'I Am a Suicide Loss Survivor': Best Care EAP Counselor Shares Her Experience

Published: Aug. 18, 2023

September is Suicide Prevention Month and a time to not only raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of suicide ideation but also support those who have lost someone to suicide.

Best Care EAP counselor Linda Wright, MS, LIMHP, LPC, NCCis a suicide ''loss'' survivor and shares her story.

Psychotherapist Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, posted an article on her website on May 27, 2014, explaining how she has adopted a new understanding when referring to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. It seems that there has been quite a debate about the concept of being a “suicide survivor.” Some feel the term suicide survivor is more appropriately coined for individuals who have contemplated or attempted suicide (i.e., had a suicidal crisis), while others have used the term to refer to those who are bereaved by suicide. In her article, Dr. Freedenthal makes a great case for differentiating a suicide survivor from someone who is actually a “suicide loss survivor.”     

My Story

I agree with Dr. Freedenthal and consider myself to be a “suicide loss survivor.” At age 44, my brother Denny took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning. He had been an alcoholic for a number of years and was unsuccessful when receiving outpatient treatment services. Although he seemingly excelled in the program, he was secretly consuming his poison after hours. On the last day of his treatment, the providers did a random screening and found that he had alcohol in his system. He was discharged from the program and spiraled downward.

On June 10, 1998, Denny’s son and a friend found my brother dead behind the steering wheel of his car. There, beside Denny, was a bottle of whiskey and a carton of cigarettes. Our late father was allowed into the garage to see my brother after the authorities had taped off the area as a crime scene. The last image of my brother, forever etched in our dad’s mind, was of him sitting there with his hand on the door lever, slumped against the door, with the car ignition in the off position. His blood had pooled to his left side. It appeared as though he was trying to get out. Being the curious individual I am, I asked the coroner why my brother died if he had turned the engine off and was trying to escape. The coroner told me that although Denny might have changed his mind, carbon monoxide paralyzes the body. He might have wanted to live at the last moment, but couldn’t act upon the impulse.

The Aftermath of Loss

As a suicide loss survivor, I was left with many questions and fears. While grieving, ill-advised family members made comments about someone not going to heaven if they take their own life. This notion troubled me greatly. I asked the minister who conducted my brother’s memorial service about this. His response brought me peace.

He said, “That really limits the powers of God, doesn’t it?” I couldn’t agree more. I think many people are afraid to bring up the loss of a family member to suicide, which can incite loneliness.

Feelings of fear can often surface – like the fear I felt during the long car ride back to Nebraska from Illinois, where my brother lived. I momentarily panicked, wondering if I could someday slip into such hopelessness in my lifetime.

And then there’s guilt. One week before my brother took his life, I experienced an overwhelming feeling that something terrible was going to happen if we didn’t act. Since I lived in another state, I was limited in what I could do. But, through the tears, I spoke to a number of people on the phone that day, trying to determine what could be done. Eventually, I was told that in Illinois, a family member could not have another family member committed to a treatment facility. I tried to solicit the help of my older brother and our dad, but it was determined that Denny had to decide to get his life back on track. For some reason, deep inside, I knew we were past that point. My biggest regret is in not traveling back to Illinois to try to make a difference. My family in Nebraska discouraged me from making the trip.

On Sunday, I asked my oldest brother to visit Denny. I kept saying that I didn’t want the next call I received to be that Denny had passed away. My brother agreed and called me back later that afternoon. He found Denny outside in the driveway as his son worked on his car. I asked my oldest brother if he had asked Denny about his frame of mind. As brothers often do, they simply had talked about working on the car and general topics.

The next Wednesday evening, dad called me to tell me that Denny was gone. A note was left in the house, and I was informed that a letter I had written to my brother months earlier was lying on his bedroom floor. In that letter, I had begged Denny to turn his life around and turn to God for guidance. Unfortunately, Denny wrote in his note, he had lost all hope in the “system” and was tired of living. He had been in the midst of a divorce, and his house was in foreclosure. Denny had been a long-time machinist but had gotten to the point where accidents were beginning to happen at work, causing him to lose his job. In his mind, there was no reason to go on.

Giving Back After Grief

Partially because of this experience, I pursued my education to become a licensed professional counselor. I want to share my reality with others who may find themselves in this situation. My hope is to help them come to terms with their own loss by suicide. There are a number of risk factors that may precede the horrendous loss of a loved one to suicide, such as mental health disorders, physical illness and substance abuse. Additionally, some suicides are impulsive responses to other factors in life, such as ongoing stress, relationship issues, harassment or bullying.

I’ve been privileged to work with people who’ve lost close family members to suicide and are completely shocked and traumatized that their loved one could become so desperate. These clients are searching for answers that they may never fully receive, yet they need reassurance that – somehow, someday – life will return to some sense of normalcy.

I’ve also counseled a client whose son had attempted suicide but survived, and she was seeking advice on how best she might emotionally support him going forward. The best advice I can provide in this situation is to observe, listen, encourage and be present for the loved one who’s struggling. Any act of self-harm intended to end one’s life is a desperate cry for help. Not everything can be prevented, but any effort intended to offer hope and a genuine caring attitude can go a long way toward turning things around.      

The most critical element for a suicide loss survivor to understand is that they aren’t responsible for the death of the loved one. As mentioned earlier, guilt is a common emotion that can hijack a more rational state of mind. We’re all autonomous individuals who are capable of making and carrying out our own decisions. If a person is determined to end their life, they will find a time and a place. Guilt may manifest as anger toward the loved one – anger that they left you to carry on alone, anger at yourself that you weren’t aware of the depths of their despair and anger in terms of the betrayal you feel by being let down in such a devastating manner. Remind yourself that these feelings are normal, and it will take time to work through the rush of emotions that you feel. As a suicide loss survivor, you must remember to remain in the moment and be mindful of self-care. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself whatever time you need to recover and heal.

Grief, another emotion we experience following the loss of a loved one, involves tremendous sadness. But it is also about undelivered communication. In the Grief Recovery Method, an evidence-based recovery program developed by John James and Russell Friedman, one of the definitions of grief is “reaching out for someone who has always been there, only to find when you need him one more time, he is no longer there.” The inability to talk to the deceased loved one creates immeasurable loneliness and despair.

As a clinician, I often suggest to clients that they write a letter to the deceased loved one, expressing everything they need to say and how they feel while also including words of forgiveness. This exercise can help to reduce the weight of the loss and begin to open one’s heart to the healing process.

Journaling about your daily experiences could also prove beneficial. And some day, you could find yourself working with others who have lived this reality and could find great comfort in your story. I believe that all things happen for a reason. As humans, we’re all on our own journey. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, first and foremost reach out for help, compassion and understanding. It will take time to come to terms with such tremendous loss, but in time you’ll find ways to cope.

Seeking Help 

If you or someone you know is struggling, it’s okay to share feelings. Help is available through the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24 hours a day, seven days a week for assistance from trained, compassionate counselors. In addition, Best Care EAP is here to help you and your family. Our licensed professional counselors are available to meet in-person, over the phone or virtually. It's easy to schedule a confidential appointment. Click here to get started or call (402) 354-8000 or (800) 801-4182.