The Middle Ages. The time of war, famine, mud, pox, leeches and very weird art.
It doesn’t sound like a delightful time to be alive – and strangely enough, it was a rather bad time to die too, if you made the choice to do so.
In those days, the "sinful" action of suicide was considered both a crime and a mortal sin, with punishment cruelly inflicted on the family members left behind. Not only were the bodies of their dead loved ones frequently mutilated and denied a church burial, they often had their property confiscated and were no longer welcome at religious services. Families that lost a member to suicide became pariahs in their community, dealt a punishing triple blow – the agony of loss, the loneliness of isolation, and the shame of being shunned.
Today, we like to think we offer compassion to those bereaved by suicide freely and generously – that stigma, like witch burnings and the plague, lives only in the past. In reality, research has demonstrated that more stigmatising attitudes and behaviours remain common – if more covert.
Studies have compared suicidally bereaved families to families that lost a member to "natural" causes, and found they received markedly less community support 1 . Other studies indicate that it’s still very common for those who die by suicide to be disparaged as "selfish" and "cowardly" – and worse, that families are often avoided by others and/or blamed for the death 2 .
We can even see remnants of the old stigma in the language we use. Suicide still sits alongside murder, rape and theft as an act "committed," a word that reflects the old thinking of crime and punishment. While people are gradually learning to use the words "completed suicide" or "died by suicide" instead, it’s early days. On some level, it seems those who take their own lives are still seen as tainted, and those left behind as contaminated by the act – whether we openly acknowledge this or not.
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My own research focused on the experience of sibling suicide, an area where existing findings are particularly rare. As I explored the research landscape, the picture of suicide stigma in contemporary culture gradually became more and more complex. Question marks hover over exactly where such stigma originates, how it’s created and maintained, and why it continues to be a problem despite society’s outwardly compassionate attitude towards the families of suicide victims.
In line with the more general findings about stigma mentioned above, many suicide bereaved siblings described feeling extremely hurt by the actions of those they hoped would support them 2,3 .Some spoke of friends abandoning them altogether, with other friendships ending due to impatience that they are "still not over it." Others recalled people acting as though the death never occurred, silencing them with platitudes, or telling them they should not feel the way they do about the loss. This typically occurred against a backdrop of deep longing and need for the siblings to have their grief heard and validated.
Is There a Right to Grieve?
But here’s where it gets interesting: Many siblings also reported intense feelings of guilt and even worthlessness around the death, with some stigmatising themselves by deliberately withdrawing from friends in shame 1 . Others spoke of experiencing their peers as immature, unempathetic, and/or focused on trivial concerns 4 .
Some researchers, therefore, believe that suicide stigmatisation is more often related to complex relational processes than actual acts of rejection 3 . For example, siblings often swallow their hurt to avoid awkwardness with their peers, leading them to feel "lonely in a crowd." This may contribute to an overall sense that others are rejecting or avoidant, whether or not they’re actually behaving in ways that are rejecting or avoidant .
I also wonder about how the siblings’ response to the suicide impacted their relationships, and how much this plays into the distancing dynamic. Losing a sibling to suicide tends to have a catastrophic effect on a person’s life – and while there’s no typical picture of the impact, it’s generally dark and ugly. Those who lose a sibling to suicide have been found to experience significantly higher rates of mental illness, impulsivity, intense anger, dangerous behavior, and a tendency towards self-destructiveness (among other things) 5,6 .
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I can remember railing against my own abandonments, furious at my perceived stigmatisation. But looking back, I can only imagine how my volatile rage, cynicism, and self-focus felt to those around me. Of course, I didn't know how to do any better. But it’s entirely likely that the people who bolted did so because of how unpleasant I made their time with me – not because they thought me sullied by my brother’s suicide.
Or at least, not only because of that.
I tend to think there’s truth in both viewpoints – that stigma still exists, playing out in ways that may not be obvious but are still experienced as hurtful. On the other hand, those of us bereaved by suicide are at risk of projecting the loneliness and guilt we feel out onto the world, and experiencing that world as rejecting and hostile.
After all, when you go through each day feeling raw, the slightest poke can sting like a slap.
If you know somebody who’s lost a family member to suicide, and you don’t want to treat them in ways that make them feel shamed or stigmatised, imagine instead that their loved one died of cancer or in a car crash, and try to act as you would in that scenario: Offer compassion, be present, and allow them to process the loss in whatever way makes sense to them.
On the other hand, if you’re suffering through the crushing trauma of suicide loss, you may well find yourself crippled by guilt, shame, and relentless questions about what you could have done to prevent this terrible situation. If so, try to gently ask yourself if your response is fair.
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Sometimes the only way we can make sense of something so bad is to blame ourselves. It’s easier than accepting a world in which such things can happen and it’s nobody’s fault. But if a close, dear friend was in your situation – would you think they’re responsible? That they deserve to feel at fault? That the way their loved one died leaves them corrupted or culpable?
I can’t imagine that you would.
If we’re leaving stigma in the past, we should leave torture there, too – including that which we inflict on ourselves.