After spending over a decade listening to the pain of those who have lost loved ones to suicide, I have felt, vicariously, the two sides of that double-edged sword thousands of times. Blame and shame are two of the words that describe what makes suicide loss so different. They are connected and can come from words someone says to the bereaved or — worse — from inside a survivor’s own heart following a death which is still, in most places, a societal taboo.
What these words carry forward are speech and actions that make the aftermath of this kind of loss infinitely more difficult. Ironically, both are undeserved. With education about the complexities of suicide — a phenomenon at all-time highs statistically — the true nature of what drives people to end their lives can be understood, at least as much as anything about suicide can be understood at this time.
There are many paths to suicide, perhaps as many as there are people who die by their own hands each year, and that number is in the millions in the United States alone. Each loss is unique; each grief experienced by those left behind is unique because each individual involved is like no one else. This tragic end and the grief that follows are among the most stressful of life events. A host of complications can follow, from malnutrition to systemic disease and breakdowns of mental health.
Ronnie Walker, executive director and founder of the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors, stated in June that she has seen a heartbreaking surge in AOH community forum registrations. “Their pain,” she says of these newly bereaved loss survivors, “is being exacerbated by isolation, economic challenges, and other stresses connected with COVID-19.”
Decisions related to returning to work, childcare options, and school systems reopening in an atmosphere of uncertainty stress survivors enough without blame and shame. This is an untenable position for anyone, let alone those who are bereaved.
“Over the last month, I have been particularly present to how many people fear — or are certain — that their words or actions, said in haste or anger, led to the suicide of a loved one.” Walker continued. “So many carry around a lead overcoat of guilt for doing — or not doing — whatever it is they think had an effect.”
Do we have an impact on our environments and on those we love? Of course. However, the word that must be considered when thinking about suicide is “complexity.” We may have some ideas about what happened, or we may see things that we feel were detrimental, but it is impossible to know fully exactly what a person considering suicide is dealing with in the last moments of life. Many of these actions and words are said by most of us in everyday communication to friends and family members who do not end their lives.
Walker understands this situation all too well. As a survivor of her stepson’s suicide and as a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Care Counselor with a master’s degree in Counseling as well as post-graduate certifications from the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children and the American Academy of Bereavement, she has worked in academic, clinical and social service settings. Her experience as a trauma and loss counselor led to numerous assignments at disaster relief sites by the Red Cross and U.S. government, and her work with Catholic Charities LOSS Program (Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) and other organizations has been recognized with a number of awards in the field.
She cautions professionals and individuals, “It is important to remember that there is almost always a confluence or convergence of variables involved in any one suicide — psychological, physiological, pharmaceutical, social, economic, and so forth. It is also important to realize that hindsight profoundly alters our perspective on what happened.”
The pain of loss can find us wanting to pin blame on someone, even if it is ourselves, a normal reaction that sometimes is easier to face than the loss itself. Calling suicide the “final dance of an individual with Life’s circumstances,” Walker reminds survivors that what might lead one person to end his life might inspire another to take other actions.
We do our best to understand, but this is not easy. The same may be said about those who confront us with what they believe is truth. The old ideas surrounding suicide must be dismantled by education on a large scale. Training in schools and communities can bring new understanding and, quite possibly, benefit suicide prevention efforts. Like everything else, how we handle the challenges and high impact stressors that come to all of us matters.
Walker, R. (2020, June 29). Guilt, Blame and The Complexity Of Suicide [blog]. Retrieved from https://allianceofhope.org/guilt-blame-and-the-complexity-of-suicide/