Amy Kronbeck, Published November 14 2009
Surviving loss from suicideAt the age of 48, my dad took his own life. I was just 20 years old. In the 13 years since his death, he has missed out on the birth of my children, college graduations, holidays, birthdays and everything in between. And I have missed out on having him there.
I am not alone in my grief. My dad had another daughter, sons-in-law, siblings, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, friends and
co-workers who were all touched by his life … and by his death. There is no way for me to know exactly what went through his mind the day he died, but what I do know is that at the end of his life, the thought of living a single moment longer was more painful than the idea of leaving me behind. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine what that must have felt like for him.
At the time of my dad’s death, I didn’t know much about suicide, and I didn’t know another soul on this earth who had been through this tragedy. What I did know was that my family was in agonizing pain, reliving those last days over and over again and asking a thousand questions that all began the same way: “Why?”
Over time, I’ve come to learn that more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have an illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or substance abuse – sometimes diagnosed, sometimes not. While suicide is typically the result of a complicated stew of life events and circumstances, the main ingredient is almost always an underlying illness. Just as people can die of heart disease or cancer, they can die as a consequence of mental illness.
I’ve also learned that I’m hardly alone: Research shows that more than 60 percent of us will lose someone we know to suicide during the course of our lifetime; more than 20 percent of us will lose a family member. Nevertheless, the historical stigma surrounding suicide persists, leaving many survivors of suicide loss feeling misunderstood and abandoned, yearning for comfort and understanding.
Survivors may turn to support groups, where they can talk openly without fear of being judged – there are more than 400 suicide bereavement support groups throughout the U.S. (and some excellent online groups, too). Other survivors read voraciously, learning everything they can about suicide and its aftermath. Still others find a powerful sense of community and healing at survivor conferences, such as those held throughout the country by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention on National Survivors of Suicide Day, held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving every year.
More information on these conferences and other resources can be found at www.afsp.org/survivorday.
Although it’s a myth that suicide occurs more frequently during the holiday season (in fact, the rates are highest in the spring), it’s certainly true that this time of year can be excruciating for those of us left behind.
Many survivors struggle with whether to maintain their family’s holiday traditions or create new ones. Of course, there’s no answer that’s right for everyone, and it can be helpful to bear in mind that you can try one approach this year, and still choose to do things differently next year.
This holiday season, as ever, I’ll be remembering my dad. He would have loved to spend the holidays with his family. He would have loved getting to know his grandchildren. I would have loved it, too.
Kronbeck is a volunteer for the North Dakota Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Her dad, Jim, took his own life in 1996. National Survivors of Suicide Day is Saturday, Nov. 21. There are nearly 200 conference sites nationwide and some international sites as well.