Suicide Survivors, Stigma, and Shame

A week ago today, Rick Warren, megachurch pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and bestselling author, sent an email to his staff to ask for their prayers after the tragic death of his youngest son Matthew. Matthew Warren, 27, took his own life after a lengthy struggle with mental illness. The email Rick Warren sent to his staff exuded both grief and honesty, and soon the news of his son’s death had spread to national news sources.

When I read the headline and realized that Rick Warren had made a decision to make public the cause of his son’s death, I both applauded his bravery, and worried about the backlash he might receive. And, unfortunately, Warren’s family has received harsh words, judgment, and all kinds of speculation as to what might have led to their son’s tragic death. The backlash some have experienced in the wake of suicide has led many instead to keep suicide a family secret, which can lead to generational silence and anxiety, and deep, persistent feelings of shame and isolation. Even though in 2009 it was estimated that 33,000 people take their own lives every year, and that each suicide usually leaves behind six “survivors” who are mourning, there remains such stigma associated with suicide, that many of these survivors feel unable to tell people around them the circumstances of their loved ones deaths. [1]

Every year at least 198,000 more people are left behind to grieve the suicide of someone they knew and loved. Put another way, every ten years 1.9 million more people become “survivors.” Yet, these survivors often find themselves isolated in shameful silence. The reality is that there is still not a great deal of understanding in our society when it comes to mental illness. Combine that with the fact that many religious groups have strong views on suicide, and I can understand why these survivors choose silence.

But, that silence does not promote healing. The Harvard Women’s Health Watch wisely noted: “The grief process is always difficult, but a loss through suicide is like no other, and the grieving can be especially complex and traumatic. People coping with this kind of loss often need more support than others, but may get less.” [1] This lack of support and understanding is tragic, especially within the church where we are called to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, NRSV). We are called to enter those places of mourning, weeping, and grieving  along with those who are hurting. Casting stones, jumping to conclusions, disparaging survivors, and saying hurtful words is easier, but it is wrong, unhelpful, and abusive.

To those who have lost loved ones to suicide, to the survivors

1. I want to tell you how truly sorry I am for your loss. I am sorry for any hurtful words, speculation, or judgments you may have received. I can understand why it might make you want to keep silent. Please keep speaking the truth. Mental illness is something that so many in our society still do not understand. It is only through repeated truth-telling that society will ever come to a place of understanding, support and acceptance. I hope that you have a network of support around you of people who know you, love you, and listen to you. You are not in this alone. Many, many people are survivors, and if we can all speak the truth, eventually the rest of the world will have to listen.

2. When people lose someone in a tragic way, anger is a very common reaction. With suicide, the anger is more difficult to process, and often times survivors direct it at themselves. This can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. [2] This is not your fault. It is much easier to look back and see warning signs than to see them while you are in the midst of them. Find support for yourself, whether from a support group for suicide survivors, from a counselor, pastor, trusted friend, or a combination of these. You don’t have to walk this road alone.

To those who might know someone who has lost someone to suicide

1. Don’t judge. Just don’t do it. There is no room for speculation or judgment when it comes to suicide. When we judge or think we have figured out the cause of suicide, it is a way of dissociating ourselves, of thinking “this could never happen to me.” It makes us feel safe, as though by knowing why something happened we can prevent ourselves from having to go through the same grief. When we judge, we make ourselves feel safer, but we may also contribute to trapping grieving people in painful silence. Let’s get real about it. The vast majority of suicides are caused, at least in part, by underlying mental illness. There are often many contributing factors that are too complex for us to figure out from the outside. Often, even the people closest to the person who has taken their own life do not fully understand what led the person to feel like suicide was the only way out. So, don’t judge. If you are uncomfortable, say nothing. Hugs, tears, and listening go a long way.

2. Become a truth-teller. Suicide survivors need allies to stand beside them and speak the truth. For Christians, I want to ask you to examine your religious beliefs about suicide. I do not believe there are any sins that God cannot forgive. In the course of all of our lives, we make mistakes and commit sins without even realizing it. If the burden was up to us to confess every single sin to God before we die, not a single one of us would be able to enter into God’s presence. Forgiveness is a gift of God, and having a repentant heart is important,  but we do not ask people to confess their illnesses in order to receive salvation. We cannot expect that of people suffering from mental illness. God looks at our hearts, not our ability to recall every sin we committed. God loves us, and forgiveness is a gift.

