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Losing a Loved One to Suicide

Most of us are unprepared when a loved one dies by suicide.

Pixabay Public Domain
Source: Pixabay Public Domain

Although suicides outnumber murders in the U.S. by a ratio of three to one, the topic of suicide, unlike murder, rarely makes the national news unless it involves the death of someone famous such as celebrity chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain, fashion designer Kate Spade, rock vocalist Chris Cornell or comedian Robin Williams.

As a society, we are very uncomfortable talking about suicide. Therefore, we rarely do so either in public or in private. Most of us give little thought to suicide unless it touches our own lives.

Because we are so uncomfortable and unaccustomed to talking about suicide, we are woefully unprepared for the powerful feelings and confusion that arise within us when we lose a loved one to suicide.

I never gave much thought to suicide until someone I loved took her own life. Just before Thanksgiving in 2013, my beautiful, brilliant and talented 48-year-old, former girlfriend, Angela, hanged herself in her apartment in New York City.

Her suicide has weighed heavily on my heart and mind since then. I have experienced the terrible emotional pain, guilt, confusion, and anger that arise when a loved one unexpectedly takes her own life. It has been very difficult for me to understand and fully accept.

Initially, I was angry with her for not asking me for help instead of taking her own life. It took a long time for me to realize that she was unable to ask for help due to terrible fears, and feelings of guilt and shame that tormented and controlled her.

She left no suicide note. That fact compounded my pain and confusion. The lack of answers to my question of why she killed herself tortured me for some time after her death.

Looking back, I saw signs of her emotional instability and deep fear prior to her suicide but because she functioned pretty well, it did not occur to me that she was feeling desperate enough to take her own life.

She was very secretive in life and would not talk about certain topics that I have come to believe caused her to feel alone in the world. I am now certain that her dark secrets and terrible, unexpressed fears ultimately led to her suicide when she was no longer able to endure the emotional pain.

There is an old saying that “the secrets you take to your grave are the ones that will put you there.” I now strongly believe this is true.

I was heartbroken that I did not get a chance to say good-bye to her and I felt guilty that I did not do more for her while she was alive. I now recognize that such feelings on my part are quite normal following the suicide of someone you care for deeply.

The suicide of my dear Angela has caused me to see that something must change in our culture in terms of how we approach the issue of suicide.

Suicide is a social fact and a growing health problem. More than 1200 people attempt suicide in the U.S. every day and 125, on average, complete the act.

We do not like to talk about suicide because it makes us all very uncomfortable. Talk of suicide triggers unpleasant emotions such as shame and guilt, particularly among those who may be contemplating it.

Our society does not encourage those with suicidal ideations to talk openly and freely about it. In fact, they are culturally discouraged from doing so.

As a society, we treat suicide like a dirty little secret. There is a tremendous stigma attached to suicide in the U.S. which I believe is linked to the Protestant ethic that dominates our culture and its emphasis on individual choice and responsibility.

The Protestant ethic would suggest that if you commit suicide you alone are culpable—that is, you made a choice to take your own life. Therefore, society is relieved of any moral responsibility for your actions.

The Protestant ethic that lies at the heart of American culture can help to explain why politicians, religious leaders, and law enforcement authorities are not discussing the current suicide epidemic. The Protestant ethic dictates that society needs to do nothing about suicide as a social problem. As a result, suicide is not on the public agenda.

It is time to remove the stigma from suicide and have an honest and open public discussion about this serious social problem. We must stop hiding our heads in the sand and begin to discuss real strategies and solutions to the growing suicide problem in the U.S.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call1-800-273-TALK (8255).