Surviving Suicide Loss and Weathering Stigma | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Surviving Suicide Loss and Weathering Stigma

By Jamie Saltoon

I lost my son to suicide last year. I reflect on this every day — every moment, it seems. I recall the neighbors lining our street as my son experienced a mental health crisis, and the police responded as if he had committed a crime. Onlookers stood outside our house, watching and speculating. Oh, he has a gun. They're being held hostage. There's a crazy person in there. I’ll never forget their words or the looks of disgust on their faces.

As we grappled with the pain and trauma of losing our son, our neighbors avoided the house; not one dropped by to check in or see if we were ok. I couldn’t help but wonder: if this had been a heart attack or some other tragic illness, wouldn’t they be here? The empathy would be flowing; people would visit and ask if there was anything they could do. They would ask us how we were feeling or what we needed.

Sadly, mental illness still carries undue stigma — and is unfairly associated with violence, contagion and avoidance. I lost my son, my child, in the most tragic of circumstances. In the aftermath of that tragedy, I needed support to help me to express my pain, not judgment and shame to compound the trauma.

To those of you who know someone who is experiencing the tragedy of suicide loss, please don’t isolate loved ones as they mourn. Survivors need ongoing support and understanding. This is not something to be dealt with alone. Even when you don’t know exactly what to say, be there.

I wish my community had asked me about my son — asked me to share memories of who he was. I wanted to tell them how he loved his friends and family. I wanted to tell them about his big heart that encompassed everyone he met. I wanted to tell them about his smile and his sense of humor. And I wish they had asked me how I was. I needed them to take time to listen. This kind of loss is not something I will simply “get over.”  The pain is relentless, as is the loneliness and the daily reminder that my beautiful boy is not here.

This does not need to be everyone else’s experience. By talking openly about mental illness and recognizing it as a health issue — not a moral failing or threat — we can better support survivors and change the outcomes for so many families.

NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).