There is a term for the roughly 3,500 people who have committed suicide every day in the U.S. A quick online search turns up scholarly research that even goes as far as to call suicide America’s “most widespread and stigmatized epidemic.”
But there has been little recognition of the emotional trauma a suicide brings to those who witness and try to help. That started changing in the late 1990s, when people who had lived through a suicide came forward with new stories of the indignities and distress they had to endure.
“It was a new mission, to try to make the lives of these survivors better and to help others understand what it means to lose a loved one,” said Darcy Stone, a PhD candidate in communications studies at the University of Miami and the author of A Call To Action: Living Through the Stigma of Suicide in America. “In the past, people thought of suicides as different than other things like car accidents or murder suicide. But by the late ’90s people who’d gone through one got much more angry and frustrated about the stigma, because it was such a violation of their family and loved ones’ right to grieve.”
There are many articles about the kinds of things people do for a suicide survivor. Some make their homes look like havens of safety in case a loved one jumps off a bridge. Some give pushups in their pool to strengthen the leg muscles of survivors in case they feel sudden outbursts of pain at just the wrong time.
It’s one thing to offer a challenge to accomplish a specific goal, but it’s another to try to help an entire community of people to feel supported and their pain at an appropriate level.
One person who made that transition was Jennie Lemus. She, her sister and brother-in-law were in a car on the side of a mountain when Lorrie Lemus, the youngest of the three, hit a rock. The next day, the three siblings gathered at the home of some of the others who had witnessed the crash. None of them expected what happened next: Lorrie allegedly hung herself and killed herself with a rope she’d used to tie the family’s three children to their furniture.
“We were together for the first time in weeks, if not longer,” Jennie said in an interview. “The kids had turned on the TV, and we watched the stories from the three families and heard their stories of watching people live in a state of shock, having to take care of their kids and supervise and care for other family members. It was one thing to be in a car accident. There are many things that could happen to anybody. But to have a suicide? It’s hard for a community to see and even harder when you’re living there.”