Memorial Service for a Suicide

When someone you love exits with suicide, there are many unanswered questions. Sadly, I have witnessed the heartache of those left behind who are in shock and trying to put logic to a tragic ending. Often blaming themselves for not seeing the signs or wondering why their family member or friend did not text or call them.

Should we mention suicide during the Memorial Service? Often, families will say, “Well, everyone knows. Let’s not mention it.” I think it’s important to address the “elephant in the room” in some way. Otherwise, it seems disingenuous to the deceased by painting a rosy picture of a blissful life. It also may leave people wondering how they could have left this world by suicide. It can be just a few sentences at the beginning and/or end while focusing primarily on the stories and memories of their life in the middle. There is a tremendous amount of guilt when there is a death by suicide. It is important to acknowledge the guilt and questions that remain. Sometimes suicide is front and center in the Memorial, so guests become educated about the warning signs of suicide. I have seen families request donations in lieu of flowers for Suicide Prevention organizations.

A friend of mine died last year from alcohol and substance abuse. The Celebration of Life was held in a church which seemed strange because Bill probably had not been in a church since he was a toddler. He was most definitely spiritual with primarily Buddhist beliefs. The cookie-cutter liturgy and dogma was more than most of us could stomach. We all breathed a sigh of relief when Doug, was asked to speak and said, “I am here to address the “gorilla in the room”. I have known Bill for over 20 years and we were in Alcoholics Anonymous together.” At last, someone who knew him so well was bringing up what we all knew and needed to hear. Not meant to be judgmental or negative, but to have a better understanding of the inner turmoil. He spoke honestly and respectfully while at the same time naming how one struggles with addiction. Doug openly expressed sincere gratitude to Bill’s wife and son for their unconditional love. Everyone stood and applauded his bravery in delivering an authentic, well-spoken Tribute to Bill.

A few years ago, a colleague, mentor, and friend took his life after he lost his job of over 30 years. This was devastating to his wife, children and also to his “work family”. The non-denominational Minister was outstanding in leading a loving, respectful Remembrance. After family members spoke, we were all invited to a Reception where there was an open mic for the memories to be shared in a relaxed setting.

Suicide Statistics

Veterans – About 20 Veterans a day across the country, take their own lives. There has been an increase in the suicide rate of younger Veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. Since the majority of Veterans are older, 60% of Veterans suicide in 2016 were age 55 or older.

Physical Illness and/or Pain – Isolated with pain and suffering, this is another common cause for suicide. Not able to see any other solution to end the pain and suffering.

Depression, Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, Intentional Overdose – Addiction is a complex disease of the brain and body involving compulsive use of one or more substances. Untreated, severe mental illness is a significant factor contributing to the rising rates of suicide in the United States. 90% of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder, substance abuse problem or both.

Losing a job or a breakup in a romantic relationship are often contributing factors in suicide. Loss of purpose and identity may seem insurmountable when everything in their life revolved around work. Sometimes it is an act of revenge when a relationship ends, choosing a permanent end of one’s own life. Or it could be from loneliness when any type of relationship ends.

Statistics may be helpful to be mindful if any friends or relatives may be experiencing similar situations.

  • Working aged men (25-54 years old) account for the largest number of suicide deaths in the U.S.
  • Over 50% of all suicides are by firearms.
  • Hanging or Suffocation is used in about 1 in 5 suicides.

Closing Thoughts

The very first service I officiated as a Celebrant was an intentional overdose in 2013. In that particular service, the psychiatrist was acknowledged and spoke about mental illness. Since that time, the suicide rate continues to increase and I have officiated way more suicides than natural deaths. So many people are affected deeply by a suicide, family, friends, colleagues, and professionals – psychiatrists, counselors, funeral directors and officiants. There is often a misperception that by calling it a Celebration of Life we are celebrating the act of suicide. That is absolutely not true. We are remembering with love and happiness the 12,410 days of their life of 34 years rather than the one single moment of their death. Although I prefer to call services that are death by suicide Memorials or Remembrances; I certainly honor the wishes of the family if they prefer to call it a Celebration of Life.

Anita Larson is a Ceremony Leader and Officiant who blogs about her experiences with Celebrations of Life. Providing uncommon ideas and encouraging her readers to “Think Outside the Coffin®” when planning a Fabulous Farewell.

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