Suicide: A Carefully Protected Family Secret

Dena YoheBy Dena Yohe9 Minutes

What impacts countless lives worldwide every day sending out waves of suffering and shame? Suicide. When someone ends their life by their own hand, the manner of their death often becomes a carefully protected family secret. This global tragedy devastates families, breaks hearts, and annihilates hope. Sometimes those left behind consider ending their lives too.

The tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., one hundred and thirty people die every day — five every hour, eleven every minute. In 2019, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ( recorded 1.38 million Americans made at least one attempt — though many are never reported — with 48,500 succumbing to this national tragedy.*

These numbers aren’t meaningless statistics. Every life is precious. Each death represents someone who was loved, who once had hopes and dreams — who mattered.

My Family Secrets and Shame

One of my daughters struggled with thoughts of suicide. Her young late teens and twenties were full of emotional suffering. My husband and I agonized over how to save her. Thankfully, her attempts were unsuccessful. The fear of losing my child that way paralyzed me, filling me with indescribable terror, but I kept my suffering a secret. Not knowing what to do or how to help her was horrific, but my agony was intensified by the shame I hid behind.

My Aunt Doris died by suicide. I never had the chance to meet her. She ended her life when she was twenty-seven, only a few months before I was born. Before I took my first breath, she took her last. She was my mom’s sister, her twin. My mother never spoke about how Doris died or the secret she kept.

She. Couldn’t.

She couldn’t force herself to say, “My sister killed herself.” She couldn’t talk about the suicide with anyone. Hush. Hush. Don’t reveal what happened.

Too many families share what they consider the embarrassment of a suicide. They carry the perceived burden of disgrace, keeping the truth carefully hidden in the shadows, swept under proverbial rugs where no one can see.

Buried deep, no one will know or suspect or ask questions. No one will gossip or slander or whisper behind closed doors. No tongues tsk-tsking. No eyebrows raised. No haughty glances. No judging or thinking less of their loved one or of them. The memory of the deceased is untarnished, their reputation spared. Their deception succeeded. Survivors, those left behind, were saved from blushing, from thoughtless words spoken, yet not from pretending or acting or dying … inside. They’re left with a legacy of lies and deception, of make-believe stories with fairytale endings.

Because death by suicide is a carefully protected family secret.

The Sad Truth

I was a young teenager when I learned about Aunt Doris’ suicide. An older cousin whispered the sad truth to me and another cousin on a hot summer’s night under the cloak of darkness. Stunned and speechless, we kept the taboo discovery to ourselves like the rest of our family. Somehow, I knew I shouldn’t mention the shocking revelation to my parents. Since then, I have often wondered about my aunt. Why did she lose hope? What led to her demise? What caused her to give up?

Eventually, I learned that poor Doris suffered with a mental illness, a common underlying cause of suicide. My daughter does too, but in those days (the late 1940’s and early 50’s) a mental health diagnosis brought humiliation to the family. We rarely talked about my aunt except to say she was a talented artist.

My grandparents kept a large, floral painting Doris made for them on their living room wall. Growing up, the piece always fascinated me. A framed, black and white family photo was positioned beneath the painting on the side buffet. My aunt’s large, piercing, dark brown eyes had a melancholy look. Her sad gaze always captured my curiosity. What unspoken heartache did she bear? Was there anyone who could listen and be there for her on her hard days? Did she feel alone, misunderstood?

I can only imagine the effect aunt Doris’ suicide had on my grandparents and her siblings, especially my dear mom. After what I’ve been through with my daughter, I shudder to think of their crushing loss or the depth of their pain. Knowing they carried this secret for the rest of their lives hurts my heart.

You Are Not Alone

I chose to share my family’s story of suicide and not continue the pattern of secrecy because I believe if we talk about suicide and mental health, we can be catalysts for change. We can facilitate long-overdue compassion. There can be honest, open discussion. The stigma and shame associated with suicide can lessen. Healthier, supportive communities can be cultivated where we come alongside those who struggle rather than ostracizing them. Devastating losses would no longer be processed in secret. Suffering in isolation would no longer feel necessary.

Death by suicide is tragic, but there is comfort and support for those left behind. No one needs to suffer in silence anymore.

If you have been impacted by a suicide, or live in constant fear of one, you have my deepest sympathy. Friend, you are not alone, no matter what carefully protected family secret you have been hiding. There is also a community that understands and will surround you with love and support. And God understands. He offers comfort for your losses and hope for your future. Psalm 23 (NASB2020) gives both:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff they comfort me … Certainly goodness and faithfulness will follow me all the days of my life, and my dwelling place will be in the house of the LORD forever.

*Suicide statistics:, CDC, and WHO

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