by Janet Schnell, MSW, LSW
Today, I read again about another death by suicide. PGA pro golfer Bill Hurley’s father died by suicide in August. The previous month, champion of suicide prevention Peter Wollheim died by suicide. I don’t know their families and friends, but I know what it is like to be a suicide loss survivor.
Suicide continues to be in the top 10 leading causes of death worldwide. On average, one person in the United States dies by suicide every 12.8 minutes and each death affects up to 115 people. The number of suicide loss survivors in the United States is more than 20 million people. But enough about the numbers, because when suicide hits your world, that number is one – your loved one. His or her death by suicide has changed your life.
My brother, Kent, died by suicide more than 20 years ago. He was one year younger than I, and we spoke the night before he died. The guilt I felt was because I did not pick up on the signs, I did not ask him how he was feeling after experiencing pain and ringing in his ears, I did not listen to what he was not saying, and I was afraid to ask him if he was thinking about suicide.
What I have learned in 20 years is that suicide loss survivors are not alone. There is help. I am here. Other suicide loss survivors are willing to listen. I won’t tell you to get “over it.” I won’t tell you to not ask why. I won’t tell you it has been two or four months and you need to move on. What I will do is listen, understand when you are struggling, and offer help and hope.
Please know our loved ones did love us. Their pain was too great for them, and they were not thinking clearly. Others may not understand and may ask you questions. Even if they are hurtful, most are based in a misunderstanding of suicide. People who are less close are trying to figure out why it happened and what someone, anyone, could have done. As suicide loss survivors, we need to take care of ourselves first before we are ready to help others.
When my brother died, my son was four years old. He adored his uncle. And I had to tell my son his uncle was dead. I have watched my son through his young life becoming a suicide loss survivor - struggling with why him, why did he have to have the pain of losing his uncle from depression? Why did he have to watch his mother in despair? Why do people respond to him differently when they hear his uncle died by suicide? In twenty years, my son has become the champion of silently helping others.
Today, I honor my brother through suicide prevention training. I want to be able to stop suicide deaths, so not another family member or friend has to walk in my shoes. I have thought about this every time I read about another suicide death. Too many lives have been lost. We need to do more. Suicide can be prevented. And I would like to see suicide loss survivors lead the way in demanding change – insisting schools, human resource departments, mental health providers, community leaders, nurses, doctors, family members, and friends learn an evidence-based suicide prevention program. I also want loss survivors who are ready and able to partner with researchers and prevention programs, so we can figure out how to help those of us who are struggling with our loss.
I step back twenty years ago, and I remember wondering if I would be able to breathe or talk again without crying because I missed my brother. I did not know if I could take the next step in life. I didn't know there is hope, and that I could survive.
I am so sorry to hear about a suicide death, because I know there are more family members and friends who are feeling this deep pain and grief. Suicide loss survivors need to take the time to heal. We need someone to listen to us and not offer advice. We need to ask why until we can accept the answer our loved ones left us without answering. We don’t need a time limit on our grief, because there are days we will bounce back to the beginning hearing of a suicide death. We need someone to hold our hand and give us a hug. We don’t need someone to tell us how to heal. We do need to know we can survive. And we need to know we are not alone.
To Bill Hurley’s and Peter Wollheim’s family and friends, I offer my most sincere condolences and welcome you to the club I never, ever, hope anyone has to join. But know I am here to support you in any way I can.
Janet Schnell, MSW, LSW, is the American Association of Suicidology Loss Division Chair, Vincennes University adjunct trainer, and Dubois County Substance Abuse Council coordinator. She is an active member of Indiana, Southwest Indiana, and Dubois County Suicide Prevention Coalition, Quilt organizer for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and facilitator for Survivors of Suicide of Dubois County. Janet is a master trainer and instructor for QPR (Question Persuade and Refer), trainer for CALM (Counseling on Access to Means) and CONNECT (suicide response in postvention and support group facilitator training). As a QPR master trainer and instructor she offers a gatekeeper training (2-hour training), train the trainer course (8-hour training teaching others how to teach suicide prevention), and QPRT (8-hour training suicide risk assessment and management to mental health providers). Janet can be reached by e-mail at 1JanetSchnell@gmail.com or by phone at 812-630-6779.
Read more about National Suicide Prevention Week.
In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Read Janet Schnell's previous article for THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Robin Williams and the Reality of Suicide.