In the northern hemisphere, May is the month when most people die by suicide. Some of the most courageous people I know are those who have had a family member die by suicide. Forever changed, they go on with their lives and work, often not talking about the loss they suffer and grief that never ends.
Losing a loved one to suicide is harder than facing any other death. As successful as we have been in combatting the stigma of mental illness, we still have much to do to offset the stigma of being a “suicide survivor”. I put these words in quotation marks because even the term itself sets suicide apart. The person who cares for someone who has died of heart disease or cancer is not a “survivor” – a “cancer survivor” and a “heart attack survivor” are the people with the illness themselves. “Suicide survivor” reminds us that those whose family member died by suicide must work not just to recover from their grief but to survive.
This is what I tell those who are grieving a loved one who died by suicide. I begin and end by reminding the person that suicide is no one’s fault. It is the symptom of a serious illness and people die of serious illnesses. So please, please remember. Suicide is not your fault.
Another thing to remember is that recovery from someone you love dying by suicide is not a return to normal. The death of a loved one is hard, death of someone because of suicide means that you will always wonder what you might have done differently. I have never known anyone who escaped this. What is normal has changed forever.
In this month when there are the most deaths from suicide, I am acutely aware of how little I can do to help. All we can do is wait for the memory of the light that a person brought to block out the dark of being without them.
There was once I girl that I knew who was a great artist. I didn’t know her from my work, but from a gallery where she would come with her parent who was an artist. The girl would draw amazing pictures from crayons and pencil crayons. She told me that she wanted to sell her pictures someday. Occasionally she would give me a picture. I wanted to pay her, but she always told me that she would make me “pay a lot” when she was “finally a real artist with pictures in a gallery”. Some people are stubborn and I kept her pictures because they were so good.
One year when I went to the gallery to see her parent’s work and to visit with her, I learned that the girl had died by suicide. I had not known her well, but her death still haunts me. She died in May, this month when there are the most suicides in the northern hemisphere. But knowing this does not help. When I have such grief, I cannot imagine how sad those close to her must be.
What helps me is to look at this picture of her doing the things she liked best. I like to think of her doing what she liked best. I hope that helps her family and friends.