Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal

According to World Health Organization (WHO), every 40 seconds, a person dies by suicide. Globally, the number of men dying by suicide is much higher than women, which means that most women are left behind to bear the suicide loss. The gendered nature of the impact of suicide experiences is still a new territory to explore. Society, including the mental health fraternity, is not entirely aware of the effects that suicide can have on the people left behind.

To deliberate further upon this issue, Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, and WestLand Books organized a Special Lecture on Gendered Dimensions and Impacts of Suicide Bereavement: Exploring Lived Experiences by Dr Nandini Murali, who had experienced the similar trauma when she lost her husband, Dr T.R. Murali, to suicide in 2017.Dr Nandini Murali is a suicide prevention and mental health activist and author.

“The day I lost my precious partner, the sun plunged into darkness, space dissolved, time stood still, and my life changed forever. The axis of my life heaved cracked. This marked my entry to the exclusive club of survivors of suicide loss which was not a choice but a chance” – Dr Murali

Panelists_Nandini Murali_Gendered Dimensions and Impacts of Suicide Bereavement_ Exploring Lived Experiences

People can’t shut their eyes to suicide any longer. According to WHO, close to a million people die every year from suicide. Millions of people and families are left behind. Suicide is a death like no other. There is a wall of shame, secrecy, and silence surrounding this issue, and thus, it is reticent. Suicide is often a sudden, violent, unanticipated, and entirely shocking death. This self-inflicted death violates every fundamental norm of self-preservation.

Dr Murali thought, “I really wondered then, and perhaps even now, had Murali died due to socially acceptable reasons, would I have come under the moral scanner, as I did? I discovered that there is considerable blaming and shaming of survivors of suicide loss to my dismay and horror. Families/survivors of suicide loss find themselves at an almost 400 times higher risk of committing suicide.”

Suicide grief is traumatic. Someone once described it very evocatively as “grief with its volume turned on.” Across the world, it is highly stigmatized, and such negative stereotypes of suicide impact the trajectory of suicide grief.

She says that every survivor of suicide loss goes through a complete disruption of social relations involving the institution of family, the circle of friends, colleagues, or the larger society. They are uncertain of family and friends’ behavioral responses to the suicide because there is always an implicit sense of blame. Even if the stigma or shame is non-verbal, facial expressions and body language give away the hidden feelings of judgment. While mourning the loss of a loved one, people tend to feel angry since they feel abandoned and not good enough. Feelings of betrayal are common during times of mourning.

Prof Murali recalled, “Very soon, swarms of police were at home. And my home which is sacred to me, to us, resembled a crime scene. I was subject to insensitive probing, intrusive questions, and all of this was conducted in the public gaze.”

The scariest part to survivors of suicide loss is the conviction of murder unless proved otherwise. The horrendous procedural formalities carried out by the police tend to intimidate the survivors as no one is aware of the intricacies of law when it comes to this issue. It is also a challenge to share or talk about the trauma with others who have not experienced similar grief.

Ironically, it’s the ambiguity and ambivalence that makes suicide bereavement isolating and bewildering. It causes problems in information management systems in families. Most families agonize about the suicide information to be disclosed in society. This contentious issue splits families.

Issues relating to suicide bereavements:

Taboo and Stigma:

Still being considered taboo, survivors of suicide loss struggle to communicate openly about their loss and pain. They find it difficult to acknowledge the mode of death and find it challenging to ask for social support. Even mental health professionals are sometimes at a loss when it comes to dealing with this issue.  

Survivors yearn to normalize their grieving and validate their loss unconditionally. The curiosity among outsiders to know the reason for suicide tends to prod and probe the survivors constantly to justify, which becomes very retraumatizing

Gendered Dimension:

Gender roles, gender identity, normative ideas of masculinity have a great influence on suicide bereavement. There is considerable victim-blaming and shaming, especially of wives who lose husbands to suicide. Due to the modern family’s hetero-patriarchal structure, a woman (wife or daughter) is perceived as the custodian of culture and tradition and, upholder of the family honor. The suicide of a husband or a father causes people to question this role.

In cases of suicide by children, the mother is often blamed for not being a responsible parent. Another interesting observation is that a mother who dies of suicide is perceived as being irresponsible, whereas a father’s suicide is attributed to other reasonable causes.

Husbands who lose their wives to suicide do not undergo this kind of social treatment. In fact, in such cases, husbands are applauded for supporting spouses, especially if their wife struggles with a mental health disorder. These gender dimensions of suicide loss have enormous implications in shaping public discourse and policy and professional engagement with survivors of suicide loss.

Dr Carla Fine, Author, Lecturer, and Workshop Leader mentions a program started by her colleague in the United States where a survivor of suicide loss accompanies the police and coroners whenever there is a suicide. So, while the case is being investigated, a trained survivor is supporting the family of the deceased at every step of the way. This is a wonderful initiative as the ones grieving have support from the beginning of the journey, especially at the most challenging part of acknowledging the suicide. Unfortunately, India is far from adopting such methods of support to the survivors.

In a country that lacks mental health professionals and policies, the dearth of support groups for suicide support is ironic. An important factor contributing to this is families of survivors discourage them from speaking to others about their loss and dissuade them from seeking help. They prefer the matter to be in close proximity to the family.

Prof Prabha Chandra, Former Professor and Head of Psychiatry at NIMHANS, Bangalore, attributes this to the fact that in Indian culture, people refrain from communicating their emotions to a group of strangers. At times, this issue is gendered, where women cannot access support groups because they can’t do so. 

Membership in a suicide bereavement group can be very healing as survivors can exchange stories and find solace in those with similar experiences. Hearing about the way someone has dealt with their loss can be very empowering.

There need to be multiple stakeholders in coming together to address suicide. People with lived experiences are critical stakeholders, but they haven’t been given any room in the discourse. Survivors are the best ambassadors for prevention, but even that aspect is taken care of by mental health professionals. There needs to be close collaboration between survivors of suicide loss and mental health professionals.

Acknowledgment: Chhavi Kapoor is a research intern at IMPRI and is pursuing bachelors in Political Science, Literature, and Economics from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

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