The Unique Stigma of Losing a Loved One to Suicide
How losing a loved one to suicide feels differently than other kinds of loss, and how you can support those who are grieving
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Each year, over 47,000 people die by suicide in the United States alone, and the World Health Organization estimates that over 800,000 people die by suicide each year worldwide.
Mental illness - not a “casserole illness”
There’s a saying in the mental health community that mental illness isn’t a “casserole illness.” It’s common that when someone dies, the community rallies together to support the family and friends. We bring casseroles, bake cookies and offer fond memories of the person we lost. When my father died by suicide in 2017, we did receive that support from friends and neighbors, but there was a noticeable and awkward hesitation that came wrapped up in the sandwich platters and gift baskets that appeared on our doorstep.
This is not to invalidate anyone else’s experiences with losing a parent. No matter what the circumstances, death is objectively hard to deal with. But the shame that comes with answering “suicide” when someone asks me how my dad died, is a feeling I’m willing to bet is much different than if my answer was “a heart attack” or “cancer.” In fact, when my father died, there was a brief moment of time when my mother considered blaming a heart attack instead of telling the true story.
Loss by suicide stigma
As someone who works in the mental health field and has a background in suicide prevention, I’ve been lucky to have friends and coworkers who willingly engage in conversation with me about my dad and the circumstances that lead to his death. But the stigma is still there. There is still a ripple of shock and unease in most of my colleagues’ faces when I explain why I’m so passionate about my work and why I continue to do what I do.
Reducing stigma by open sharing
When one in five people are living with a mental health condition, the odds are in your favor that you will encounter someone with lived experience on any given day. Whenever I tell my personal story, more often than not, the person I’m talking to will follow up with telling me about their own personal experience. Even if that story comes after a moment of discomfort at the mention of a word as taboo as “suicide.”
If there ever comes a time when you know someone who loses a loved one to suicide, I urge you to talk about it and listen without judgment. The more we talk about it, the closer we can get to removing that shame and stigma that is associated with mental illness and suicide. There shouldn’t ever be a reason for a family member to consider not telling the truth about how someone died due to feeling ashamed or embarrassed about what really happened. It’s ok to want to know what happened. It’s ok to ask questions. Share those fond memories and stories about the person they lost.
And, casseroles are always welcome.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, or, to reach the Crisis Text Line, text HOME to 741741. In the event of any emergency, be sure to dial 911.