The Survivor’s Side of Suicide

Jeff2bSuicide is one ugly word. It’s the kind of word that swings heavy from lips. The kind that is whispered, and stilted, never sung.

As an author, I build my life around words. Every word has worth. Even those words we are not supposed to say.

But suicide is the one word I do not like. I wish there was no need for such a word in our world. Especially since 1997, when my teen brother ended his own life two months before his high school graduation.

It is one thing to be on the other side of suicide, where you may offer prayer or casseroles or even a hug. It is another thing entirely to be on the side of the survivor, after a loved one puts a gun to the head or a rope to the neck or a blade to the vein.

That dark depth of despair is no easy channel to navigate because unlike every other form of death, this one was intentional. This one could have been prevented. This one carries immeasurable sting.

The what-ifs and but whys and I wonders never cease. They haunt all hours, whether moonlit or shine.

And the stares don’t stop either, the constant conversation that hangs silently between friends — at the grocery store, or in the church pews, or at the birthday party. No one says it, but they are thinking… That poor mother, how does she stand it? Or – That poor child, knowing his father took his own life.

What people on that side of suicide don’t understand is that we, the survivors left in the wake, are barely keeping our heads above water. We don’t want pity, or sympathy, or stares. We don’t want whispers, or questions, or help. We want one thing only. We want our loved ones back.

And there’s one simple way you can give this to us.

Talk about the people we loved and lost. Don’t dance around us as if their ghost is in the way. Acknowledge the lives they lived. Recognize the light they once shined. Laugh about the fun you once had together.

There’s nothing you can tell us — no detail too small, no memory too harsh — that will hurt us. We crave it all. We are hungry for any piece of time travel you offer. Bring us back, to that space, when the one we loved was in the here and now.

Suicide is something most of us struggle to understand. It is difficult to rationalize the selfish part of such an act. How could someone not care about the pain they would throw on their loved ones? How could someone not be strong enough to stay alive?

But here’s the truth: suicide was not the cause of my brother’s death. Depression was the cause of his death. And depression is a beast unlike any other. It is an illness we still struggle to cure, despite all the therapeutic and pharmaceutical intervention available today.

Sometimes, even with all the help in the world, a person cannot see through the pain. They cannot imagine a better day ahead. They see only more hurt. And when I say hurt, I mean suffering. Blood-zapping, brain-numbing, soul-bursting agony.

Imagine this: you wake every day as a prisoner. You are trapped in a cell with no freedom in your future. You are tortured — physically, emotionally, psychologically. The anguish never stops. Just when you think you cannot survive another blow, it comes again. More pain.

You try to ignore the ache. You cannot. You try to numb the hurt. You cannot. You try to rise above the pain. You cannot. The brutality persists. And you see no end to it.

If you knew you had to endure only one more round of abuse, or one more month, or even a year, or longer — If there was an end in view, you could be strong enough to handle it. You could take whatever is thrown at you because you want, more than anything else, to live.

You are a sensitive soul and you have so much left in you to give. You want only to love and be loved. But the cell has you trapped. You have tried everything. There is no end to the insufferable situation.

A person with depression becomes suicidal when they finally give up all hope. When they accept that nothing they do, no matter how long they survive, no matter how many medications or prayers or therapists they turn to, the pain will never end.

Can you imagine the pain you would have to be in to take your own life? Can you imagine the fear of a suicidal person (regardless of faith), daring to face the unknown because even the possibility of eternal hellfire or permanent purgatory or absolute absence seems less scary than another day in this world?

When Robin Williams passed away, the world was abuzz weighing the controversial issues of mental illness, depression, and suicide.

While some people were unable to extend kindness or understanding, proving we have a long way to go in our culture’s recognition of chemical imbalances, the international conversation gave me hope. It proved that people are finally willing to say the word SUICIDE out loud, without the hushed whispers and back corner gossip.

Putting this word on equal footing with all the other words in our vernacular is important. It lessens the sting.

