide may somehow encourage the person to take their life. This is one of the most persistent myths about suicide and is simply a justification for avoiding such a difficult conversation.

What happens is actually the opposite: if you ask the question without judgment and are willing to listen to their narrative of pain, you will not only be an ally on reducing the stigma that surrounds this topic, but you will also be creating space for true connection.

"Will I Be Next?"

The first experience I had with the fear of family contagion came from my sister Renata telling me about her diagnosis of depression, which came a few months after my father's death. Over the phone, she would repeat, “I have to treat this because I refuse to end up like him.” Underlying her statement were the chilling questions, “Will I? Would I?”

At the time, her words sounded to me like an isolated, understandable worry, one that actually gave me relief because it pushed my sister to engage in treatment. Interestingly, she doesn’t remember ever saying that to me, but she certainly recalls the fear.

We met in a small cafe, and he started talking right away with a mix of embarrassment and angst:

I’m turning 32 next year. I have a fulfilling life with a great marriage and beautiful kids. My profession is what I always dreamt of, that’s why I can’t understand this. You see, my dad died by suicide when I was only a toddler, so I have no recollection of him, no memory whatsoever. Why is it then, that now, all I can think about is whether or not I’ll do the same next year? It makes no sense.

By the end of our conversation, we realized that his dad had died at 32, the same age he would be entering soon, and that was the reason behind his tortuous, mysterious thoughts.

This story illustrated what takes place in many families touched by suicide. Suddenly, genetics spoke louder than ever before, as if our future could be encapsulated by genes only or even dictated by them. Even when mental illness was not present, the fear was there, stirring up the family dynamics.

Unfortunately, even we, mental health professionals, make serious mistakes when addressing families, which compound the anger and the debilitating emotions family members must endure in the aftermath of suicide.

This is what happened to the family I interviewed a couple of years ago. When her father’s psychiatrist called one of the daughters to participate in a joint session, she had no idea what to expect. Much to her astonishment, in her father’s presence, the doctor told her, matter-of-factly, that her father's threat of suicide was real, that he might actually do it.

Then, looking at her as if his patient weren’t there, he prophesied, “And you know what will happen if he does? Your brother will be mentally ill just like him. He will be traumatized and may even do the same in the future.”

By the way, the child this doctor was talking about was only two years old at the time. Unfortunately, misinformation and lack of training in suicide prevention and postvention are a reality in our profession. We all need to reflect on our own beliefs regarding suicide not to aggravate an already overwhelming situation.

September is the suicide prevention awareness month. This year, I want to honor the memory of those who, like my father, could not find alternatives to their pain by inviting you to check in with their families and friends. I firmly believe that by caring for them, we actively work on prevention because loss survivors are at a higher risk of suicide themselves.

This is a triggering month for us, so please don’t be afraid to get closer and offer the kindness of an embrace. Gently hold our stories, and be an ally to break the silence that keeps so many of us feeling alone in our pain.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock


Suicide myths by the World Health Organization:

Loss survivors have higher risks of suicide: