THOSE LEFT BEHIND- The Survivors of Suicide

The word “survivors” may seem a misnomer. But there are survivors..we are the people left behind, when someone commits suicide.

Jake was 14 when he shot himself. His step-father, my brother, identified him by his clothing. We had no warnings of the kind that a family is often told to look for: giving away cherished possessions, a sudden drop in school marks/attendance, cutting ties to friends. He left us no note.

Experience with loss can prepare us for the emotions to come, but it does not lessen the intensity. The shock and devastation is indescribable. Then comes the anguish, the anger, and the guilt.

What could we have done, to prevent this? Where did we go wrong? Was I a bad parent/brother/sister/friend? When Jake died, I was fortunate to have a friend whose father was a psychiatrist, and had done some work with youths. He told us then, that many times depression in teens is sometimes missed or “masked”, by anger. Everyone expects teens to rebel. So when they storm out of the house and scream and yell, it’s taken as a phase. Not every angry teen is suicidal. And not every suicidal teen shows anger. Often, they are the quiet, well-mannered girl or boy from next door, that nobody ever suspected had a problem.

Jake had a problem that we didn’t recognise. His anger was self-directed. He would punch a hole in the wall with his fist, or kick a door. It wasn’t his usual temperament, but the outbursts were loud, and always against himself. He was a good student, had wonderful grades, lots of friends, and loved to hunt with his stepfather, brother and cousins. But inside, there was something brewing that nobody saw..something so tormenting, that it would end in the taking of his own life.

Suicide is now the third leading cause of death amongst young adolescents, preceded only by accidents and homicides. The American Academy of Paediatrics cites statistics of 5,000 deaths a year for those between 15 and 24. For youths 15-19, the rate has tripled between 1960 and 1980. In children aged 5-14 the number rose from 205 in 1983 to 232 in 1984. The general consensus, is that those figures are underestimated, and do not count “accidents” that took place on purpose.

Suicide has no ethnic borders. For every one completed, there are 50-200 attempted. More fatalities occur with boys, who choose more lethal methods than adolescent girls; although statistics show that is changing.

Cluster suicides may occur within a small geographic area, or social setting, within a relatively short span of time. While no single cause has been determined for the phenomenon, blame is often placed on the media for their coverage of the previous youth suicides, and for television shows which trigger an imitative action in troubled adolescents.

The act of suicide is like a pebble thrown into a pond. The ripples go on and on, sometimes for years. Jake’s brother, who was 21 at the time, discovered his body while looking for Jake to clean up his room. He was unable to go upstairs in the house, for over a year. His maternal grandfather’s health broke down, and he never recovered it. Grandparents don’t expect to bury their grandchildren. His stepfather, the only machinery engineer for miles, was called in one year later to an industrial accident, to remove the body of a man who had been caught in machinery up to his shoulders. He had a breakdown afterwards. Jake’s mother would be diagnosed with breast cancer only four months later. While still dealing with his death, she would then face a ten year battle of her own.

There are very harsh facts that go with the act of suicide, that never occur to people who have not dealt with it. As my brother said afterwards.. “you know who your friends are, when they come over and clean your son off the wall of your bathroom”. Because the grim reality is...someone has to do it. Whether a suicide has been quietly done with pills or not...someone has to clean up. This is not television, or the movies. Most commercial cleaning concerns will not deal with “critical incident” removal. And so the family has this to look after too, besides funeral arrangements and grieving.

Recovery from that grief is a slow, and individual process. It is hard enough to let go of the person, let alone to deal with the circumstances of their death. Jake was cremated, on his parents wish. Their plan was to scatter his ashes over the hunting camp that he had enjoyed so much. But his mother could not let him go. Nor could she bear to face the reality of his death, and so his urn stayed with a friend for almost two years.

In those years following his suicide, we learned many things about ourselves and about recovery. Now there are resources at our fingertips with the Internet. Many funeral homes offer grief counselling. Hospitals and doctors keep referral lists. When Jake died, not all of these were available. Suicide was not something that a lot of time or study had been spent on, although we had moved beyond burying the suicide outside the cemetery fence.

What we learned was this:

It is okay to grieve. No matter how a loss has occurred..people need to deal with it in their own way, at their own speed. Depending on the individual, the entire process can take two years, according to psychologists. But if the grief is accompanied by continuing depression, and inability to cope with daily life, that person too, needs help.

Talking helps. It doesn’t have to be a therapist. It can be a neighbour, friend, relative, or anyone you’re comfortable with. And for friends of the deceased or their family- please, don’t’ act as if the person never existed. Death, and suicide in particular makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But you don’t have to talk about the details. Memories are what keeps that person alive for those who loved them, and sharing yours can be an immeasurable gift.

Crying is allowed. Tears are cathartic, even when it feels like you have none left. They are a physical outlet for the emotional pain. Grief kept inside and dwelled on, can add to the stresses of everyday life, and result in an inability to deal with the outside world.

Laughing is also allowed. You can smile. It does not in any way, diminish the love you had for someone, to be amused by a joke, or a pet, or a memory of the person who died.

It is okay not to understand. While we have to accept the physical reality of a person’s death, and absence from our lives, it is okay not to continually seek the reason why it happened, until you have an answer. Focusing on this, can lead to emotional problems of your own when frustration and depression set in. Faith can play a major part in healing. How your faith deals with the act of suicide can be discussed with your pastor/minister.

You are not responsible. Guilt is a powerful emotion. In looking for a reason we look for someone to blame. And it’s often ourselves. For not listening. For not seeing someone had a problem. For not doing something concrete to stop them..even when there was no warning. Every person is an individual, and makes choices. Sometimes those choices are very bad, and even fatal ones. But we are all human. It is impossible to know what is going on in another person’s mind. When a person does show signs of depression or potentially suicidal behaviour, there are measures to take. But if they fail, it is not because of you.

Don’t allow grief or guilt, to ruin friend/relationships. We all deal with our emotions in different ways. Sometimes those ways are hurtful to others, who may perceive that you are pushing them away. Have patience with the bereaved. Stay in touch, but don’t overwhelm them. Let them know you are there. Do small kindnesses like errands. Call them when you don’t hear from them. And listen when you do.

There are resources out there to help those touched by suicide. is a list of links to information sites on various aspects of suicide. is the website of Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education, a support group for survivors. For more personal support group contacts in your area, call the American Associaton of Suicidology at 1-202-237- 2280

A lost loved one lives forever in our memories. Jake died two months before his fifteenth birthday. He was laid to rest, 12 years after he died, in the arms of his mother, following her death from cancer.

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