Bereavement due to suicide

Suicide notes

After a death by suicide survivors want to know why their loved one has died, but fewer than half of those who take their own lives leave a suicide note. Only 25-30% of suicides are accompanied by a note*. Many people we talked to said that their friends and relatives had not left notes or letters.

However, some people had found a letter, note, or a message in a diary, on a computer or mobile phone. Jenny's husband had written her a letter three weeks before he died, but he told her about it and they discussed it and burnt it together. He convinced her that he would never take his life. When he died three weeks later he did not leave another letter.

Suicide notes may partly explain why a person was feeling depressed or desperate at the time (see Kate’s account in 'People’s perceptions of why the suicide took place'), but notes rarely answer all the questions about why the death occurred. They may not specifically mention suicide at all.

Notes often take the form of an apology to exonerate close relatives and to relieve survivors of any responsibility. Susan’s son, Barry, for example, left a letter and on the front of the letter he had written, “No suspicious circumstances”. He told his parents to remember the “good times” and forget the “bad times”.

Some notes include statements about the person’s low self-esteem and sense of failure at the time of death.

Research suggests (see Wertheimer 2001, p. 74**) that not all suicide notes are intended to make survivors feel better. However, none of the people we talked to said that they were upset by the notes they found. Some people had found them comforting.

The police gave Lucreta a note that they found on her daughter, Dionne (who had renamed herself Dominique just before she died). She also found a note in one of Dionne's diaries which Lucreta was glad to have and a poem written by her daughter.

Notes may include details about the type of funeral the person wanted.

Notes may also include instructions about the disposal of belongings. One of Susan's sons, for example, wanted some of his things given to particular people and other things given to charity.

Suicide notes have to be given to the coroner’s officer; they are usually handed back after the inquest. Sometimes the police take the notes before the bereaved family has had time to look at them properly. This may be distressing.

People may be annoyed or upset if notes addressed to them are opened by other people or taken away by the police until after the inquest. For example, when the police arrived at the house they told Stephen, that he could not read his wife’s note, which he found “extremely frustrating”. Marion said she was “fuming” because her husband’s boss opened her husband’s note that had been left at work but addressed to her.

People may feel differently about notes if they understand why someone has decided to die. Susan’s father had made it quite clear that he intended to take his own life because he had a terminal illness. He left a note at the top of the cliff, which Susan never saw. She assumes the police kept it. He also left a note in the house about his will, but with no other information. Susan was not particularly upset that she had not seen the note on the cliff, or that no long explanation was left in the house. She thinks her father realised that the family would understand and so no further explanation was needed.

Notes may contain significant information. For example, Patricia is convinced that the message left by her husband indicated that he did not intend to kill himself (see 'The Inquest').

*Gelder MG, Mayou RA, Geddes JR. Concise Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry 2005)
** Wertheimer A. 2001, A Special Scar: The Experiences of People Bereaved by Suicide 2nd Edition. Routledge, London

Last reviewed January 2015.

Last updated October 2012.


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