“Shame Festers in Dark Places”: Keeping Suicide Secret

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Shame and suicideA friend recently sent me an anguished email about a friend of hers whose teenage daughter died the week before. The mother was telling others that the death was an accident, when it was unquestionably a suicide.

This saddened my friend greatly – not only the suicide itself, but also the family’s shame, so intense that they had to lie about their daughter’s death. It saddens me, too.

Understanding Shame and Secrecy

I do understand the root of such shame. Suicide still carries an enormously heavy stigma in many, if not most, circles. People may blame the victim or the family, without realizing that the fault lies with the forces of suicide itself, in the same way that people who die from heart attacks, strokes, and cancer are not to blame.

I understand not wanting to answer questions laced with accusations of blame: “Did you see any clues?” “What did you do to help her?” “Did she have a bad childhood?”

And I understand not wanting to accept that a loved one ended her own life. Denying a loved one’s suicide can spare the survivors from agonizing questions, questions usually coming from grief rather than reason, but still excruciating: Could I have done more to prevent her suicide?  Why wasn’t I enough to live for? Did I cause her suicide in any way?

I understand, but I wish that families who hide a suicide would make a different decision. I say this not only for the public at large, which would benefit from knowing the full truth about suicide. Not only for others who lost a loved one to suicide and who are further stigmatized when death by suicide is considered so horrid that it must not be named. Not only for those who have attempted or seriously considered suicide, and who are hurt by the notion that what they did is shameful.

I say this also for the family itself.

How Secrecy about Suicide Hurts the Family

Shame festers in dark places. The more the family hides, or denies, that their loved one died by suicide, the more the shame will grow inside of them. By keeping the suicide secret, they are buying into the idea that their loved one did something shameful, and that it brought shame to them.

When shame goes unchallenged in its darkness, it wins. When shame – undeserved shame, I should say, and shame about suicide is most definitely undeserved – is exposed to light, it weakens. With openness, people find a community of others who have also lost a loved one to suicide, who can normalize the experience, who can offer hope and healing, and who welcome those who feel shame with its antidote – acceptance.

By hiding the suicide of their loved one, families are depriving themselves of support from others, as well as community with other survivors. They are depriving themselves of the comforting truth that they are not alone. How many people might respond, upon learning the truth, “Oh, how awful. My mother died by suicide when I was young…” or “I once attempted suicide. I can tell you what was going on in my head, and that may help you to understand a little of what was going on in her head.”

Help from Others who Lost a Loved One to Suicide

There is an entire movement of people who have lost a loved one to suicide and who, in turn, are dedicated to helping others who find themselves in the same tragic situation. This community is tragically large; in recent years, almost 40,000 people in the U.S. each year have died by suicide – almost 1 million a year throughout the world. So you can imagine how many millions of people have been touched by suicide.

Cities and other communities have support groups for suicide loss survivors. Online support groups exist as well.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention even has an outreach program for suicide loss survivors. A survivor makes personal visits to people who are newly bereaved to suicide, if they request the service. (Please see this site’s Resources page, particularly the section for survivors of suicide loss, for more information about survivor groups in person and online.)

Effects on Children

Finally, secrecy hurts children. I wrote about this previously in my post “What to Tell Children of a Loved One’s Suicide?” Children need to know the truth.

Only with the truth can they make sense of the world around them and maintain trust in the adults in their world. They can also be spared the same internalized shame that afflicts so many others.

I once read a devastating account about Frank Campbell, PhD, executive director of a crisis intervention center in Lousiana. This story comes from the excellent book for suicide survivors, Touched by Suicide: Hope and Healing After Loss.

Dr. Campbell explained that a mother came to him seeking grief counseling for her 5-year-old son, whose father had fatally shot himself in the head. She insisted that Dr. Campbell not tell her son that his father had died by suicide, as she was “protecting” him from this truth.

When Dr. Campbell met privately with the boy, the boy confided that he knew his father killed himself because he had overheard his aunt talking about it. “But please don’t tell my mommy,” the boy entreated. “She thinks my daddy died in a car accident.” 

Children figure things out, whether now or later. If suicide was kept secret, they will absorb the message that suicide is so shameful that it had to be denied. 

In Closing

For the sake of children, the community, other suicide loss survivors, and themselves, I wish more families would name suicide. Many families have compelling reasons not to, but the more they hide suicide, the more those reasons remain compelling.

It helps instead to call suicide for what it is: a devastating cause of death that happens because of some combination of mental illness, overwhelming pain, unbearable stress, and feelings of hopelessness.

It can be hard for a family to let others know that a loved one died by suicide. But the acceptance, community, and wholeness that come afterward from compassionate people can, at the least, help liberate them from shame. 


© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All rights Reserved. Written For: Speaking of Suicide

Photos purchased from Fotolia.com

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  1. Rob says:

    My best friend in high school committed suicide. Sometimes people get so frustrated and in so much pain in life they feel like driving into a brick wall… and he actually did it.

