USA Updates Suicide loss survivor’s book highlights the question we all ask: why?
- The close family and friends left behind after a suicide number six to 32 for each death.
- Suicide loss survivors feel shock, shame and anger and are at increased risk for suicide themselves.
- The bereaved can heal, suicide prevention experts say, but their pain is often underestimated.
After a suicide, there are two questions almost every loved one asks: “why did this person kill themselves?” and “what part did I play?” Those answers are almost always elusive.
Suicide loss survivors – the close family and friends left behind after a suicide – number six to 32 for each death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year, more than a million people unwillingly become part of this group, forced to cope with immeasurable loss while fumbling for clarity. Suicide is complex, and experts underscore there is no single cause, but this is little comfort to the grieved.
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In her new memoir, “Stepping Back from the Ledge: A Daughter’s Search for Truth and Renewal,” USA TODAY journalist Laura Trujillo bares herself in an effort to better understand her mother’s suicide. Her memoir exposes stubborn tensions – between Trujillo’s heart and her head, between the desire to know and the recognition she never fully will, between deep-rooted guilt and the clear-headed proclamations (from her therapist, her husband, her friends) that she is not to blame.
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“I wanted to know everything,” Trujillo wrote. “Like a lot of people who lose someone they love to suicide, I had been shocked. Numb. Now I wanted to understand how this could have happened and what I could have done differently, what we all might have done differently to help her. “
‘I couldn’t think, couldn’t process order or time’
A misconception about suicide is that suicidal thoughts are uncommon and suicidal attempts signal that a person cannot be helped. This simply is not true.
It’s what makes Trujillo’s inquiry so devastating. Her memoir articulates the difficulty in accepting she is not to blame for her mother’s death, while simultaneously exploring the many things that could have prevented it. Trujillo is not invested in concrete conclusions, but the reader can see what she sees: that her mother was in pain, that she was reluctant to seek help, that her family was more comfortable within silos than communicating openly about the ways in which someone they loved was struggling.
Suicide prevention experts:What you say (and don’t say) could save a person’s life
Trujillo examines suicide, but also the grief it generates. She writes of the immediate anguish, “I couldn’t think, couldn’t process order or time,” and the lingering kind, when she was functional but utterly lost: “Back then, if you took the GPS away from me, I couldn’t tell you where I was, much less feel my way home.”
The bereaved can heal, suicide prevention experts say, but their pain is often underestimated. The stigma around suicide creates an additional burden. Loss survivors commonly experience a range of emotions as they grieve, including shock, fear, shame and anger. As they work to cope with these feelings, many are also dealing with the pressure to keep their loved one’s suicide a secret or with the mistaken belief that they did something to cause their loved one’s death.
‘We’re not supposed to blame ourselves … but many of us do anyway’
One of the most difficult parts of coping with suicide loss is the blame and guilt survivors place upon themselves. They wonder what they missed or what they might have done differently to prevent it.
Days before her mother killed herself, Trujillo sent her a letter that was deliberate and direct, expanding on a disclosure she had only recently made: her mother’s husband, Trujillo’s stepfather, had raped her for years, beginning when she was 15 years old.
“I never screamed, I never kicked him, never tried to hit him or bite him; I pushed back, but quietly,” Trujillo wrote in her memoir.
Trujillo kept the abuse a secret to protect her mother. Decades later, she finally disclosed, but Trujillo said she felt discomfort with her mother’s muted reaction. With her therapist’s encouragement, she wrote her mother a letter to better articulate what she felt and offer forgiveness. She sent the letter on a Tuesday, with hopes it would help heal their relationship. On Thursday, her mother killed herself.
To write that makes it seem obvious: cause and effect. But as Trujillo’s book reveals, this is only a fragment of the story. Her mother struggled with depression, had talked about death and behaved in troubling ways before (the time she started a fire in their bathroom; when she bought a gun and told her friend she might use it on herself).
Trujillo spent her life burying her trauma to care for her mother’s feelings, and then she decided it was time to prioritize her own. Her mother’s suicide felt like a repudiation of that choice. Where does one assign blame? To a letter? To a rapist? To a vulnerable woman?
Trujillo knows the truth: that no one dies over one thing, that no single person or event is to blame. But this is a book about what we are told to believe, and the things we cannot help but feel.
“We’re not supposed to blame ourselves when someone we love kills ourselves, but many of us do anyway,” she writes.
Suicide loss survivors at increased risk of suicide themselves
In Trujillo’s effort to better understand her mother, she turned to those who knew her longer or knew her differently: Her father, her grandmother, her aunt, her mother’s friend. Most efforts were thwarted by family members who were grieving themselves, who didn’t see value in asking questions. But Trujillo wondered how many more tragedies could be prevented if people weren’t so afraid to answer.
“Everyone has their own part of a story, and many don’t want to share,” she wrote. “There’s no one who has the answer and sometimes the bits they have, they lock inside.”
After a loved one’s suicide, those left behind face an increased risk of suicide themselves. According to a 2015 report from the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, losing any first-degree relative to suicide increases the mourner’s chance of suicide by about threefold.
Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?:Make a safety plan
Trujillo said she thought many times about killing herself, prayed to die, and one time went so far as to make a plan. But in the midst of executing it, she found a note from one of her children, scribbled on an index card: “I know U love me and I love U. Theo.”
She drove home.
‘What will my children remember?’
“Stepping Back from the Ledge” isn’t only the story Trujillo felt she had to tell, it’s the one she hopes her children never have to.
As she leans back into her mother’s life, she finds herself also looking toward the lives that were only burgeoning when her mother left.
“What will my children remember? The day I grabbed my purse and left for the airport, not intending to come back? The nights when I locked myself in the bathroom, crying until my eyes would barely open, snapping at the children for nothing? Or will they remember the mundane family dinners on a weeknight with everyone at the table sharing the funniest things that happened that day, the Saturday mornings on the sidelines, watching as they ran up a field or threw a pitch, the trips to the beach when we jumped waves together and dared each other to go deeper?”
Toward the end of her memoir, one gets the sense this is less a book about dying and more a book about staying alive. Trujillo reveals to the reader the truths as she learns them: that every life is joy and grief, that tragedy doesn’t subsume everything, that there are reasons to stay, that many of us, at one time or another, need help to remain .
For every person who dies by suicide, 280 people think seriously about it but don’t act, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There’s no one answer to what makes someone move from thinking about suicide to planning or attempting it, but experts say feeling connected to other people can help.
Many people who have survived a suicide attempt or experience suicidal thoughts go on to live full, joyous and healthy lives. Others continue to struggle chronically but are surviving. All have found ways to cope with the underlying pain, ways to get through the hard days we all have and ways to recognize when they need to ask for help. Here we share self-care suggestions from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), as well as survivors’ coping techniques in their own words.
Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.
Crisis Text Line Provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
Meet the author
Join USA TODAY Managing Editor for Life and Entertainment Laura Trujillo for a reading of “Stepping Back From the Ledge,” a Q&A and a chance to share some of your own story.
The event will take place online and at Changing Hands Bookstore at 300 West Camelback Road in Phoenix on Wednesday, April 20 at 7 pm PDT/10 pm EDT. Virtual and in-person tickets are available at https://www.changinghands.com/event/april2022/laura-trujillo