Suicide is different from other deaths. We who are left behind cannot direct our anger at the unfairness of a deadly disease or a random accident or a murderous stranger. Instead, we grieve for the very person who has taken our loved one's life. Before we can even begin to accept our loss, we must deal with the reasons for it--and the gradual recognition that we might never know what happened or why.
According to the book Suicide and Its Aftermath: Understanding and Counseling the Survivors,
edited by Edward Dunne, John McIntosh, and Karen I-Maxim, the attention of the mental health profession focuses on those who commit suicide and rarely addresses what happens to people who have survived the suicide of someone close to them. The authors cite studies showing that people who lose a loved one to suicide feel more guilt, more often search for an understanding of the death, and appear to experience less social support than those who lose a loved one to other causes.
In addition, the authors write, suicide survivors experience feelings of intentional rejection and deliberate abandonment, which separate them from others who are mourning the death of a loved one. They state "This difference may explain why survivors of suicide who have attended grief groups for survivors of deaths by other causes report feeling different from other grievers and tend to drop out of these groups."
Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States and the third leading cause of death among young people ages fifteen to thirty-four. The American Association of Suicidology estimates that for each of the 32,000 Americans who kill themselves each year, there are six survivors. According to the association, there are almost 4 million people in the United States who have lost a loved one to suicide, with the number increasing annually by almost 200,000 persons.
Yet, most of us who have experienced the suicide of a loved one feel separate and apart. At the time my husband killed himself, it seemed inconceivable that I would ever emerge from the isolation created by his death. Even in my self-exile, however, I knew that there must be others who understood what I was going through. I searched fruitlessly in the literature for books and articles containing stories similar to mine. Instead, I found medical texts analyzing why people kill themselves, manuals on suicide prevention, articles on the link between creativity and suicide, essays on the moral and philosophical implications of suicide, even guidebooks on how to kill yourself; those of us who were left behind seemed forgotten, overshadowed by the drama and mystery that suicide leaves as its legacy.
I am writing this book because I do not want our stories to go untold. The grieving process of suicide survivors is often shrouded by stigma and silenced by shame. By exchanging the unthinkable details about our mother's swallowing an overdose of pain medication, our son's shooting himself with a hunting rifle, our brother's jumping from an office window, our wife's poisoning herself with carbon monoxide fumes, we will come to realize that we are neither crazy nor alone.
Since my husband's death, I have spoken with more than one hundred women and men throughout the country who are struggling to find meaning from their loved one's suicide. They have revealed their most carefully guarded personal histories to me in the hope that their stories might help ease the pain of others in similar circumstances. I have changed their names and some of the details of their stories because I believe that privacy and secrecy are two separate entities. We can own and protect our privacy without being made to feel that we are hiding some dark, shameful secret. In addition, I have interviewed a number of mental health professionals and others who specialize in the field of suicide survivors.
It is my hope that by sharing our experiences, the loneliness of mourning our loved one's self-inflicted death will begin to diminish. As instant comrades-in-arms in a common struggle, we can identify with the stages and patterns of our similar journeys. We will see that, ever so slowly, the pain does ease. Gradually, there will be minutes, then hours, then longer chunks of time when the suicide is not the focus of our lives. Even though we have entered a looking-glass existence, where everything we once held dear has been transformed beyond recognition, we will come to believe that eventually we will emerge. And survive.
"I refuse to make two tragedies out of this," says Carol, a woman whose husband drowned himself when she was nine months pregnant. "As much as I want to die, I know I want to live. The choice is as simple as that."
I have worked hard to overcome the gripping shame that continues to cloud my acceptance of Harry's decision to die. Seven years after his suicide, the words "he killed himself" are still uncomfortable for me to say when I am asked about the cause of his death at the age of forty-three. Yet, as I start to talk about it more openly, what most surprises me is the reaction to my decision to tell the truth. "My sister killed herself in her freshman year of college," a neighbor confides. "My uncle drove his motorcycle into a tree," the dental assistant reveals. "My father shot himself," the woman sitting next to me on the flight to Miami whispers.
I hope this book will help penetrate the isolation that surrounds the mourning process of those of us who have lost a loved one to suicide. As we begin to tell our stories, the stigma associated with the memories of our mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, lovers and friends, relatives and coworkers, will be lifted. With the support of others who have been there, we will be able to let go of the silence and start to make sense of the chaos that suicide leaves behind.
Excerpted from No Time to Say Goodbye by Carla Fine. Copyright © 1999 by Carla Fine. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.