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Language Around Suicide Loss

"Looking at suicide—the sheer numbers, the pain leading up to it, and the suffering left behind—is harrowing. For every moment of exuberance in the science, or in the success of governments, there is a matching and terrible reality of the deaths themselves: the young deaths, the violent deaths, the unnecessary deaths "
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

By Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., President, American Association of Suicidology

(Adapted from Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families Through Suicide Grief by Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., Chellehead Works, 2010.)

The Language Around Suicide Loss

Often after a suicide, we don’t know how to describe ourselves. Who are we? Do we belong to a community? And if we do, what community is that? Below we discuss some of the common terms to describe the grief process, people who have lost a loved one to suicide, and how those terms are evolving as the field continues to move forward to support people coping with suicide loss.

Grief and Mourning

According to Webster’s Dictionary, grief is mental suffering or distress over loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret (1996). Through dissecting this definition we can learn volumes about grief. For instance, it might not always be about the death loss of a person in our lives. Sometimes we grieve the loss of an opportunity or a friend who has left our lives. But as we are using the word for the purpose of this web site, it is sharp sorrow—the pain of someone dying can feel like the stabbing pain of something hurting us. And it can be full of painful regret that we were not there for the person and/or that we did not tell them how much we cared about them. Grief is the noun but grieving is the verb—the feeling and the journey we have embarked on after our loved ones have died.

Webster’s defines bereave as to deprive, especially by death (1996). An example would be that we are “bereaved after suicide loss.” Mourning is defined as the expression of sorrow (or grief) that one feels after someone has died. While these are the most basic words to describe the loss, they do not give the full picture of the loss we experience after a suicide.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (1996). NewYork: Barnes & Noble Books.

Survivors of Suicide

Edwin Shneidman, the founder of the suicidology field, coined this term in the 1960s to describe the people who had lost a loved one to suicide. However, in recent years the term has come in question as people in some countries describe a survivor of suicide as one who attempts suicide (usually called a “suicide attempt survivor” in the United States). People have since embraced the term “survivors of suicide loss” and the term below, “bereaved by suicide.”

Bereaved by Suicide

In some countries, people will call a survivor of suicide loss, a person bereaved by suicide. The terms are used interchangeably.

Suicide Attempt Survivors

People who have attempted suicide and survived are typically called suicide attempt survivors although in countries outside of the United States, they will say that person is a survivor of suicide.

Postvention

Postvention, a term coined by Shneidman, is what comes after the attempt or the loss. It is helping the people who are left behind find hope again. And as Shneidman said, postvention after suicide is prevention for the next generation (Shneidman, 1972). By helping the bereaved through their losses, we support their efforts to find life-sustaining hope again.

Shneidman, E. (1972). Forward. In A. C. Cain (Ed.), Survivors of suicide. Oxford: Charles C. Thomas.

 

"Commit" suicide sounds like it was a crime. What's a better way to say it?

By Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., President, American Association of Suicidology

From the time my sister ended her life when I was 21 and she was two weeks from turning 18, I felt uncomfortable using the word “commit.” It might have been my Catholic upbringing, where suicide was considered a sin at the time  and I didn’t believe that my sister had committed a crime. Her pain was deep and she couldn’t see beyond it. It was years later before I heard someone use “died by suicide” and I instantly felt drawn to the term. Some people will use suicide as a verb and others might say someone “completed” suicide but “died by suicide” stuck for me and it’s the term I advocate people to use. It takes the sting out of the stigma around using “committed.”

Comments

09/01/2015 at 3:20 PM
Marie Ayers
On July 16th 2013 I lost my youngest son to suicide. He was only 30 with 3 small children.He used a gun in the basement of my home,two of his children found him, they were 3 and 5. I cannot explain the devastation I still feel 2 years after his death. I cry all the time I feel like people have moved on and forgot about him. Not me he was my baby boy. I am not the same, actually I don't know who I am.All the joy has seeped out of my life. I am so sad and lonely.
07/30/2013 at 11:35 AM
Kathy Laskowski
My daughter found her husband hanged in their home in January of 2012, she has had a horrific year dealing with this and we have found ourselves trying to prevent her suicide since the event. She has horrible nightmares at the sight of what she saw and she has not been able to move on. What type of resources can you recommend or books, support group? She was placed on anti depressents and went from bad to worse as became more suicidal and was having worse thoughts about suicide, how can we help her?
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