I consider this progress, and I am optimistic the forward momentum will continue.

It is time.

I write this blog today for several reasons:

  • One, I am proud to have been the sister to an amazingly bright spirit who left this world too soon and whose memory I want to keep alive.
  • Two, I want to increase understanding and support for the millions of people struggling with chemical imbalances.
  • Three, I want to offer support and empathy to all who have lost a loved one to suicide and encourage you to speak out loud to honor their spirit and to educate those on the other side.
  • Four, and most importantly, I have a very important message for anyone struggling with depression.

One week after my brother died, we received notice that he had landed the career opportunity he wanted with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. That job may have been enough to offer him the key to that cell, the something to cling to, the reason for reason. Maybe, if he could have stuck it out one more week, he would still be alive today. Seven days, and he may have had hope again.

Today, when I see someone struggling for hope, looking for a signal, a reason, proof that their life matters and that the pain will indeed end, I think of my brother and that phone call that came one week too late.

If you are struggling with depression, please remember... you are in this world for a reason. You have a very important journey you must complete. You were born to accomplish something, something only you know. You will suffer, you will hurt, you will feel hopeless and alone at times. But you are not in that space forever. Keep walking, keep moving forward, and you will find your way through in time.

When you hit bottom, please remember this: You are loved. You are never alone. You were born with everything you need to survive this journey. You matter.

And once you are on the other side, as you will soon be, then, you will look back with wiser eyes, the eyes of a survivor. You will know your soul survived the stretching season. And you will move through the world with greater empathy and understanding, a gift like none other. For you, sensitive one, are the blessed. And we need you here. In this life.

Be brave. Wage war. Hold fast to the light inside of you.

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7

This post will be shared across multiple platforms for National Suicide Prevention Week. Learn more about suicide prevention by visiting:


Julie Cantrell is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Into the Free and When Mountains Move. She works to promote suicide awareness and prevention in memory of her brother, Jeff Perkins. Learn more:

19 thoughts on “The Survivor’s Side of Suicide

  1. Well stated, Julie! Life can be brutal but it is also a magnificent gift to be treasured daily. My heart breaks for the pain you’ve experienced and continually experience with the suicide of your brother. Know that he is not forgotten.

  2. Julie, Thank you for writing this. I have lost 2 loved ones to suicide…. your brother being one and another friend just last year. I, actually, emailed your mom the other day to tell her I was thinking of Jeff and that he nor her (or any of his family) will ever be forgotten. Too often, people don’t take depression or any mental illness seriously. They view it as weakness, so many of us hide it (I, too, suffer from extreme depression, etc.) Depression is real and is in no way a weakness. But, like you said, there is help out there and always hope. I am so glad that you shared this heartfelt blog with something so close to you. I pray that others read it and see there is hope and to always take it seriously if a loved one tells you they are suffering. I send my love and prayers to you, Ms. Cindy and all the family. I just want you to know that your wonderful brother will NEVER be forgotten. He will be loved forever.
    Thanks, again.

  3. Thank you for this beautiful article on Jeff. He was my student at Broadmoor (Spanish class) and he was in a class of kids who were his friends and who loved him.

  4. julie,
    thanks for this article your mother was my teacher at Levi Milton elm. and she also live above me at Ole London Town Apts. when i was in middle school at southeast where i played football against your brother. We became friends and then played football together at Woodlawn. He is missed but not forgotten.

  5. Julie Thanks for your thoughts I have lost two nephews (Brothers) 5 years apart and also a Brother in law to this terrible disiese. My Sisters sons and my Wifes Brother. They are constantly in my thoughts and still ask myself if there was something I could have done differently. We the survivors have the burden every day that we live on. I will never have anybody call me Uncle Bill ever again and that hurts alot. I have never suffered from depression and because of that I guess I will never fully understand. Just wanted to say God Bless! Bill Tennessee.