    This type of death cannot be hidden, and was in the paper. He was an only child, and his parents felt ashamed. They covered it up (“careless driving”) and even though everybody knew what happened they dare not call them out on such a sensitive issue. Since I was his best friend I felt a sense of responsibility in helping his parents heal. And I felt the way to do that was to help them confront that it was a suicide, because only in accepting that could they also move on to accepting that it was not their fault.

    Long story short, in trying to do this I ran up against my own brick wall. A metaphorical one of course. In doing what I thought was trying to help them I brought out the worst of them and left the situation feeling very mistreated. I’m still bitter about it and over a decade later haven’t let go of the feeling that I can’t truly move on until it is acknowledged for what it was.

    There is a reason things in life are kept in the dark. But it doesn’t change the fact that the worst monsters are always the ones who’s faces you can’t see, and no matter how ugly the monster it is always uglier in the shadows than in the light.


  2. Chris says:

    This is a great article – it’s interesting to read about suicide and learn from other people’s experiences. I’m still new to suicide prevention work and it’s very encouraging and inspiring. This article helped remind me of an incident from high school that makes much more sense now, because I never knew – as a young person – that stigma was painful for everyone. Not just me.

    I had known that my grandfather’s best friend had a son who’d died, but no one had ever used the word suicide. When I was 15 and nearly hospitalized for depression, I had to spend the night at my grandparents’ house after presenting at the local mental health clinic for help.They were unsure if my home was a safe place to spend the weekend, and my parents were so furious, it probably wasn’t…But like my parents, my grandparents were infuriated because I was suicidal. I was angry, too – why didn’t they care that I felt such despair that I wanted to die? 

    My grandfather unleashed his anger and said, “are you trying to do to us what my best friend’s son did to his parents and family?” He told me that the suicide had destroyed his friends and I remember the disgusted look on his face when he asked, “do you know what it did to my friend to find his boy hanging from the attic ceiling?” I was stunned, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard that story. This happened in 1989 (I’m getting old!), but I’m not sure that things have improved much since then, in terms of the stigma surrounding suicide.

    When I did make two attempts five years later, I was terrified of my family’s reactions. I had made the attempts in Arizona, and when my mom insisted that I return home to Connecticut, I remember my heart racing when we pulled up to the house after the long cross-country drive. Both sets of my grandparents were at the house with my father, sitting outside on the porch, waiting for us to arrive.I was surprised by their kindsness and understanding. They visited me two weeks later, when I was eventually hospitalized for the first time, and no one was unkind or caused me to feel guiltier than I already did.

    Family members don’t always realize that their comments and reactions matter as much as they do. And I know that suicide survivors don’t realize – when talking about their family’s reactions – don’t always realize how hard it is for family members to be reminded that they said something cruel in a moment of crisis. I published a book when I was 20, and in that autobiography I quoted the first words from my grandmother that day in 1989: “Are you trying to ruin our family name?” It was astounding insensitive, but my grandmother was never let off the hook for saying it. It was immortalized in my work. So much pain could have been avoided if everyone had been a little more careful to avoid shaming language.

    This issue is so delicate. It requires kindness and understanding. I don’t think that most people understand the depth of the experiences for everyone involved. That’s why websites like this are so crucial, and why the current conversation about suicide can make a difference. Days like yesterday, at the “Elevating the Conversation Conference,” always leave me feeling incredibly grateful that I did not die, despite trying desperately to end my life. I’m one of the lucky people – my life eventually got much better, but it took years. It’s my mission in life to help other people find their way. Thank you for this place where people can openly engage in conversation about suicide from multiple perspectives!


  3. AlexF says:

    I lost my brother to suicide, we were very open about the topic within our family and some friends. But there were a couple of good friends which i lied to because i didn’t feel comfortable telling for several reasons. It wasn’t until years later that i told them the truth. I don’t think we should be so hard on people who decide to hide this because there still is a lot of stigma out there and in the early stages of grief you are very fragile. The last thing you need is a layer of judgement projected on to you. I think the fight to end the stigma of suicide should be for those who have healed.



    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Alex, those are excellent points: “I don’t think we should be so hard on people who decide to hide this….” “I think the fight to end the stigma of suicide should be for those who are healed.” You are so right. I will need to reconsider what I have written in this post. Yes, I wish there were no stigma attached to suicide. Yes, I wish there were no need to be secret about it. But the reality is that there is stigma, and there is secrecy as a result.

      Everyone grieves in their own way. And everyone reacts to grief in their own way. There is no right way or wrong way. There just is grief.

      Thanks for reminding me of these facts, Alex!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Love this article!!! Have been thinking the same thing. People need to speak out. I am not ashamed. I am a suicide survivor. I do not feel the need to hide that from anyone. You wouldn’t keep cancer a secret; why should I lie about how he died. Death is always death.

  5. Jo Ellen says:

    Thank you for this article. My son committed suicide almost five years ago. The part speaking about guilt and blame hits home with me. I feel so judged by people who do not understand suicide and depression. Do they not think that his suicide has left me and my family with enough guilt and questions “why” to last me a lifetime?

