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Breaking the silence on suicide

I’m not one to shy away from difficult conversations or taboo topics and this post is no different. I want to start with a content warning because today we’re talking about suicide. And, depending on how close to home this hits and where you are on your healing journey, you may want to save this for later or come back to it when you’re ready.

We don’t talk enough about suicide.

And yet, it’s the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Around the world, about 800,000 people die by suicide every year. It touches so many of us. 

According to the CDC:

  • one death by suicide takes place every 11 minutes
  • it’s the second leading cause of death for 10 – 15-year-olds and 25 – 34-year-olds 
  • 12.2 million people seriously thought about suicide in 2020
  • 3.2 million people made plans for suicide in 2020.

Suicide is also steeped in a stigma and shame that thrives in secrecy, silence, and judgment. So we NEED to talk about it. I know that there’s this weird idea that talking about suicide with someone who may be passively or actively thinking about suicide will cause that person to follow through with their thoughts but this simply isn’t true!  Rather, when we create a safe space (to talk and LISTEN) we give someone the chance to open up, share how they’re feeling, and potentially receive lifesaving help.

This post isn’t about how to talk to someone who is suicidal. Instead, we’re here to talk about grieving death by suicide. But if you’d like to learn how to talk to someone ideating suicide I encourage you to look up programs like ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) or my friend Cait has a wonderful free download on “How to Hold Space for Death by Suicide Talk”.

Language Matters

Just like battling cancer puts us at war with our own bodies the language we use to talk about suicide can reinforce the shame and put us at odds with the person who has died and those who are grieving their death.

Often the language is about “committing suicide” just like you would commit a crime (or commit a sin if you want to add an extra layer of religion). Our judgment is already passed because of the way we speak about it.

It’s far more neutral (and less judgmental) to say that someone lost their life to suicide or died by suicide.

We also want to avoid language like “successful/ unsuccessful” or “completed/ failed” which sounds like it was some kind of examination. Instead, we can say died by suicide or lived through a suicide attempt.

Emotions are intense enough without adding charged language into the mix.

Mental illness is an illness just like any other

I also think it’s important, before we dive into the grief, that we mention how differently society treats people with mental illness.

If you’re diagnosed with cancer people want to support you, they praise you for your courage and being strong, they tell you to ask for help to be kind to yourself and that it isn’t your fault.

If you’re diagnosed with a mental illness like depression (though there are many mental illnesses that can lead to suicide) you’re blamed and told to “get over it”, take responsibility for your life, make better choices, or that others have it worse than you so…what do you have to be depressed about? You’re criticized for being weak and told to “just get over it” or “just think positively”.

But, of course, someone with a mental illness can’t think their way out of it because it’s their brain that’s the problem. It’s like telling someone with a broken leg to just walk it off.

This grief is different

All the regular emotions that we experience with grief tend to show up more intensely with death by suicide.

Remember grief shows up with physical symptoms like fatigue, nausea, insomnia, aches, and pains as well as the jumble of emotions like shock, denial, sorrow, depression, bitterness, frustration, anger, abandonment, and…guilt.

Guilt is a big one with suicide survivors (those whose loved ones died by suicide). We’re quick to wonder, “What if I had answered the call?”, “What if I had checked on them?”, “Why didn’t I notice the signs?” And we beat ourselves up with the idea that if we had only said or done something different our loved one would still be here. It’s hard to accept that some things are out of our control.

And it’s hard to talk about all these feelings when there is SO much stigma and isolation that comes with suicide (one reason we’re talking about it here). Because of the shame, there is less support for suicide survivors. In fact, suicide is considered disenfranchised grief – when your loss is devalued or stigmatized or can’t be openly mourned.

There is also an increased risk of suicide among suicide survivors. And a deep desire to understand WHY even though you may never have all the answers. Sometimes the only explanation we get is “their suffering mind told them that suicide was the only way to escape their excruciating pain” – David Kessler

Grief is personal

And it won’t always look the same for everyone. Grief is also non-linear – it doesn’t progress in neat little stages but comes in waves of emotions we have to learn how to surf.

If you’re the one grieving

Be patient and kind to yourself.  You can be having a great day and suddenly a song comes on that reminds you of them and you’re crying again – that doesn’t mean you aren’t also healing. Or you could be having a great week and wake up one morning and find everything feels heavy and hard – it’s all part of grieving. You’re not doing anything wrong.

Stay present.  I know, I know, easier said than done. When we focus on the past and what we could’ve done differently or the future we don’t get to share with them we stay stuck in our grief. No amount of wondering “what if” ever changed the reality of the situation. So it’s best to focus on your present grief and get the support you need.

Express yourself.  Verbally with friends who have earned the right to hear your story or with a coach or therapist. Express yourself through art or journaling or heck, even kickboxing if that helps to move the energy through!

Give yourself permission to keep living.  Holding onto the pain is not an indication of the depth of your love. Holding onto the pain isn’t the same as holding onto the love. Let yourself have fun, take care of your needs, create a routine that feels good and find a way to carry your loved one with you into your life after loss (more on that in the next post).

Seek support.  Let someone else take the kids to school or walk the dog. See if your friend who loves to cook could make her famous chicken casserole for you. Find someone who can help you heal your grief – it’s possible I promise and it’s what I’m here for.

Supporting others

If you know someone who’s dealing with a death by suicide…

Hold space for them.  Listen actively. Be a heart with ears. Let them know they’re not alone and you’re a safe space for them to be whoever they need to be. That it’s okay to scream/cry/wail whatever they need. 

Validate their emotions.  Grief is a potent mix of ALL the feelings and sometimes it’s confusing and feels like it doesn’t make sense. It’s reassuring to know that it’s okay to feel how we feel. Echo their language back to them – so for example if they say, “Ugh, this is so shitty” you can say, “Yes, it IS shitty.”

There is nothing to fix.  Remember this isn’t about solving “the problem of grief”. Grief is a completely normal response to loss. Hear them without judgment, critique, or analysis.

Avoid saying the following…

You’re so strong

You’ll get through this

They wouldn’t want you to be sad/ upset

They lived a great life

They’re in a better place now

ALL of this is our heads trying to heal our hearts when we just need to meet them where they are one beating heart to another.

Offer specific help.  Offer to walk the dog or pick up the kids from school. Go for a walk together or watch a movie together or send them a gift card for their favourite restaurant or coffee shop.

Finally, don’t let your loved one be defined by suicide. Remember that their life was about more than their final action. Remember their smile, their laugh, the moments of connection, the quirks that made them unique. Because moving forward is all about finding meaning and that’s what we’ll talk about in the next post.

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