Last year our nation was in shock over the devastating news that Robin Williams had committed suicide. It is difficult to understand why such a gifted actor would choose to end his life. Sadly, though, the actor is not alone in making such a choice.
According to a CBS News piece, each year 34,000 individuals commit suicide. And for those that are left behind, the grief can be unspeakable.
Suicide has an incredible negative stigma attached to it, as it is often viewed as a selfish act. So often it is not associated with the deep clinical depression or serious mental health illnesses that may have accompanied the individual.
Despite growing education about both clinical depression and other mental health illnesses, many do not fully understand either.
As a licensed clinical social worker, I often saw individuals in an outpatient setting who had tried a plethora of different medications prescribed by their psychiatrist, and still found little relief from their depression.
There are people who are so overwhelmed with their depression that they feel that they are a burden to their family, and actually think that the family would be better off without them.
For surviving family members, however, the shame associated with suicide is burdensome and can cause extreme anxiety on top of the grief. The guilt often envelops the family because they somehow feel that they could have prevented the tragedy. Or worse yet, someone actually implies they are to blame.
Further, if someone does not feel completely supported in either their social circle, or even in their family, they are unlikely to share the details surrounding their family member’s death. The judgements encircling suicide can also mean that family members do not receive the same level of support that one receives if their loved one died from cancer.
Being non-authentic about a family member’s death can create damage in your relationship with them. And even if you are not verbalizing your negative thoughts, passing judgments can easily be sensed. Very little prepares anyone for coping with loss, let alone loss that is caused by suicide.
Dismantling the stories behind the suicide can be scary for the widow or other family members, but often it is part of the healing process.
In one of the chapters in my forthcoming book, “A Widow’s Guide to Healing,” I write, “Widows often want to share the stories of their spouse’s death not just their spouse’s symptoms of depression. A support group specific to suicide can provide widows this type of support. A group can offer the opportunity to share their story without fear of others passing judgment.”
Many know people who have experienced grief but few know others whose loved ones have been impacted by suicide. Support groups specific to grief caused by suicide allow loved ones to be able to identify with others in similar situations. Obviously this does not bring the loved one back, but sometimes just knowing that one is not alone is comforting.
In doing the research for my book, I interviewed widows from various educational, financial and religious backgrounds. In it, I include narratives from widows whose husbands died from suicide.
The stress of having to explain that suicide was the cause of death led to more than one widow lying about her husband’s circumstances.
The widows of husbands who died from suicide told my co-author, psychologist James Windell, and me that there were no obvious signs prior to the suicide. In fact, women told us that the days or hours leading up to it were pleasant — not filled with tension or agitation.
Deep shame is one of the major issues associated with suicide. It can compound the grief process, because one is not able to be honest with others about the cause of death.
In the book I explain, “Death by suicide often creates shame, and you may feel compelled to defend your spouse — indeed your whole family. Of course, this doesn’t mean that (one) needs to send out a mass email explaining personal details of his struggles, but being completely honest and compassionate with yourself is a critical step toward healing. It is a necessary to give yourself grace. This is the same grace you would extend to your closest friend. It does not come with judgement but through forgiveness.”
Individual therapy with a licensed clinician, who works specifically with families impacted by suicide, can be beneficial. Licensed clinicians can provide insight into your loss. If necessary, they can provide you tools to help you navigate your way through grief.
Support groups specific to families impacted by suicide can give you yet another perspective into your tragedy. They can provide a place to share thoughts with others, who can directly relate to your circumstances.
** Kristin Meekhof is a licensed master’s level social worker. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “A Widow’s Guide to Healing”. Quoted parts of this pieced were excerpted from this book (2015, Sourcebooks) and are the copyright property of Sourcebooks.
Suicide: 20 states with highest rates. CBS News. Retrieved Sept. 8, 2015.
Edited by Jody Smith