    • diane says:

      Jo Ellen…Judgemental people was the driving force behind my daughter’s suicide at 20 years old. The night before she passed we had a conversation about this very thing. I told her if she felt that people were judging her she needed to get them out of her life regardlesss of if they are friend or family. I went on to tell her that nobody has any right to judge others. She said to me “mommy, you are the only one who has never judged me for anything I’ve ever done.” I told her I was one of the last people who should be judging anyone, nobody is perfect. I even told her something my dad used to say (my daughter was born after my dad passed)……Never judge a man/woman until you have walked a mile in his/her shoes. She said she really liked that saying.

      Perhaps this is another reason why I have never tried to hide how my daughter died. It is what it is and if people want to judge my daughter or myself for her suicide let them, I don’t care. It just proves to me how much education on the subject they need and further indicates to me that I don’t want or need people like that in my life anymore than my daughter needed people like that in hers. You shouldn’t let people make you feel like you are being judged. You are being judged but you are allowing it. What people think of you isn’t your problem. If anything you should feel sorry for those people. Sorry for them because they are ignorant about the subject and don’t know any better. Sorry for them because they are under the false impression that it could never happen to them (and we hope it doesn’t). And sorry for them because they won’t even make an effort to learn more about depression or suicide when in all probability they or someone they know suffer from some sort of depression or has attempted or died by suicide. You can run but you can’t hide.

  6. Diane Howard says:

    I have never tried to hide the fact that suicide took my 20 year old daughter from me 2 1/2 years ago. I honestly had no idea that society thinks like they do about suicide until a close friend told me how proud she is of me. I asked her what she was proud of me for and she said for being so honest and up front considering the way people think. I asked her just what do people think and she told me about the stigma and all of that. I honestly must have thought that everyone thinks about it like I do that there is no reason to hide it or lie about it. Now when I think about it I am even more honest and upfront about it with people. Talking about suicide is the only way to educate people about it and help get rid of the stigma that surrounds suicide.

  7. Megan says:

    My father took his life when I was 17 years old, three months before my high school graduation. That was 21 years ago. He had tried before throughout my childhood, I later found out. He was a brilliant man with a wonderful sense of humor that masked a very tortured soul. I don’t tell people of the way he died, not because I am ashamed of what he did or of him. I love my father and all I have ever felt is empathy and great pain knowing that he felt we were better off without us. He believed he was a burden to us. I have never been angry at him or God.

    Those who know me well, know the truth. I don’t tell people because, unfortunately, the world is judgemental. No one has any right to judge my father or his memory. He was a good man. Also, the looks of pity and misunderstandings are very difficult to deal with. There are a great deal of ignorant people in this world. No one knew my father like we did. No one knew the struggles he faced for over 30 years. I don’t keep it a secret. I choose to avoid answering without truly lying. It is to protect his memory. Because even at his darkest moment, his suicide note was filled with love and humor. The man I choose to remember.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Megan, thanks for sharing and, in doing so, providing a different perspective. You are right, there are other reasons besides shame for not openly and freely sharing about a loved one’s suicide. Yet as you said, you also don’t lie or keep your father’s suicide a secret. Instead, it sounds like you carefully guard your truth, sharing it only with those you trust.

      Not only do others benefit from your perspective about secrecy, but also from your empathy and understanding for your father. Your words are full of love. Thank you.

  8. Michelle says:

    That was a good post, i totally agree, when my husband committed suicide last month, i had seperated from him and the moment i heard the news i rushed over to his place with the girls, i just rushed in to find my husband, the girls had followed me, but luckily they only saw him from behind, but they know he killed himself.

    For all of it was this wasn’t really an unexpected act on his part, for the last 3 years my husband had become a stranger to us, exceptional moody, mentally and emotionally abusive, an alcoholic and on occassions very angry, he was a jealous type too.

    he would continually accuse me of having affairs, when all along it was him having them, he would basically keep us at home and not allow us to go to far if we did get out. He would hurt himself for attention, threaten suicide almost every other month. Basically we didnt know one day to the next, the day before i moved out for the last time, he set up the whole hangman, and then took it down.

    He was always trying to control us, say mean things to us, but when he committed suicide, i just explained to the girls that this was one his failed attempts of seeking attention by hurting himself, he must have miscalculated because i dont believe he really wanted to die, he was hoping to be found as he knew he was getting a lift that day, he was still warm when i found him. Too much alcohol, he made a mistake.

    i do agree, it is always better to tell children black and white, because eventually one way or another it will get back to them. My girls at least now have closure and know for sure daddy is not comming back, unlike me at 15 when my dad died an alcoholic, i never had closure and took many years to accept it.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Michelle, what a heartbreaking ordeal you and your daughters have been through. You described something I have heard many times before: that often, though of course not always, a person has become like a stranger before his or her suicide, so beaten down are they by addiction or other illness. You have done the right thing in being transparent to your girls about your husband’s suicide. That is one less burden that you all have to bear.

      Best wishes to you during your journey of grief and healing.