The term suicide survivor has been a confusing term for many people. We need to continue to work to clarify this term as well as become aware of how we can assist these survivors. To clarify, there a couple different terms being used when discussing survivors and suicide. The first would be an “attempt survivor,” which is what it sounds like, someone who has attempted suicide but survived. The other is “suicide loss survivor,” someone who is grieving a suicide loss. The idea of who is considered a suicide loss survivor is expanding. Those who were considered close friends/family used to be the ones that were referred to as suicide loss survivors, but now there is a broader definition.
“A suicide survivor is someone who experiences a high level or self-perceived psychological, physical, and/or social distress for a considerable length of time as a result of the suicide of another person.” – Jordan and McIntosh, 2011
The best predictor of who will be considered a suicide loss survivor and therefore be highly impacted, is the psychological proximity to the person who died, which is the perceived closeness someone feels to another person/object. Essentially, how close someone feels they are/were to another person, will determine the impact. Therefore, we are not only looking at close friends or family, but teachers, co-workers, etc., as potential survivors.
Identifying suicide loss survivors is important for many reasons. Just like someone who experiences a loss of a different kind, these individuals need to be supported, but people often struggle a bit more when it comes to talking about a loss to suicide. This can be due to stigma, or their own discomfort, and/or lack of confidence in knowing what to say. One thing we also know from research, is that suicide loss survivors can present with a higher risk for suicide themselves. They are also at an increased risk for other mental health complications. Therefore, we want to make sure that survivors are supported and getting any help they may need.
There are a variety of themes we see in suicide loss survivor grief, some which may be found when grieving other types of losses, but some may not. Some of the common themes seen with suicide loss are: responsibility/guilt/blame, trauma and helplessness, anger/rejection/abandonment, relief/end of suffering, shame/stigma, and social isolation/social disruption.
It is important to recognize how complicated grieving the loss of someone to suicide can be. At the very minimum, we want to reach out those who are grieving, let them know we are there for them, and support them in whatever way we can. There are support groups and a variety of resources for those who have lost someone to suicide.
*For additional resources for you, or someone you know who has lost someone to suicide, please visit the link below for some great material from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention*