Letter to the editor

The theme of this year's National Suicide Prevention Week is the Power of Connection. Although there is no single cause of suicide, one of the risks for suicide is social isolation, and there’s scientific evidence for reducing that risk by making sure we have strong connections with one another. It’s also about the power of having real conversations about mental health with people in our everyday lives. 

Many people have a connection to this cause, whether they are a student, a teacher, a parent, a veteran, a suicide loss survivor, an attempt survivor, or someone struggling with suicidal thoughts themselves. I write this hoping that someone else can connect with my experience and that we can work to end the stigma of talking about suicide loss.

In February 2018, my family and I lost my oldest sister Ariane to suicide after her long battle with schizoaffective bipolar disorder. For many months, I only told a few people because of the intense stigma associated with losing someone to suicide. While society has made great strides in bringing national attention to mental health awareness and suicide prevention, the vast majority of us do not know how to approach the subject of suicide with those affected by it – so we often try not to. But avoidance and silence only perpetuates stigma. So, what then can we do?

First, if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Millions of people have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or depression and are still alive. A mental illness diagnosis is not a death sentence. Help is available and asking for help is normal.

Second, the suicide mourning process is very different from the mourning of other deaths. While already overwhelmingly distressed, survivors may have real or imagined perceptions of what others are thinking such as whether they are judging them or, worse, blaming them for the death. There are also internal emotions of guilt, anger, depression, confusion and much more. The puzzle of “why” never has 13 pieces that neatly fit together –– many missing pieces forever remain with the person who died. 

If you’ve lost someone to suicide, a support group of other survivors will have resources for healing and provide a safe space to express your feelings and tell your story. While attending AFSP’s recent Out of the Darkness Walk with my family, I saw well over 1,500 people from the Buffalo area who are in a vast community of survivors whose lives have been forever changed. Find your local support group by visiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org. 

So how should you respond to survivors of suicide loss? 

● Listen. If a friend lost someone to suicide and feels comfortable sharing their story and feelings with you, the most important thing to do is listen without judgment.

● Be patient. You can ask the survivor if and how you can help, but know that they grieve at their own pace and may not be ready to share.

● Words may fail, hugs never do. Hugging is a scientifically powerful way of healing. Even virtual hugs can provide comfort if you can’t see a friend in person.

● If you don’t know what to say, it’s OK to say exactly that. Such honesty can be better than saying something that comes out insensitive. Silence is worse.

● If you do feel compelled to say something, then perhaps something like “I’m thinking about you. I know you’re going through a tough time. I know my words feel empty, but I just want you to know that I’m thinking of you.”

● Avoid “I know how you feel” unless you are a suicide loss survivor yourself. Even if you’ve lost a loved one, losing someone to suicide is distinctly different.

● If it was a very recent loss, survivors might not want to hear silver-linings or well-intentioned phrases like “they’re in a better place” or “God never gives you more than you can deal with.” Give them time to grieve and use your best judgement.

● Use “died by suicide,” “lost to suicide,” or “killed themselves” instead of “commit,” which is associated with sin or crime.

● Use the loved one’s name instead of “he” or “she” as it humanizes them.

Here’s two additional thoughts that are important on the topic of suicide.

● Dismissing a suicide attempt as "selfish" or "attention seeking" can be extremely damaging. People who attempt suicide do not want to die – they just want to end their pain. It just so happens that they see no way of doing that except through death. If attention really is the motivation, they see no other way of getting the personal or medical attention they need except through risking death. It's not merely a "cry" for attention, it's a plea for help, so listen to them and help.

● Think about who's around you when you speak and consider the high chance someone has been somehow impacted by suicide. There are so many other ways to express that you're bored in a lecture or frustrated at work.

By no means is this a comprehensive or definitive list and my experience as a survivor may differ from another’s. However, I hope this can at least help start conversations that erase the stigma surrounding suicide loss. If you’ve read this far, thank you and if you’d like to reach out or talk about anything, feel free to get in touch at mpbrown@buffalo.edu.


Michael Brown ‘19

UB Council Student Representative