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Suicide Survivorship: The Risks of Silence and Shame

In the last week, our world lost two beloved celebrities to suicide, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  Following the shock of this news came important information on how to help the suicidal and how to prevent the contagion effect of suicide. But in our effort to thwart the reality of suicide in our culture, overlooked is a very simple idea that each of us can carry out: talk to suicide survivors.

Suicide survivors are the forgotten family and close friends of those who ended their own lives. They are the ones left to live with the broken pieces their loved one has left behind, trying to fathom the incomprehensible.  These are the people most at risk for the dangerous effects of contagion, as their exposure to suicide is the closest. 

In the past, suicide was, and sometimes still is, viewed as shameful, something that must be hidden. This secretive shame is carried forward by loved ones.  

In the last two decades, suicide rates have risen 25% nationwide (United States Center for Disease Control).  Previous studies have found evidence of increased rejection, shame, negative judgments, and loss of social support in people bereaved by suicide when compared to those bereaved from other types of loss. The degree of social blame coupled with personal guilt and shame can evolve into emotional withdrawal, social isolation, and hopelessness.  Research has demonstrated that social isolation and hopelessness increase with suicide risk.

Evidence that suicide can run in families has been found in both case reports and epidemiological studies. This means that suicide is most contagious within families and circles of close friends.  With the suicide rate increasing and the silent spreading of risk in suicide survivors, we are overlooking a significantly large group of vulnerable parents, siblings, friends, and children.

No science, therapist, family, or friend can predict who is going to commit suicide, as this is often an impulsive and secretive act, but the legacy of suicide in these survivors is undeniable, with some studies estimating as high as a 65% increase risk of suicide. 

Survivors are left to hold their shame, sometimes to the point of hiding that a suicide happened in their family, bearing the secret through multiple generations of lies and distortions.  These loved ones may feel marked and branded, which may keep potential supporters from getting too close. 

Yet there is something each of us can do today.  

Speak with––and listen to––someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.  Listen to them about their pain, or their shame, their guilt, their fear and dread. Suicide survivors need to feel recognized and understood for the burden they carry. It’s not uncommon for suicide survivors to wonder what they could have done to save their loved one, how they could have missed so much secrecy and darkness, and even desperately try to decipher the message of the suicide itself. In suicide, it’s not only the dead who haunt us, but the secrets left by them. 

It is not easy to find the words to acknowledge the reality of suicide, but the more we can accept its existence and help survivors speak openly about fears and powerlessness, the more we actually protect ourselves and each other from the silent darkness that leads people to dangerous and sometimes deadly acts against themselves.   

The dead are already painfully gone.  

Now it’s the living who need us.

Alexis Tomarken, MSW, PhD writes personal essays that relate to psychotherapy and mental health, and she is a suicide survivor. She is a psychoanalytic candidate at NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, a grief specialist, and a member of the advisory board for the American Mental Health Foundation.