1. a person or thing that survives
2. one who outlives others
3. a person who endures, who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks
This definition suggests fortitude, grit, and determination even in the face of overwhelming odds. Many “survivors” outlast and persevere through hardships often sudden, terrible, and not of their own doing; and because of this, generally speaking, “survivors” are admired.
But a person who is a “suicide survivor,” an individual left behind as a result of suicide, is different. Someone else is gone; they remain. Some endure; many more suffer. And while they may garner sympathy, they are rarely understood or admired.
Death is all around us and comes upon people in many different ways. But a suicide is something apart. Always tragic, always sad, it is even more painful and inexplicable when the victim is a young person. But it is different because the victim was the agent of his or her own passing. The very incomprehensibility of the act sets both it and those left behind apart from those who either die because of, or are left behind through illness, disaster, or accident.
We all mourn those who die. But the suicide survivor does more than mourn. We all second guess decisions, events, choices, and ourselves when someone dies suddenly. But the suicide survivor also often carries a sense of guilt that accentuates the trauma that can accompany most deaths. In spite of the fact that the overwhelming cause of suicide is some form of mood disorder, suicide survivors often experience a sense of personal responsibility or fault, and wrongly blame themselves for not having done something to prevent it.
While it is true that some regrets may haunt those who lose someone to sudden illness or accident; the guilt felt by suicide survivors is usually accentuated because the sense that the event was preventable. If only he or she, the survivor, had done just one thing more.
Beyond this, in a way not usual for deaths through illness or accident, the circle of people who can be seen as “suicide survivors” can include almost anyone who knew or spent time with the victim. It is estimated that for every suicide there are at least six survivors; but some experts believe this to be a very conservative estimate; and there are estimates as high as twenty or more “survivors” for each of the approximately 32,000 suicides that take place in the U.S. each year. Virtually anyone who knew the victim – friends, loved ones, classmates, co-workers, and others – can be identified as “suicide survivor” if they feel that they could have, or should have, done something, anything, that might have prevented the event from taking place.
The reality is that no single person is the sole influence in another’s life and these awful events are not the survivors’ fault. Untreated mental illness (including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse, and others) is the cause for the overwhelming majority of suicides.
This is especially important for survivors to remember because in addition to the emotional suffering and the anguish survivors experience, there is the fact of the increased danger of those survivors themselves falling victim to suicide. Estimates of this group’s risk to suicide range from 1.5 times to 5 times as high as the general population for a variety of reasons. According to the American Association of Suicidology, survivors of suicide represent “the largest mental health casualties related to suicide.”
One thing is clear: every suicide griever needs immediate support at the time of the loss. Bereavement and grief are themselves complicated issues; bereavement and grief after a suicide are even more so. Unlike other deaths, people do not “get over” a suicide… the loss does not “heal” the way it seems to with other passings. The elements that make suicide different also make its survivors and their grief different. It is not something to try to handle alone.
If you are a suicide survivor and need help, we invite you to contact Capital EAP and speak to one of our trained counselors. And remember, while family members and close friends of the deceased are the majority of those who self-identify as suicide survivors, they are not the only ones who can feel a loss, experience guilt, or need help. If you believe that you have been emotionally impacted by someone’s suicide, even if you were not a family member or close friend of the deceased, we ask you to remember that we are here for you.
International Survivors of Suicide
Some survivors of suicide loss find comfort by gathering together to feel a sense of community, to promote healing, and to connect with others who have had similar experiences. There are several Capital Region locations where you can connect with other survivors, learn from each others’ experiences, and hear how each person has coped with their loss.