The death of fashion designer L’Wren Scott from an apparent suicide on March 17 in New York City had her friends, along with the public, asking why such a talented and successful woman would make the choice she did.
The 49-year-old Scott, who designed clothes worn by First Lady Michelle Obama and a number of actresses, including Ellen Barkin, Nicole Kidman and Sarah Jessica Parker, had been the long-time girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.
Jagger, on tour with the Rolling Stones in Australia, immediately postponed concert dates to rush home. Fellow band member Keith Richards said what many others have voiced when a loved one commits suicide: “No one saw this coming.”
"I lost my fiancé to suicide in 1995,” says Doreen Marshall, senior director of education and prevention at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Although she knew he was struggling with depression, Marshall still felt “shocked” when suicide was the outcome.
“Suicide survivors” — those left behind when a loved one dies by suicide — often have a sense of being blind-sided, says Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Their grief may take a different path than when loved ones die from other causes: There’s the almost overwhelming question of why it happened. There may be guilt that the survivor couldn’t prevent it. And there may be anger or even relief.
Suicide is far from rare; it’s the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. — with 38,000 victims a year. The highest rate of suicide occurs in people age 45 to 64 and men are nearly four times more likely than women to die from suicide.
The Question of Why
That question of why — of trying to make sense out of what happened — can become intense to the point of obsession, says Moutier.
Yet finding the answer may be impossible. “There are always multiple factors that converge,” says Moutier. A job loss, financial trouble or bullying may serve as a trigger, complicated by feelings of hopelessness, lack of coping strategies and even sleep disruption.
Research has shown that at least 90 percent of those who kill themselves are suffering from some sort of mental illness, most commonly depression, addiction, personality disorder or schizophrenia. But their illness may never have been diagnosed or adequately treated.
“What did I say at our last conversation?” survivors ask themselves. “How did I miss the signs?”
Survivors often feel a sense of guilt, of responsibility, and wonder if they could have prevented the suicide, says Moutier. Sometimes, they feel guilty becuase they are relieved their loved one's suffering has ended. Moutier emphasizes such feelings are “completely normal.”
Anger is natural in the grieving process, "but survivors of suicide are far more susceptible to it — and not without justification,” writes Jeffrey Jackson in SOS: A Handbook Suicide Survivors of Suicide. Jackson lost his wife to suicide when she was 33.
Yet people who have lived through suicide attempts say they believed their friends and family members would be “better off” without them or that their own pain and suffering kept them from being able to imagine how others would feel as a result of their actions.
“There’s a real disconnect,” Moutier explains. “It’s completely distorted thinking.”
As Jackson writes: “The primary goal of a suicide is not to end life, but to end pain.”
Healing Through Sharing Stories
“People can get stuck in grief,” Moutier says. The more stoic may try to suppress their feelings and carry them for life.
It’s important to process your feelings, whether you visit a therapist, talk it out with trusted friends or share your story in a support group with other suicide survivors.
Unfortunately, suicide still carries a shame and stigma that leaves many survivors hesitant to talk about it. But there’s healing in sharing those stories.
International Survivors of Suicide Day, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, offers people around the world the opportunity to gather and find comfort.
“You get through it,” says Marshall about surviving suicide. “But you don’t get over it.”
For resources on suicide, visit the websites of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American Association of Suicidology and The Compassionate Friends (which has an article, Surviving Your Child's Suicide).