  6. Yes, yes and yes. A mutual friend (Susan Cushman) led me to this post and I’m so glad she did. I lost my only brother 5 years ago this month to suicide brought on by mental illness. I am not a writer, so I will gladly share this post that so adequately states what I have felt these past five years. I seize every opportunity to talk about my brother and hope by doing so those around me will continue to also. I share and pray one day that the stigma of depression and mental illness is completely removed so that true healing begin and countless suicides can be prevented. May your brother’s memory be eternal!

  7. Pingback: National Suicide Awareness Week Guest Post by Julie Cantrell | Heather Day Gilbert

  8. Friends, I cannot possibly thank you enough for taking time to share this post about my brother and this important message of suicide prevention. Since posting this blog yesterday, Jeff’s story has reached thousands of readers across 16 countries. I have received countless emails and messages, each of them personal and inspiring, many of them drawing tears. All of them have been about your own brush with suicide – on one side or the other. I have also received beautiful, soul-stirring notes about your lost loved ones. It may take me a while to reply to all of your notes, but please know I am reading every one of them, I am sending prayers for you, and for those you have loved and lost. And, I care. Truly, deeply, sincerely … I do. Thanks for opening your hearts. Love wins! j

    • Julie, Thank you. My amazing son, Jason, died by suicide 4/14/2013, three months before his wedding. He suffered PTSD (3 combat marine tours in the sandbox)and depression. His pain was immense. Ours is also. You are so right…all that I want is for him to be back. To call him and say “Hey Boy!” To hear his infectious laugh and laugh at his antics. He was the life of every party. Even in the deepest parts of the desert in Iraq, his Marine buddies said that he was always making them laugh, under the worst circumstances. I am starting to see some light after being swallowed by this darkness, it feels as if the laws of gravity have changed and everything seems harder to do. But, it is getting manageable. Life is moving on. Your words meant, and mean, so much to me. Thank you.

  9. A wonderful article, Julie. I especially agree that we need to discuss depression and suicide openly (rape is another word that we should be able to discuss and not make it shameful or taboo). I lost a cousin, to suicide years ago, and even though we weren’t real close, it was devastating. Most people were understanding, but some in the very conservative Christian community (including two of his siblings) expressed sorrow that he went to hell. They weren’t trying to be cruel, just not filtering their conversation. It must be a difficult subject for someone who dealt with it so closely, but you did a wonderful job and I’m sure your brother is proud of you.

  10. Pingback: The Survivor’s Side of Suicide by Julie Cantrell | Bloggin' Billy's

  11. Thank you for this article. I lost my husband, my soul mate, the love of my life, the father to my child, the one true thing that completed me, to suicide almost 2 years ago. Today would have been our 10 year wedding anniversary. I hate the word. It makes me cringe because of the way others view it, view me, view him, view my son and my stepdaughter. Your words were something I needed to read. And I thank you. I am sorry for your loss, as well. But I am glad that you were able to write this article. Much love to you…

  12. I understand the meaning behind your words because my 16 year old son put a shot gun to his head and pulled the trigger with the help of a stick. The pain and agony he must have endured is tremendous, theirs has ended but ours continues to live on…may the rest of your life be as beautiful as it can be! njl

  13. Thank you Julie. Having had 5 suicide attempts before the age of 30 I remember how much pain I was in. Now, as a teacher of meditation at the local university, I get to help so many others who may need my understanding. Blessings, Dr. Kate Ha, Sonoma State UNiversiity

  14. That was beautiful Julie. I lost my own brother to suicide in 1975 when he was twenty-five. He was my closest friend in the world. Three short years later I lost my father to suicide as well. I couldn’t read or say the word “suicide” for many, many years. I am now a psychotherapist and work with people who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts. This is how I honor their memory and their light still shines in my life.

  15. Thank you, Julie, for writing this. My first husband took his life in 2011, leaving me an unwilling widow and my young children quite without a father. Treading the deep waters of questions is difficult, especially with children looking to me for answers that simply don’t exist this side of Heaven. When they’re a little older, I want them to read this.


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