Who Are “Survivors of Suicide”? Do We Need a New Definition?

I received a very compelling and thought provoking comment on my post, They Don’t Want to Die. They Just Want Attention. You can read the entire comment, as well as my reply there. But to sum up, Wren challenged my use of the phrase “suicide survivor” as applying to those left behind after the suicide of a loved one. Here is an excerpt of that comment:

“I know what people mean when they say “suicide survivor” – that a loved one has taken their own life. I’m unaware of any other disease or condition that people die from where others call themselves “survivors of.” Relatives of people who have died of cancer don’t call themselves “cancer survivors.” Instead, they have lost a loved one TO cancer…

…Suicide survivors are those who have this terrible illness, have attempted suicide and lived. Those are the only ones who are “survivors.”

Is it a small distinction, merely an issue of semantics that doesn’t really matter because “everyone knows what we’re talking about, anyway”? No. It actually co-ops a phrase that is critically meaningful in the struggle to change the conversation around suicide. Unintentionally, it hurts the very people that your work aims to help. It dis-empowers us, devalues our struggle, and makes us invisible – nameless.

Suicide survivors are NOT those whose loved ones have died by suicide. Suicide survivors are those who have attempted suicide yet lived.”

This comment spoke to my heart on many different levels. I myself have thought that people who have unsuccessfully attempted suicide are also survivors, and I understand what Wren is feeling and trying to convey. I certainly don’t have any intention of devaluing the struggle of anyone who is living with depression or other form of mental illness. I have struggled with it myself, as well as my daughter. I also know what it’s like to have to live with the stigma of mental illness.

I believe that what’s at the heart of Wren’s comment, is the need for those fighting this battle to be acknowledged as survivors of a potentially fatal disease, just like cancer. And she would be justified in that desire. As surely as cancer is potentially fatal, so too, is depression.

And it IS a fight, it’s an ongoing battle. A battle I myself have fought for years and years. A battle my teenage daughter is fighting right now. It’s a battle my fiance, Dan, fought and lost. But, the thing that all of us have been fighting and surviving is clinical depression, not suicide. And it’s a battle that society tells us we should be ashamed of. We are supposed to hide those battle scars, not wear them proudly on t-shirts the way cancer survivors do. And that’s NOT fair.

But, as Wren pointed out, this truly does become an issue of semantics and when we get to the “semantical” heart of the words, what do we truly mean? Suicide, by Webster’s definition, is: the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally, especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind.

A traditional “survivor of suicide” is actually dealing with it. Someone they loved dearly HAS killed him/herself. And now, THEY have to survive. The reasoning behind the phrase  is because statistically, people who have lost a loved one to suicide are at a much higher risk of dying by suicide. The death of a loved one, for any reason, is a risk factor, but if the death was due to suicide, the risk is substantially higher. The rate of suicide among “suicide survivors” is alarmingly high. I myself was about a hair breath away from becoming one of those statistics.

There are so many additional obstacles in the grieving process which involve guilt, when a loved one dies by suicide. The guilt those left behind feel is so great that it pushes many over the proverbial edge. You get the guilt trip not only from yourself, but often from those around you. Many times, others will either directly or indirectly blame those closest to the victim for the death. Three different people said these exact words to me after Dan’s suicide – “What did you do to him?”

I’ve met so many people who have lost multiple children, or father/son, mother/daughter, husband/wife losses. Among children and teens there is often a wave of suicides following the first one. And of all those “survivors” who DON’T commit suicide, a very high percent of them struggle with thoughts of suicide, or survive attempts of suicide…. There just simply isn’t this heart breaking phenomenon after people die of cancer, or even after tragic deaths like murder.

I call myself a survivor of suicide because that was the only thing I had to make it through – the grief of losing my fiance to suicide. And I almost didn’t make it. At the time of his death, I was not suffering from clinical depression, it would have been completely unfathomable that I would put a loaded gun to my head and almost pull the trigger. The only thing that pushed me to that moment was his suicide. I felt it was my fault. I felt I could have saved him. I felt like he had wanted me to save him, but through my own stupidity I didn’t see it. I felt I deserved to die.

