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The Silence That Follows the Support After a Loved One's Suicide

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I’m a Daddy’s girl. Always was. Always will be.

When I met my now-husband, Mitch, my dad took to him instantly. This was quite an accomplishment, given all former boyfriends had to proceed with caution — Dad could be a scary dude. Over time, their relationship grew into what could only be called father and son. The three of us were quite the trio! We loved life — together.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story I’m here to tell.

I lost my father to suicide in March of 2014. I was in the third year of a clinical psychology doctoral program. However, no class, therapy session or research paper could have prepared me for this crushing blow. This was my best friend, my supporter, the coolest guy I know  — my dad.

The first few weeks were a whirlwind in which Mitch and I were tasked with getting all of Dad’s proverbial ducks in a row, and tying up the seemingly endless loose ends. Fortunately, through all of this, there was an overwhelming outpouring of love and support.

Friends and family members called, texted and emailed incessantly. There were cards, flowers, fruit baskets (and booze – folks definitely brought over booze). Groups of friends appeared for impromptu visits, and the attendance at the funeral service was staggering. Hundreds of people arrived to not only pay their respects, but to be there for us.

Then it all stopped.

No more phone calls. No more texts or emails. And definitely no more flowers or visits. What the hell? Mitch and I chalked it up to people being busy and having lives of their own. That’s understandable. I mean, there was no way people could forget about us. We just lost our father to suicide.

But over time it became apparent we weren’t on the receiving end of peoples’ forgetfulness. Their memories were intact. It wasn’t simply that folks were wrapped up in the day-to-day, focused on their own families and interests. The quiet took on a different feel. It seemed as though people were avoiding talking about our loss. The mention of Dad in conversation appeared to induce uneasy smiles, fidgeting or a swift change in subject.

We were at a loss, and the silence was deafening.

So eventually I asked. I flat out asked a friend of 25 years why she hadn’t been reaching out about how we are doing, or more importantly, why she rarely spoke of my dad. Her response was simple: “I don’t know what to say.”

Unfortunately, there is no script for this kind of thing. There was no right or wrong. I simply wanted to talk, reminisce, laugh, maybe even cry. Not all the time — just every once in a while. Although I pride myself on being a tough cookie (some might say that “hard ass” is more appropriate), I wanted to know that support was there, should I need it. More importantly, I wanted the loss to be acknowledged.

My friend also shared her feelings of anxiety about potentially causing me to have a bad day, or to think about the loss when I otherwise wouldn’t have been. This is a kind sentiment, and one I have heard from numerous others over time. So my response to all of you caring, protective types is this: Suicide loss survivors don’t forget. The loss is, and will be, with me at all times. It is now an integral part of who I am. I mean, I’m not walking around sobbing, but the void is still there. And that’s OK.

I also lost my older brother to suicide in 1996. I was young-ish, which inspired my parents to lie for years about the true cause of death (I was told it was a car accident). More silence.

Through my pursuit of psychology, and study of suicidology, I have gained liberal awareness of the prevalence of stigma. That little five-letter word is a bully, and is likely responsible for not only the silence Mitch and I experienced after the loss of my dad, but the silence subsequent my brother’s passing, and in the lives of countless survivors of suicide loss.

Unfortunately, stigmatization and negative attitudes towards mental illness remain prevalent in society. Suicide is prone to stigmatize both the deceased and loss survivors, often leading those left behind to experience rejection, shame and guilt. Many don’t realize stigma does not only manifest in the “typical” overt ways (intentionally hurtful comments, shunning of survivors, judgment of the deceased as weak or selfish), but also presents through more omitting behaviors (avoidance of conversation about the deceased, a lack of interest in the wellbeing of the survivor). Silence in a place where an individual expected support can be the most devastating.

We are strong. However, survivors of suicide loss, especially family members, are at a particularly high risk for depression and co-morbid suicidal ideation and behaviors. Be mindful.

It’s time to fill the silence.

Approximately 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their death. Suicide is not weak, selfish or the result of a character flaw — it is, for lack of a better explanation, a monstrous side-effect of an illness. It is not a wish to die, but the desire to end pain.

Remember, and speak of those lost fondly and often.

Talk, reminisce, laugh, cry and heal.

Replace your judgment with compassion and understanding.

Open your mind, your eyes and your mouth.

Reach out to those left behind.

Educate. Advocate. Eradicate stigma. Be the voice to end suicide.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: February 9, 2017
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