A Survivor of Suicide Loss

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Yellow suicide awareness ribbon on wooden, blue background

In honor of all those who have lost a loved one to suicide, Heather Nahas, director of marketing & communications, is sharing her story in hopes of helping others heal and prevent.

I am a survivor of suicide loss.

That’s the term used for people who have lost a loved one to suicide, and one I never imagined would describe me.

On August 28, 2017, my dad – a Vietnam veteran, recipient of the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal for valor, a business owner, community leader, husband of 50 years and beloved father and grandfather – ended his life and shattered everything I thought I knew about suicide.

In the hours immediately following dad’s death, my mind raced with how to explain his sudden passing without sharing how he died. I feared that admitting he had taken his own life would somehow diminish the man he was and isolate us from everyone and everything we had ever known. Suicide didn’t happen to families like mine, or to people like my dad. Or so I thought.

During that sleepless night, I came to realize that attempting to explain dad’s death as anything other than what it was would be turning my back on him. It would be an admission of shame. I was not ashamed of him. I was shocked, devastated and heartbroken, but I was not ashamed.

Still, sharing the news was incredibly difficult. I stumbled over the words every time. Suicide is not a word commonly used. Even today, I brace myself before uttering it. It hurts to say it. And no one expects to hear it. I can visibly see its impact on the faces of people I tell. There is nothing easy about talking about suicide. Which is why it seems easiest not to talk about it at all.

Thankfully, we were connected to another survivor in the weeks that followed the funeral. She graciously shared with us the loss of her husband five years earlier. For the first time, we didn’t feel alone in our grief and confusion. We shared our story with her, and she understood. There was such a sense of comfort in that. And through her story, she gave us a glimpse into the possibility that, in time, we would heal.

She suggested we attend a support group through a local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We went the following month, and for months afterward. It was a safe place where could share our grief, anger and struggles of survivorship – without judgement – and take comfort that we were among others who walked the same path.

That group became our lifeline. Witnessing their courage gave us the hope and strength we needed to keep moving forward. Through their stories, we began to know the people they had lost – not only the circumstances of their deaths. And they began to know my dad – who he was, what he did in his life, and how much he was loved.

My greatest fear had been that dad’s death would overshadow his life and ours. But, by meeting other survivors and hearing their stories, I gained a different perspective.

I know now that I knew nothing of suicide before. When I think back to that night just a year ago, I realize that my initial reaction is why the stigma of suicide still exists today. Suicide is impossible to understand. It can’t be explained. There are no answers. It seems easier to dismiss it than deal with it.

Suicide is a harsh reality that we cannot hide from – nor should we. But the stigma is real, and it is painful. It can threaten to silence the people and experiences that have the power to change it.

I learned quickly why telling the story of suicide is so important. Once I opened up about my dad’s death, a number of people – some casual acquaintances and others co-workers and friends – shared with me their own stories of survivorship. I never would have known the number of people in my life who lost someone to suicide. So many people are impacted, yet too few stories are known.

I have spent my first year as a survivor quietly assessing my new reality and summoning the strength to step into it. And I’ve learned some important lessons along the way. But none more important than this – there is no shame in suicide. There is despair, confusion, anger, loneliness and profound sadness. But there is no shame.

Suicide happens to families like mine every day. It does not discriminate. Suicide claims the lives of celebrities, addicts, the elderly, suburban parents and teens alike. And, for veterans like my dad and other active duty service members, it occurs at alarming rates.

Never would I have guessed that suicide would become a chapter of my life’s story. No one does. But it needs to be told. Now, I am finding my voice. As a survivor of suicide loss, I believe I have a responsibility to give suicide a face and a name through my story. No matter how hard it is to tell.

It is my hope that by sharing my story, and by other survivors sharing theirs, we will change the narrative of suicide. Once we recognize the reality of suicide instead of running from it, prevention becomes possible.