In May, 2010, I lost my 34-year-old sister to suicide, instantaneously and involuntarily becoming part of a group that until then, I hadn't known existed. Inclusion in the group is undesired, yet the number of people who join each year is in the hundreds of thousands. On that awful day a year and half ago, I became a suicide survivor. No clear definition exists for who might be considered a suicide survivor. In a 2011 study by Alan L. Berman, Ph.D., survivors of suicide were defined as "those believed to be intimately and directly affected by a suicide."
Each day in the United States, approximately 94 people take their own lives, leaving behind family, friends and loved ones to struggle with loss, grief, confusion and many questions. Conservative estimates state that six to 10 people are intimately affected by each suicide. The devastation felt by those left behind after a suicide is huge and, for most, life-altering. According to the American Psychiatric Association, "the level of stress resulting from the suicide of a loved one is ranked as catastrophic-equivalent to that of a concentration camp experience."
For months after my sister died, I felt alone and confused. Many people seemed to be uncomfortable with my grieving. Perhaps they were confused over how to respond to my grief, or didn't know what to say about the nature of my sister's death. Instead of sympathy, some responded with silence. From my perspective, I struggled with how to describe the trauma I felt. In her book "Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide," psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison says, "Suicide carries in its aftermath a level of confusion and devastation that is, for the most part, beyond description."
Survivors already struggling with complex reactions including, guilt, anger, or abandonment face the added challenge of dealing with the unfortunate stigma that still surrounds suicide. For many, this leaves them feeling that their loved one's death is somehow shameful.
According to the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Utah ranks 17th in the nation for the number of suicides annually. Research shows that more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have an underlying, although not always diagnosed, psychiatric illness at the time of their death, most often depression.
As a suicide survivor, I've chosen not to suffer alone, in silence, feeling ashamed about something I had no control over. Instead, I will speak out, advocating for comprehensive, statewide suicide prevention education and initiatives. Additionally, I will reach out to let other survivors know they're not alone. Although every one of our stories is unique, we all share a common bond. Each one of us has lost someone we cared about deeply, and our lives have been forever altered because of it.
The holiday season can be particularly difficult for survivors. To help, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's International Survivors of Suicide Day will be held on Nov. 19 in more than 250 cities around the world, including Salt Lake City. The program is also available online. If you're a survivor, I hope you'll join me in taking part in this day of healing and sharing. For more information, visit www.afsp.org.
Christiansen is a volunteer field advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.