How Suicide Prevention Messaging Affects Surviving Families

Jenna Hatfield
Sep 1 · 3 min read
Dried bouquet of flowers in a vase.
Dried bouquet of flowers in a vase.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

Last year, during September 2018, my father-in-law died by suicide. The day after his unimaginably tragic loss, I logged into Facebook to be greeted with messages about suicide prevention. These messages from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline urged me to #BeThe1To help save a life.

In the immediate aftermath of losing someone to suicide, these messages poked in all of the hurting parts of my soul and heart, making me feel responsible for his death. Of course, the messaging is important. There are warning signs of suicide. They are important to know for both your own mental health and wellness and for those in your lives.

However, the messaging brings up feelings of guilt those left in the wake of a death by suicide. We refer to these people as suicide survivors, while those who have attempted suicide and survived are suicide attempt survivors.

I am both.

When I wanted to die in 2014, my husband didn’t have a clue as to the depth of my depression and anxiety at that time. He knew I regularly attended therapy, took my medication as prescribed, and engaged in physical activity like running to fall in line with the recommended self-care regimens those struggling with mental illness are encouraged to adopt. Since I did everything I was supposed to, checked all the boxes on all of the lists of Do This To Get Better, no one realized I was drowning in my own darkness.

Thankfully, I survived.

My father-in-law did not survive. He left us on a September evening that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. To say his death in this manner felt shocking remains an understatement. While he checked off some boxes of warning signs, we were in regular contact with him. We had just taken photographs with him at our oldest son’s football game the night before; my husband waved and smiled at him the afternoon prior to his death as they passed on the road.

We didn’t have a chance to employ the five steps: Ask. Keep The Safe. Be There. Help Them Connect. Follow Up. He was here and then he was gone.

So when we read the messaging that we were supposed to #BeThe1To save his life, it hurts. I know I hugged him goodbye that evening, but did I tell him that I loved him? I normally do, but in the post-football game craziness, did it slip my mind? This thought sits in the pit of my stomach on the nights I cannot sleep, the nights when I worry about my husband, my sons, myself.

This is my takeaway from the messaging: I wasn’t the one to save a life. I didn’t do enough. I failed him. I failed my family.

I logically know that isn’t the intention of an organization focused on preventing suicide. But in the year since we lost my father-in-law, I’ve learned that support is extremely lacking for families facing a loss to suicide. By lacking, I mean that there’s next to nothing available to and for us. I emailed a local suicide grief group twice; I never received a response as they’re apparently defunct. If you live in rural America, you’re expected to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, say an extra prayer, and get on with it.

This expectation is exhausting.

As we begin Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I urge you to think about the families living in the wake of a death by suicide. Many families start this month with feelings of guilt accompanied by the never-ending grief. Come along these families and ask how they might need some support this month, whether it’s just acknowledging their loss or to help pick up some of the slack in areas they’re still struggling to maintain.

If you’re a family member processing a loss to suicide, please know that their death is not your fault. You are enough. You are worthy.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please know that you are not alone. Help is available by calling 1–800–273–8255.

Award-winning writer. Editor. Gen X mom, confused about Gen Z language. Writing about mental health, parenting, and caregiving/ALZ with a side of poetry.

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