A person who is suffering from depression and attempts suicide, does not, in fact, survive suicide. It’s actually impossible to survive suicide in that way. Just as a person cannot survive murder. You are either murdered, or you survive a murder attempt. And, in truth, “suicide” is not what they are battling. Most are actually battling with clinical depression. Suicide does not drive these people to suicide, depression does. And so, a more apt term would be “depression survivor”.

But, lets be honest with each other. Who would want to be called that? Who would wear that proudly on a t-shirt? Because, as even I have been told…sigh…so many times… “everyone gets depressed sometimes…”

Can you imagine being told, “everyone gets cancer sometimes, what’s the big deal?”

I looked… there are no t-shirts I can find with that slogan on it, or key chains, bumper stickers. I couldn’t find a pretty, colored ribbon for it… I DID however, find a great website devoted to depression support! You should be able to click on the image below:

There’s a big difference between “clinical depression” and that sad feeling we all get from time to time, that we call “depressed”. But society has enmeshed the two terms so that there is no real distinction between them now. I see the same thing happening with terms like “obsessive compulsive” and “ADHD”  We water down all the terms associated with mental illness and then wonder why there is a stigma attached, or why people who are severely ill cannot get the help they need.

Almost every other kid “has ADHD”. So often when people get nervous they “have a panic attack”. When someone bugs you, you might say “they are so OCD…” And the biggie, “Everyone gets depressed sometimes…”

I don’t know what the solution is, but surely the first step is open, honest discussions like this about the legitimacy of mental illness and clinical depression – a real, physical condition resulting from a chemical imbalance in the brain. An illness just a real, and just as potentially deadly as cancer. Clinical depression is an illness which is sometimes fatal, even with the best treatment.

The American Association of Suicidology refers to people like Wren as “suicide attempt survivors” or simply “attempt survivors”. Here is a link directly to their wonderful website and resources specifically for Attempt Survivors. I would also like to point out that every year there are almost 40k completed suicides in America. For every completed suicide, there are 11 people who attempt. And for all those who attempt, I wonder how many more there are who dream of it, wish for it, want it? A person can be just as suicidally depressed and NOT attempt suicide. They also, are in just as much pain. They TOO are survivors.

With no shame at all, I publicly will call myself a “suicide survivor”, but also a “depression survivor”, a “suicide attempt survivor”, and a “grief survivor”. Those were the hardest battles of my life. I DID fight for my life…and I survived.

If you, or someone you know is in crises, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7. Check out my Resources/Support page for International crises lines, and grief support, including support for suicide survivors.

Help is available 24/7 at the

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What do you think? Should we change the definition of “survivor of suicide”? How much do you think the words we use in every day language affect the continuing stigma of mental illness? What can we do to end the stigma? Please feel free to comment, or make suggestions for future post! Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Wren, for your comments and suggestions on this vital topic.

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12 thoughts on “Who Are “Survivors of Suicide”? Do We Need a New Definition?

  1. I must admit that I too was confused by the term “suicide survivor”(as you may remember when we first talked on Goodreads prior to you interviewing me). I understand and see all of the points that you’ve made concerning the term, but I also consider myself a suicide survivor as I’ve survived my own suicide attempt. It appears to be a term that can be taken a few different ways.
    Great post!

    • Nick, yes I remember! And your confusion really got me started thinking about how we use that term. I hope I have considerately and lovingly presented the subject to my readers. Truly, anyone who has been closely touched by suicide and lived should be considered “survivors”! thank you so much for your comment! 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for posting the “Attempt Survivors” link. Passing it on to someone I know who really needs it….great blog, BTW.

  3. I have lost my only child to suicide and personally I was given a shirt that says I am a suicide survivor and I won’t wear it.. To me that is putting my identity in what happened to her. I just want to be my own person and try to move forward in life.

  4. I personally lost my only child to suicide. My feelings are that being labeled a suicide survivor is meaning I personally tried it.. Since losing her I have been trying to find my own identity.

  5. I wanted to say that i completely agree with everything you said in this post. I personally struggle with clinical depression, and think you have a wonderful opinion. Suicide survivors are not the ones around those we have lost, its those who have tried to lose themselves and made it out of there alive. The cancer analogy was superb, please continue shedding light on things and topics like this for people who need it. Thanks for brightening my day with your non-ignorance. JustSomeTeen

    • Thank you so much. I’m sorry, it’s been so long since I was able to keep up with my blog! You can connect with me on my Facebook page, I’m much more active over there.

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