Stigma and isolation

Death by suicide, even more than other types of bereavement, makes many people uncomfortable and unsure how to react.   There is still a stigma attached to suicide, rooted in centuries of history and this generates misplaced associations of weakness, blame, shame or even sin or crime.  This stigma can prevent people from seeking help when they need it and others from offering support when they want to.  It can colour our perceptions, our thoughts and our actions – and we may not always be aware of it.

 

How isolation can happen

Many people who have been bereaved by suicide find that they feel isolated.  Others may avoid them, perhaps not knowing what to say or because they don’t want to upset the person.  Or people talk to them about their own experiences of bereavement – this is well intentioned, meant as a way of connecting but it can be hard to bear at a time when the bereaved person actually needs to be listened to.  The sense of isolation may be especially acute if the bereaved person perceives other people to be uncaring or judgemental.  Some people are unlucky enough to receive particularly thoughtless and malicious comments.

It may also be that the bereaved person avoids contact themselves – they may struggle to share their own feelings because they are fearful themselves of what they are experiencing, they don’t want to upset other people or they may worry about how to answer questions such as “how did he die?”
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Isolation within families and communities

Whilst family and friends are often a great source of support, they can also be a source of tension and conflict.  Sometimes families struggle to communicate, protective instincts kick in and they may be worried about causing more pain or about having a different view or feeling to others.  Some families are not comfortable with certain types of expression or emotion, so it may be hard for family members to share how they are feeling.  It is important to remember that we each have our own way of dealing with the pain – someone elses reaction may seem strange, even uncaring to you but comparing or judging them is only likely to lead to more pain for you and for them.

Sometimes one person will assume the role of “being strong for everyone else” – or others will expect this of them.   It can be a great strain to care for others who are grieving whilst not feeling able to grieve yourself.

Existing tensions and difficulties in family relationships can be surfaced as a result of the shock and trauma.  Some people cope with their pain by blaming another person for the death – this may go as far as excluding them from the rest of the family, denying them the opportunity to attend the funeral and withholding information about the investigation.  This can lead to huge rifts and a deep sense of hurt and isolation being added to the loss.  Blame often comes from the pain of someone who is already blaming themselves in someway.
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Other prejudices – sexuality, death in custody

There may be other factors, which mean that there is further stigma or prejudice experience.

Additional prejudice may be felt if the person who died or if the survivor is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.  If their partners’ family was not accepting of their relationship, partners may find that they are blamed or excluded.   There can also be concerns that others will judge that the sexuality of the person who died or that of those around them was a contributory factor to their death.

We provide a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning email support service for people bereaved by suicide.  You may also find that organisations offering support services to people in the LGBTQ community helpful -you could try London FriendLondon Lesbian & Gay Switchboard or Stonewall.  There may also be local community organisations in your area.

If the death took place whilst the individual was in custody, it can attract a double stigma which makes it very hard to talk about.  You may have to work hard to make people understand your feelings of helplessness and grief.  You may feel angry about what happened to them when you were not able to protect them.  The charity Inquest can provide support.

Cultural customs and beliefs about death, and suicide in particular, are varied.   It is important that you feel that you are understood by those from whom you are seeking support, otherwise the sense of isolation may be compounded.
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The wider world

A common concern is how to tell people about how the person died.  Many people worry that others might judge them when they hear that the person took their own life – if they are already experiencing doubts themselves, it is natural to imagine others will think the same.  It is important to remember that most people care for you and when they hear your news, what goes through their mind is how much they feel for you.  It can be helpful to try and think in advance how you want to explain it – some people say that the person took their own life, others find it easier to say that they died by suicide.  You might ask other family and friends to help with communications, there can be a lot of people to inform and preparing yourself and having each conversation can be a huge strain.

When someone dies by suicide, it can be difficult to maintain privacy.  There may be emergency services at the scene and visits from police.  There may be media attention – this can happen when the person dies and may be repeated after the investigation by the coroner or procurator fiscal.  The inquest is held in a public court of law and anyone can attend – in certain circumstances reports will be made which remain on publicly accessible databases.
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Seeking support

There are many reasons why people who have been bereaved by suicide may feel isolated.  It is important to know that you are not alone and that there are many places you can go to for support – and you may find it helpful to have people you can talk to within and outside your family.  We provide a range of services which are delivered by our volunteers, the majority of whom have been bereaved by suicide themselves.

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