Across the Internet and elsewhere, people apply the term suicide survivor to two different groups of people: 1) people who struggled with suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide, and survived, and 2) people who were never suicidal at all, but who lost a loved one to suicide.
In a post last year, I defined a suicide survivor as someone who lost a friend, family member, or other loved one to suicide. I explained my use of the term this way:
The term “suicide survivor” – or “survivor of suicide” – is reserved for those left behind. It is used in the same sense that an obituary will say, “The deceased is survived by ….”
I was hardly alone. For decades, thousands of people – including researchers, suicide prevention advocates, lawmakers, and ordinary people – have used the term “suicide survivor” (or “survivor of suicide”) specifically for people who lost a loved one to suicide. The psychologist Edwin Shneidman, considered the father of modern suicidology, applied the term “survivor of a suicide” to people who lost a loved one to suicide as early as 1965.
Since then, numerous groups refer to people who lost a loved one to suicide as “suicide survivors” or “survivors of suicide,” including the World Health Organization, Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors, and even the U.S. Congress, which 15 years ago established National Survivors of Suicide Day (the Saturday before Thanksgiving) to recognize people who lost a loved one to suicide.
In the last 40 or so years, numerous books targeting “suicide survivors” have helped people move through their grief, books like Survivors of Suicide, Suicide Survivors Handbook, Suicide Survivors: A Guide for Those Left Behind, Meditations for Survivors of Suicide, and No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One.
Times are Changing
Despite the term’s long history, I will no longer refer to people who have lost somebody to suicide as “suicide survivors” on this website, Speaking of Suicide. Instead, I will use the term “suicide loss survivors.”
In recent years, a great number of people have come forward and publicly disclosed that they seriously considered suicide or made a suicide attempt. These courageous individuals have brought into the light a problem long stigmatized and hidden.
Blogs such as talkingaboutsuicide.com, attemptsurvivors.com, and livethroughthis.org contain photographs, interviews, personal accounts, and even videos of hundreds of people who thought about or attempted suicide, almost always with their full names attached. In just the last few months, articles highlighting this movement toward openness and advocacy have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Huffington Post.
As more and more people with “lived experiences” of suicide have spoken out, the clashing definitions of “suicide survivor” have created ever more confusion. David Webb, PhD, is a suicidologist who survived a suicide attempt. He writes:
“When I first started looking at the suicide literature, I did a Google search on ‘suicide survivor’, hoping to connect with fellow survivors. Google replied with dozens, maybe hundreds, of hits but instead of fellow survivors, I found that this language had been claimed by those bereaved by suicide. I was rather taken aback by this… It seemed like we were invisible to Google and I felt that even the language we might use to identify ourselves had been stolen.”
Increasingly, people who made it through a suicidal crisis are claiming the term “suicide survivor” for themselves – people like Andrew O’Brien, the veteran who proclaims in an online video, referring to his outreach to soldiers, “I am a suicide survivor from PTSD… [one day] I told my suicide story to 500 uniformed soldiers, and I am not embarrassed by it.”
Major suicide prevention organizations are responding to the language controversy. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention changed the name of its International Survivors of Suicide Day to International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. The American Association of Suicidology now has a category on its website for suicide loss survivors.
Those who got out of a suicidal crisis alive really did survive a battle with suicide. Suicide tried to kill them, quite literally. And they lived to tell about it.
If you have lost a friend, son, daughter, spouse, sibling or other family member to suicide, you might identify as a “suicide survivor” even as others move away from the term. If you were to talk with me and call yourself a suicide survivor, I would never disagree or judge. What you call yourself is up to you, and the term “suicide survivor” may hold great meaning for you.
This post is not meant to imply rules or mandates for others to follow. Instead, I simply want to explain the terminology that I use on this website, and why.
Two groups of people with different needs and, in some ways, different agendas are going by the same name. It is confusing, and, to some people who have been through a suicidal crisis, it is hurtful, too.
Who Came First?
Suicide loss survivors were the first to adopt the term suicide survivors on a massive scale. Yet they were not the original suicide survivors.
I looked on Google Scholar for the first academic article ever to refer to suicide survivors. Among the many thousands of journals searchable by Google, the term suicide survivor first appeared in 1959, in an article that referred to “a post-slaying suicide survivor who had to be institutionalized for four years before he recovered sufficient mentality to stand trial.”
In 1975, a journal article reported the fates of seven people who survived after jumping off the Golden Gate or Oakland Bay bridge. Its title? “Suicide Survivors: A Follow-up Study of Persons Who Survived Jumping from the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges.”
Still, even though there are a couple early references to suicide attempt survivors as “suicide survivors,” the term overwhelmingly has been used for people who lost a loved one to suicide.
Some people refer to suicide loss survivors by other terms. John R. Jordan, Ph.D., states, “In Europe and Australia, the more common language used to refer to this category of mourner is ‘the suicide bereaved’ or ‘the bereaved by suicide.’” I dislike these terms, because ideally bereavement is a time-limited period of mourning. Suicide loss is permanent.
Do Suicide Survivors Really Exist?
Regardless of who it is applied to, I have struggled with the term “suicide survivor.” Yes, someone who lost a loved one to suicide did not survive suicide. But really, nobody can survive suicide. Suicide is death. The only “death survivors” or “survivors of death” are those left behind. I presume this is why family and friends were called “suicide survivors” in the first place, just as people who lost a loved one to murder are called “survivors of homicide” and “homicide survivors.”
But “suicide survivor,” when applied to people who have seriously considered or attempted suicide, is a sort of shorthand. No, people do not survive suicide, but they do survive a suicidal crisis or a suicide attempt. “Suicidal crisis survivor” is clumsy. Really, who talks that way? “Suicide attempt survivor” comes more naturally, and its use grows as more websites, organizations, and news articles refer to attempt survivors.
The term “suicide attempt survivor” is imperfect, too. It excludes people who fiercely battled – or still battle – with suicidal thoughts and impulses without acting on them. Say that suicidal thoughts stalk a woman day in and day out. Finally, one night she lies in bed, tearful and clutching in her hands the means to kill herself, even rehearsing using it in various ways without actually harming herself. For hours, suicidal thoughts assault her. Despite her pain, despite her hopelessness, she exerts tremendous restraint just to stay alive.
Isn’t she a survivor, too? If so, a survivor of what?
A Caveat about Labeling
I expect that one criticism of this post will be why I feel the need to label people at all. Labels can be seen as dehumanizing – isn’t someone who survived a suicidal crisis or a suicide loss really just a person first?
I agree with person-first language. As a social work professor, I teach my students that there are no “borderlines,” only people with borderline personality, no schizophrenics, only people with schizophrenia.
Labels can hurt, yet labels also can help. Whether we are talking about cancer survivors or suicide attempt survivors, trauma survivors or suicide loss survivors, the survivor labels can give people a way to connect with others like them, a sense of belonging, even a touch of pride and identity. They have survived.
A Work in Progress
For now, at least, this site will use the labels “suicide attempt survivor” and “suicide loss survivor.” This certainly does not mean that SpeakingOfSuicide.com will exclude people who survived a suicidal crisis without making a suicide attempt, only that it will not refer to them by a shorthand label.
Ultimately, I would like to see the term “suicide survivor” apply to people who have survived a suicidal crisis – any suicidal crisis. The suicidal thoughts or suicide attempt could have killed them, yet they made it out alive.
At the same time, I worry that the term “suicide survivor” for survivors of suicidal crisis creates too much confusion, because of the term’s use, as well, by suicide loss survivors.
What do you think?
© Copyright 2014 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com
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