September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. The International Association of Suicide Prevention (IASP) asks us to:
There are no “survivors” of suicide. There are unanswered questions, complicated grief patterns, collateral damage to family friends and communities, along with a gaping hole in the fabric of a family’s life.
Kay Redfield Jamison is Professor of Psychiatry at the John Hopkins School of Medicine and one of the foremost authorities on manic-depressive illness. She wrote An Unquiet Mind, which is a memoir about her own struggle with depression, as well as Night Falls Fast, which addresses suicide. Dr Jamison writes from a personal and professional understanding of depression and suicide. At twenty-eight years old, she attempted suicide.
The statistics can be easily found. Understanding suicide means understanding the mind behind the suicide. With understanding we can recognize and attempt to aid those at rise but also try to understand the profound effects on those left. Dr Jamison writes: “For some, suicide is a sudden act. For others, it is a long considered decision based on cumulative despair or dire circumstance. And for many, it is both: a brash moment of action taken during a span of settled and suicidal hopelessness. (Night Falls Fast, Jamison.) There is no clear way to predict a behavior that can be both deliberate and impulsive.
The biggest influence on suicidal behavior is psychiatric illness. Mental illness is not a predictor of suicide but it is a factor cited in the deaths. Other predisposing factors cited in Jamison’s work is acute intoxication from drugs or alcohol, personal or financial crisis.
“Drugs and mood disorders tend to bring out the worst in one another: alone they are dreadful, together they kill,” (Night Falls Fast, Jamison.)
What sets the grieving to suicide is initial sense of denial, including the denial to the actual cause of death. If the death includes a police or insurance investigation, the intrusiveness can prevent the family from being able to grieve. Losing a family member to suicide can be traumatic enough but reliving the method of death adds to the trauma.
Family members can experience a range of emotions including, guilt, sense of failure, disbelief, suffering, bewilderment as well as anger and rage. Spouses who lose their spouse to suicide can feel blamed or questioned, often by themselves and sometimes by community gossip or by other family members. Siblings can bear a sense of responsibility. Any and all emotions are expressed, sometimes in a dizzyingly short amount of time.
Augsburg College hosted a workshop on Forgiveness and The Family. I interviewed several people who had lost family members to suicide for my talk on Forgiveness and Suicide. These family members reported that there seemed to be avoidance of the topic. Several people said that they felt stigmatized. “I’m so sorry for your loss would have been the one thing I needed,” said one woman I interviewed.
How do people get through the impossible- rage, anger, guilt, and sorrow? How do they move through the well-intentioned gestures of sympathy, the unintentional absence of support and pick up their stride once more? Therapy, family and friend support, faith, passages of time are helpful. So is talking to others who have survived another’s suicide.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org
American Association of Suicidology www.suicidology.org
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education www.save.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
Night Falls Fast Kay Redfield Jamison, 1999