Suicide rates have risen sharply in the past two decades, and it’s now the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds. It’s particularly prevalent among veterans, Native Americans, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and rural residents.
Whether suicide rates increased during the pandemic is unclear, but evidence suggests that suicide attempts have risen, especially among the young. Emergency-room visits related to suspected suicide attempts jumped 31 percent from 2019 to 2020 among individuals age 12 to 17 — and 50 percent among teenage girls.
Such statistics are alarming, but they come with a sort of silver lining: Our society openly acknowledges suicide more than ever before. There are now hotlines, billboards, and public-service announcements, plus support groups and awareness-raising events. Stigma remains — and may never entirely fade — but it’s at least being discussed.
Things weren’t always this way.
“Nobody Talked About It”
In the years following her son Steven’s suicide in 1977, Marilyn Koenig began connecting with other families who had lost a loved one to suicide.
“In those days, nobody talked about it,” she says. She recalls asking one administrator about their high school’s suicide-intervention resources, only to be told, “That sort of thing doesn’t happen here.”
“At the time, even discussions about depression were rare,” she adds.
Koenig and her friend Chris Moon, who’d also lost a teenage son to suicide, founded a nonprofit, Friends for Survival, to offer much-needed bereavement support and resources to other survivors.
Before this, Koenig says, “people would just cocoon in their own grief.”
Koenig later went on to join the newly formed Suicide Prevention Action Network USA, which successfully lobbied Congress for suicide-prevention funding.
Grieving a Death by Suicide
There are no shortcuts to grieving a suicide. Yet allowing yourself to fully experience that pain is an essential part of healing.
Gary Roe, a grief specialist and author of Aftermath: Picking Up the Pieces After a Suicide, advises the bereaving to name and accept their feelings, but not to confuse those feelings with facts (for example, feeling guilt doesn’t mean one is guilty). He also encourages survivors to accept that they have questions that may never be answered.
“Our minds naturally search for order. Though we find no satisfying answers, our hearts must ask the questions,” he says.
Survivors need not — and should not — go it alone. Koenig learned the importance of peer support through both personal and professional experience. “It’s so important to talk to others in the same situation. It is difficult for people who haven’t lost someone to suicide to understand,” she says.
Still, people don’t have to have personal experience with suicide loss to help survivors with their healing. Assisting with housework or childcare, providing flexible time off, or simply offering space for them to talk, cry, or do something unrelated to their loss can be important forms of support.
Still, Roe cautions that some people are well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful. “The average person doesn’t know how to respond. In their desire to do something helpful, they often utter things that belittle our pain or minimize our loss,” he says.
Others go into “fix-it mode,” focusing on advice, while some may even be critical or judgmental. Roe recommends that the bereaving limit their exposure to such individuals, focusing instead on “safe people.”
“Safe people meet us where we are, as we are,” he writes.
Nothing can ever fully take away the pain of losing a loved one to suicide. But allowing oneself to feel whatever emotions arise, lean on others, and practice self-compassion can help ease the journey.
Dial 988: Suicide Prevention Lifeline
In July 2022, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (originally launched in 2005) established its 988 hotline, a 24-hour mental-health version of 911 staffed by trained counselors. The service comes at a crucial time. Demand for mental-health services far outweighs the available resources: Over half of U.S. counties don’t have a single licensed psychiatrist, and studies suggest that the nation will face a shortage of mental-health professionals for at least the next three years.
Callers are typically connected to a counselor within 90 seconds and can choose from voice, text, and live-chat options. Culturally specific services for veterans and Spanish speakers are also available.
This article originally appeared as “After a Suicide” in the September 2022 issue of Experience Life.