For all people, religious or not, who know someone who is left behind after suicide, we need to educate ourselves about the reality of mental illness, depression, and suicide. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 out of every 10 adults suffers from depression. [3] Depression and other mental illnesses are widespread illnesses, and it is important that our society become a place of support rather than a place of judgment. When someone loses a loved one to suicide, the survivor is at greater risk of thinking about self-harm. These survivors need our support and love. We need to stand up and  give that support and love without judgment. Learn the truth about suicide, and become a truth-teller. Repeated truth-telling is the only way to change the lies our society has believed about mental illness.

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[1] July 2009. Left Behind after Suicide. Harvard Women’s Health Watch, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2009/July/Left-behind-after-suicide

[2] Suicide: A Guide To Help You Cope With The Aftermath (PDF), from the City and County of Denver, CO.

[3] http://www.cdc.gov/features/dsdepression/

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Such a pastoral heart you have, April. Tough stuff to think about, much less write and talk about it. Praying you continue following your courage for the good of the church.

    • Angie, thank you so much for your kind words and for your prayers. Sometimes the topics that are the most difficult to write about are the ones people most need to read.

  • Julie Tolman

    A so-called Christian who was offering condolences for my 14 year old daughter Jenny’s suicide said; She was still just a child, don’t worry she will go to heaven. I asked at what exact age would a person go to hell instead? A few people who don’t even know me have said some horrible things over the 9 long years. I get angry and tell them off. I can see why some survivors would rather suffer in silence. Time is not helping me much…distractions are most welcome.

    • Julie, I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for your courage to share your story here. I hope that others will read it and will take a moment to see exactly how hurtful their words can be. For the suffering you have had to go through these nine long years, there are no adequate words. I hope you have supportive people around you.

  • Rick McCubbin

    Awesome truth April. Thank you for your honest, prayerful, loving post.

  • Jill Vande Zande

    April, I love what you said here: “This is not your fault. It is much easier to look back and see warning signs than to see them while you are in the midst of them. Find support for yourself, whether from a support group for suicide survivors, from a counselor, pastor, trusted friend, or a combination of these. You don’t have to walk this road alone.”

    If you say anything to a survivor, tell them this over and over and over. As someone who wanted to die, I (emphasis) couldn’t even explain to you why I wanted to die, or what would make it better. If I (emphasis) couldn’t understand it, or see the signs, or know how to fix it, then how much less so the people who are only around the one they love–not the one experiencing it?

    • Jill, thank you so much for reading, commenting, and for sharing your experience so openly. I wish our society could get to a place of understanding with mental illness. We don’t ask people to explain why they got sick, why should we think someone suffering from major depression to explain why they feel the way they do? The closest most psychologists can get to explaining why someone might want to die is to say the person would do anything to end whatever pain they are feeling (physical, psychological, abuse), and suicide feels like the only way to make sure that happens.

      I really appreciate your willingness to witness to what you’ve been through. We need more truth-tellers like you in this world!

  • intercision

    Great article! However, as someone who is bipolar I find people can be very educated on mental illness and still be rejecting, often even more so. I think treating someone with a mental illness well is hard, dirty work and (most importantly) it requires you yourself to be trying your hardest to be stable (no matter what level of mental health you are at).

    I have found that when I’ve been open and honest to pastors about my mental illness they ignore me or blow me off. I think people who had a rough background (who are often non-Christians) are at a better place to support those with mental illnesses (though that doesn’t mean they are always supportive, just that they have had more experiences with mental illness themselves).

    Also I thought it was the Catholic position that suicides went straight to hell and a lot of protestant denominations adapted that. That adds an additional layer of suffering to everything.

    • Thank you so much for commenting here and sharing your experience. Mental illness is so misunderstood. I’ve heard people make terrible statements like “you just need to get over it,” or “just think positively.” I’ve even heard people say things such as that true Christians are not able to have mental illness. It makes me so sad and angry when I hear those things. We would never tell someone with Tuberculosis “stop taking your meds and have faith.” Well, I suppose some people might say that, but that’s ridiculous!

      I, personally, believe that suicide isn’t a sin too big for God to forgive. I don’t think God wants suicide. Each life is precious to God. But nothing is too big and bad for God to forgive. Thanks for weighing in here!

  • Sad, insightful post. Thank you for writing it. Would you mind including it in the May synchroblog list? I think it would be good for others to read. Synchroblog.wordpress.com

    • Thanks so much for reading. What needs to happen for me to include it in the synchroblog list?