Hugs, displays of warmth and expressions of sympathy were often appreciated, though one woman said she had found it “weird” when a woman she hardly knew had hugged her in the street.
People often thought that the problem of embarrassment around death and bereavement is more pronounced when the death is due to suicide, and they used the term “stigma” to describe this aspect of suicide.
The word ‘stigma’ comes from the Greek. In ancient times, perhaps partly as a mark of shame, signs were cut or burnt into the body to advertise that the bearer was a ‘morally blemished’ person. Thus, ‘stigma’ occurred when society marked someone as ‘tainted’ or ‘less desirable’.
Some people we talked to said that they felt a sense of stigma because they were related or closely connected to the person who had died by suicide. Erving Goffman, the sociologist and writer, called this ‘a courtesy stigma’.
According to the sociologist Graham Scambler, stigma, or negative evaluation, may be either ‘felt’ or ‘enacted’. Felt stigma is the fear of being discriminated against because of a supposed inferiority or social unacceptability, whereas enacted stigma describes actual discrimination of this kind.
Some people were sure that stigma was associated with suicide: in some cases this was seen as tainting the family of the person who died. They believed that other people had avoided them or avoided talking about what had happened because they disapproved of suicide, thought it was a ‘sin’ or believed it was an act of weakness – an idea that several people challenged.
Kavita found other people’s reactions to her brother’s death “quite distressing”. Her mother has also experienced negative reactions. When people visited the house after her brother died she heard some of them saying that suicide is a sin.
One woman, who had accompanied her father to Switzerland for an assisted death, said that she had only told a few people about the way he had died. For more information on assisted dying see Dignity in Dying
A few people said that they had not felt any stigma associated with suicide. Paula said on the Way Foundation website she had read accounts of other people’s experience of stigma but she had felt no stigma herself. Stephen said that he thought stigma was associated with mental illness but not with suicide. Jacqui had had no negative responses to Mike’s suicide, and Susan had felt no stigma associated with her father’s suicide.
The death of a child is particularly hard for parents to bear: some parents thought that a child’s death by suicide was the worst form of bereavement. In social situations parents are often asked how many children they have and it was sometimes hard to know whether to reveal that a child had died, or explain how they had died and risk shocking people.
Jane and Maurice wanted to talk about Tom when they met other people. They found it hurtful when others changed the subject, or expected them to have got over their grief.
Bob also said that other people expected him and his wife to get over Darren’s death within a certain length of time. He said that the death of a child is something that they will never “get over’, it is “with you for life”. However, some people told us that even after the loss of a child, with the passage of time the pain lessens, and anniversaries do become easier (see Anniversaries and other special occasions
Lucreta found that other people were too busy to really listen to her when she wanted to talk about her daughter’s death. She believes that we live in a “non-listening society”. She also found that if she did tell people that Dionne (Dominique) had died by suicide they were shocked, and she had to comfort them. Now Lucreta sometimes tells people that Dionne (Dominique) has died but she does not always tell them how.
Some found that joining a support group for people bereaved by suicide helped to reduce the sense of stigma and isolation (see Self-help groups