To those who have lost a loved one to suicide

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I am writing to you, the living. You who have experienced the suicide of a loved one, family member, partner or friend.

Last year I attended a suicide walk in Nashville’s Music Row area, a time for those affected by suicide to gather and grieve together, and to raise money to help prevent suicide. We were given necklaces in a variety of colors connected to how we were related to those who had died, whether a friend, family member, partner, or child. It was upsetting to see so many people with not one necklace but several of different colors.

Recently, family and friends were shocked and stunned to find out that Kevin Watts had killed himself. What many people go through following a suicide includes much grief, sadness and also sometimes anger about the suicide. I want you to know that any feelings or thoughts that you are having about Kevin and his death are normal reactions to a tragic and horrifying situation. No one knows how they will react to a loved one’s death, especially not to a suicide.

One way some people handle such a tragedy is by questioning themselves, wondering what they missed, blaming themselves for not having seen the signs and not being able to prevent the suicide. I do not know Kevin or his family and friends although I have read a friend’s tribute to him as well as a piece written by the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network highlighting his death and how we need not stigmatize suicide nor keep it secret or silent.  People need to know more and talk more about suicide in order to prevent it.

I am focusing on how the living can go on living, mourn and grieve death, and cope with such a tragedy. Family members and friends often beat themselves up about a suicide. They think they should have known it was going to happen and that they somehow could have prevented it.

But none of us are mind readers, we can’t always know what goes on inside even our closest loved ones. Depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness come in all sorts of flavors. We sometimes tend to notice those who are depressed when their symptoms include withdrawing, isolating, missing work, using too much alcohol or drugs, and/or having visible physical pain. We can see those symptoms.

We can also try to understand the reasons why someone has killed themselves and usually there are many important factors. Still, however, we may never really know why, because we can’t fully know any human being like they know themselves.

It is far harder to understand suicide when a person has seemed to be doing well, has seemed to handle life with a smile, and has continued to be engaged with family and friends. This type of person isn’t usually trying to lie about how they are feeling (although some are excellent actors and don’t want anyone to know the severity of their pain, or their plans).  Some act out externally but others implode, directing harsh and negative feelings toward themselves, not others. The nature of depression itself can prevent people from reaching out, crying loudly in distress for others to see.

In fact, sometimes we witness a person seeming to feel better and we feel better in return. Even though we have given them close and careful attention when life seemed worse, we may back off a little.

The unfortunate truth is that sometimes people, who have fully decided to kill themselves, may go through a period of time feeling more peaceful and calm, knowing they will be ending their lives soon. The pain may even slip away as they plan the suicide.  They are not trying to fool us, but they may honestly feel better temporarily.

Do not blame yourselves. Because, as we've seen this week, suicide does occur. It is up to us, the living, to find our ways through this tragic time with all the support we can find.



See also:

Stanley Green shares memories about his friend Kevin Watts

Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network on the death of Kevin Watts



Barbara Sanders, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Nashville: