Stigmatized Loss

My journey surviving a stigmatized loss started seven and a half years ago when my eldest child died by suicide. Katrina was 21 years old and about to graduate from college. It has been an emotional roller coaster of grief trying to understand Katrina’s decision and learning to live without her.

The definition of stigma is: “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” A stigmatized loss for those of us in grief often brings with it experiences and feelings of shame, blame, hopelessness, distress, and reluctance to seek and/or accept help.

Initially, in the aftermath of Katrina’s death, family and friends were supportive bringing us meals, calling or stopping by to see how we were, posting thoughts and stories about Katrina on Facebook, and listening to us. After a while, the support waned as everybody’s lives but ours moved forward. Although we understood that people didn’t know what to say, the silence of supportive voices and the absence of caring actions only served to further our stigma.

When someone dies in a stigmatized manner, people tend to forget the life that was lived and instead focus on the manner of death. Those close to us stay silent because talking about subjects like suicide, murder or a drug overdose is a taboo topic. I didn’t necessarily have any expectations of my friends and family; I was just trying to survive, but soon we noticed that many friends avoided us.

We did have acquaintances who surprised us by being more supportive than some of our closest friends and family. Usually, the friends and acquaintances who stick with us have experienced a stigmatized loss within their own lives and can relate to our pain.

Guilt, anger, and blame seem to be the three pillars of a stigmatized loss. My days were filled with the question of why. Why did Katrina do this? Why didn’t we know? I was constantly second guessing myself with the “would have,” “could have,” “should have” and “if only” game. Eventually, I had to work at accepting that I will never know all the answers to my questions.

I have learned that feelings of guilt, shame and anger can scar us. In my situation, the biggest emotion was guilt. A parent is supposed to protect their children and keep them safe. When Katrina left for college, I made sure to discuss the potential dangers and how to keep herself safe, but suicide was not discussed because we didn’t know it was a possibility. I wondered if I was a bad mother.

Feelings of guilt for those of us who have experienced a stigmatized loss are only exacerbated when people say, “you must have known” or “why didn’t you know?” If you don’t know the signs and when the symptoms of the illness are subtle and hidden, how can you know? Like many who die by suicide, Katrina was highly functioning and the symptoms of her depression were well hidden from us.

With a stigmatized loss, grief can be complicated because there is always a cloud of distrust, suspicion, and ignorance from those who don’t understand. I accept that there will always be people who may think that Katrina’s suicide was my fault, or that Katrina was a flawed person and deserved to die.

I have turned my grief into advocacy for mental illness education and suicide prevention. My advocacy helps me to continue being a nurturing mother by sharing her life. On those difficult days, I keep going because I know that I am the only one who can tell Katrina’s story as only Katrina’s mom can. Katrina has died, but she had a life that mattered, and I am still Katrina’s mom forever.



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Comments (32)

  • I so relate with you… my son died by suicide 2 years ago and today as I sat home the phone does not ring anymore. Nobody knows what to say to me….I should be over it, I should be moving on, I should be over it!!!! IT! Like it was a disease! I wish we had a support group for those of us whose lives have been shattered by suicide. The guilt, the what ifs, the if onlys…….will forever haunt me. God bless you. I pray for you and know that I understand totally what you are going through. The pain is unbelivable! God bless and would like to know how you have joined this advocacy. I have tried but North Dakota is very limited in their mental health counseling and I am at dead ends everywhere I try….I’d gladly join your advocacy as this is what I want to do it, but can’t do it alone.

    • If you are interested in a support group online you can try Survivors of Suicide (Loss). It’s a Facebook group that has been very helpful for me and my family. You have to request to join and I think they ask some questions about who you lost.

    • You can access The Compassionate Friends website & join & be supported by others who have lost children to suicide & through natural losses. The support network is huge & Fabulous. I am sorry for you loss. I lost my only brother Marc to suicide 4 years ago. Life will never be the same but connecting with others who have lost their siblings has really, really helped me. Be kind & gentle to yourself.
      “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose, for all that we Love deeply becomes a part of us” (by the Poet & Author Helen Keller). ♥️🤗♥️

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I too lost my son to suicide. To say the word never stops hurting. Like I’m floating above looking down at someone else’s life. The guilt never leaves. I feel like a failure every day. Your story brings hope. Thank you

  • Thank you so much for sharing this. You spoke straight from my heart. My son Stephen died of suicide in 2013 at the age of 19. He too was an accomplished college student. Very talented and loving as I’m sure your Katrina was.

  • Three times the same has happened to my wife and myself.When there is nobody to turn to it makes it even harder.When the local press want a full story and t.v.companys want a story it does make you very bitter.

  • I lost my son through serious health issues due to addiction. After reading ur article and feeling all if the same emotions I felt really moved to reply. I haven’t really had support…rather I am supporting other family members to cope. My boy was beautiful but as you say other people don’t see him as I do. I would just like to talk to someone who can identify with my feelings but how can that happen when stigma stops us from talking about these seemingly taboo issues

  • Thank you Sara. My son died of an overdose in August of 2018. I feel so lost and stupid. He and I were so close. I knew he had anxiety and self medicated. I never once thought he could possibly die. I have so many unanswered questions. I feel like a terrible mom. How could I have not known the depth of his sadness. He lied, and I needed to believe the lies. Now, I feel I didn’t really know him at all. That really hurts.
    I have a daughter. I thought we would get through this horribly nightmare together. I was wrong. It seems she has directed all her hurt and anger towards me. It was just the 3 of us. Now, it feels I have lost both children. I have lived a spiritual life. Taught my children about God. Never to be selfish and always help others. My daughter seems to have lost that part of herself. Not caring about anyone but herself. I cannot help her. Anything I say is wrong.
    I am so lost. My children were/are my life. I have nothing now. I feel like the walking dead. No direction. No purpose. No family.
    I’m sorry this sounds so hopeless. 😩💔

  • I’m so sorry for the loss of your precious daughter Sara. Your pain is palpable and your love for your shines through in your writing. Over the years, I have taken great comfort in reading the accounts of other bereaved parents, and am pleased to see our voices represented here on this site.

    I’ve been bereaved by suicide, and lost my daughter unexpectedly to an over-whelming infection, aged 3. Suicide is a terrible bereavement -the feelings of loss, pain and guilt by those left behind are overwhelming and so poorly understood. Having lost a healthy child to matters that were definitely beyond our control, and where no one could point the finger of blame – as people often try to do when a child dies, as it is easier to blame the parents than think that death might come for any child including your own – my feeling is that the death of children is always a stigmatised death.

    I relate a lot to what you say about the loss of friends and support. I think the painful truth is that in the beginning everyone is shocked and grieving, but that as time passes, others get to choose whether to sit in that Dark place with us, and mostly they choose not to.

  • Katrina’s Mom,
    I send you my tightest hugs. I’m forced on to this journey with you. For my son, Logan. He was 32 years old, just got a really good promotion at his job, just signed on a mortgage, was separated from his wife of 9 years but was ok and moving on starting to date a longtime friend. Nothing about his life hinted at suicide. On August 19th, 2018 they found him hanging in his garage. I know I sound like I’m in denial, but I don’t accept their COD. There was money and other items missing, his house was a total wreck inside, and no trace of alcohol or drugs. The last didn’t surprise me cause Logan hadn’t been one to ever get into drugs and drinking even as a younger adult. I’m struggling so much with the questions. We don’t know what or why, and as his parents we both just know this is the result of the other taboo, murder, cleverly disguised as a suicide. My son has 4 wonderful children that he loves dearly. He fought for custody of his boys, previous relationship, and has two beautiful daughters. His boys lived with him, the girls stayed with their momma. He never would have chosen this life for them. He was an outspoken advocate against suicide, speaking for the victims left behind, the loved ones left hurting and questioning. He understood the plight of those with mental illness issues, and always encouraged others to talk with someone, family, friends, professional, etc. He felt it was wrong to leave those that love you with guilt and sadness when you didn’t even tell them that a problem existed.
    It kills me to think when he needed me most I wasn’t there. I pray for sanity now cause this life is overwhelmingly sad without my son.. I have my faith in seeing him again and it carries me spiritually. It’s just I feel that I left him down at the end. I raised him by myself, my only child, protected him fiercely against any and all that would have hurt him… except for whatever happened that dreadful day. Oh God this hurts and I just wish there was a way to know. Thanks for hearing my story.
    Logan’s Mom, Cindy

  • We lost our son 2 yrs ago this Feb I can only say that this is exactly my situation . I am so thankful to you for this article . At least I know I am not alone . It is bad enough to lose you child but to feel this stigma loss makes it even worse Thank you

  • What a well written article, Sara. I can identify with most of the feelings you describe. I think I was in such a dark place, I didn’t notice the few people who backed away from me. I think some people feel it’s contagious and stay away so it won’t happen to them. My son, Jon, was 21 when he decided to end his life. Like you, it never entered my mind that something like that could happen. It’s been 30 years since Jon died and I can tell you for me it’s gotten a little easier to talk about it. The first few years if I met someone new, I couldn’t decide to tell them if I had 2 or 3 children. I didn’t want to have to explain what happened to that 3rd child and see the look of horror in their eyes. And oh the shame and guilt I felt. It’s taken me many years to leave those feelings behind, but the pain of the loss of Jon is still there everyday.
    Thank you for your article, I haven’t shared my feelings like this for a long time. It still hurts too much.

  • My son died by suicide in 2013. He was 23 years old. I have learned so much about depression and living with grief since losing him. I share his story every chance I get, because he was more than depression. He was more than how he died. He was smart. He was compassionate. He was funny. He was so many things. He was also a young man who tried so hard to hide his depression, because nobody wants to talk about that! I now talk about it, to not only help myself to cope with the loss, but to hopefully help diminish the stigma of depression to get people talking. If my son had died of cancer or some other non stigmatized illness, the world would see me differently. Loss is loss, and to lose someone this way only hurts more, because I know my son mostly suffered in silence! I will forever be his voice!

  • I hadn’t thought of my son’s suicide as a ‘stigmatized’ death, but your story has put a new perspective on it for me and explains a lot of the feelings my wife and I have suffered. Thanks, Sara.

  • Our Rob died by suicide 29 months ago. He was 37, the father of 2 girls, a successful businessman, and beloved by hundreds. He taught yoga for 7 yrs. at his studio. At the time of his death he was depressed and had been before, but he ALWAYS was able to come out of this cycle. Not this time! He did doctor and was put on RX the last year of his life. it was not good year for him. Rob and I were extremely close. I wrestle with guilt every day! But I can not change anything, he is gone. I am very thankful to be a Christian. My faith is what keeps me alive. The stigma of his death is still with us. We had church ‘friends’ who didn’t talk to us for 2 yrs. after Rob died. Rob was so much MORE than his suicide. i focus on his 37 years. he was Christian, a good dad and son, brother, uncle, funny, intelligent, extremely caring, a talented musician, hard-working, quirky, and very passionate. I will miss him always, til we meet again in heaven.

  • Sara,

    Thank you for sharing Katrina’s story it has helped me and I am sure it will help many others who like us have had a stigmatized loss of a child. In my case it was my son, Andrew, who died of an over-dose January 20, 2018. I am only days away from that horrible anniversary and the memory of that dreaded phone call informing me of Andrew’s death. I was on a vessel located on the Black Sea 100 miles off the coast of Romania. Talk about feeling alone I was far from my family, but was working with some great people who helped in every way possible way to transport me home.

    I do understand the stigma associated with a death from an over-dose. I do understand the silence that becomes very apparent after the onslaught of compassion by family and friends. I also understand the three pillars of guilt, anger and blame of a stigmatized loss. Grief will always be a subject, that I believe, defy words to explain or adequate describe the pain and suffering of the survivors. Yes, I have read the books and many have helped me cope with some of my grief, but it still comes down to our personal struggle with what feels like a noose around my neck that has been partly bound to that stigmatized loss, which seems to tighten with every look of disgust on other people’s faces when they were told how Andrew died, the silence and my belief I would be troubling others with my need to talk about my son, the weakness I feel, but afraid to express, my parental need and want to describe the goodness in my son, but without an audience willing to listen there were no ticket sales at the gate life moves on no one cares about Andrew any longer, my hope and belief this tragedy happened for a” purpose,” if only, to lift me from doing very little to reduce the opioid deaths in my community where I have a “center of influence,” to my commitment to bring it up whenever I speak to groups.

    I travel around the world in the oil industry, but no matter where I am or what I am doing I find a way to talk about the opioid problem not only in the United States, but around the globe. How do we fight it, I believe on many fronts, first and foremost we should strive to prevent the drugs from being dispensed by doctors and on the black market, close our borders to the drug cartels, educate our young people on media they will watch, for example, FaceBook, etc. Second, we must be strong enough, as parents, to share our stories with as many people as possible. You would be surprised at the number of organizations that would jump at the chance to have you speak to their groups. Thirdly, take care of yourself as a parent or other family member who has suffered a stigmatized loss by finding like-minded people who understand and empathize with you giving you a place to strengthen that weakness we all feel at times. We must keep fighting for our young people, because they represent the future and can only help make the world a better place by staying alive.

    Thanks again for sharing your story Sara.

    • David , I too, lost my “Chase” two tears ago from an overdose. I want you to know, for what it is worth, I would love to “ buy one of those tickets at the gate” and hear you tell if the life if your glorious son! Yes, life goes on for all all of us, but some of us will always be willing to listen, as whether “ stigmatized “ or not ALL of the lives of our beautiful children mattered greatly and should be shared. In their journey they touched many and left a big hole for all who they knew. I would like to know how to be active in this fight against this pandemic. If you can offer suggestions , I may feel I have more of a purpose. Thank you

  • Thank you for the inspiration. I survive to keep alive the memory of my son’s strength — good-hearted, non-judgemental, caring, loyal.

  • I’m sorry for your loss.

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you for sharing your story. Like you, I have been living the same ‘hell’ since 21 June 2016. There were no indications and no clues. I’ve often said that while it’s obvious all of us are constantly fighting personal battles, and we never know what someone else is facing, we also will see only what they want us to see. It’s hard to help when there is a conscious decision to hide reality.

  • My only child died of a drug overdose at 27. Not a day goes by when I don’t wonder why I didn’t know there was a problem. My only answer is she didn’t want us to know because she loved us and knew how hurt we would be. It’s been 14 year! I’ll never be “over it!”

  • Beautiful words Sara….I’m so glad we’ve met. Your Kara is forever also in my heart and mind.

  • It has been 14 years since my eldest daughter also committed suicide at the age of 25…leaving behind a child of 5, my first grandson now 19 years old and has been with me ever since. I still have those same questions with no answers.

    Thank you for your story….helps a lot and I read a lot of books but hard to accept…thank God for my grandson I learnt to keep on going!!!

  • Dearest Sara, thank you for sharing your story and your pain so clearly – I too can relate to everything you have said and still live in the shadow of stigma since my beautiful son died from a drug overdose nearly 9 years ago. A member of our group has posted this on our private facebook site and it so clearly reflects so many of the mothers stories. With love and thanks xx

  • You still hit the nail on the head I never have heard from someone who so succinctly talks about the stigmatization.

    My son was murdered four years ago at the age of 18.
    It was years before I would go out in public and once I did I did notice that people would avoid me.
    The shame and the guilt are real things.

    Thank you for pointing this all out it’s hard to have people who haven’t had it happen to them understand.

  • Thankyou so much for sharing and explaining so eloquently how it feels to loose a child in these circumstances I lost my beautiful girl in July 2015. Aged just 31. In the beginning when people ask what happened to her (like they do) I was afraid to admit the truth . Now I am loud and proud! She battled mental health for 12 years self medicated and I am still not sure if she meant to end it or if it was accidental death as the coronor labelled her death. I am proud of the kind loving person she was and also found people keep away and the ones who were the closest disappeared! Big huge hugs to all you other mum’s that share the most unimaginable pain we all share . X

  • This is the first time I’ve came across the sentence stigmatized loss. It certainly pertains to my situation and gives me some hope. I lost my soldier son to PTSD & Suicide 8-28-16. He Served 20 years in the Army. Honorable Discharge. Decorated Uniform. I did not know he was suffering. I have to deal with and cope everyday the suicde stigma from other people. Not only the public but other Gold Star Mothers and families ostracized me because of it and judge me and my son the way I lost him.He wasn’t Killed in Action but my son brought the War home with him. The veterans administration is a disgrace. The Department of Defend doesn’t allow my son’s name on the memorial walls in Washington because of the stigma. The Gold Star organization denied me an Application to join the honor to become active like them. It hurts me a lot to feel I’m not wanted or that my sons life and sacrifice to his country was nothing. Never forgotten. Dearly loved, Dearly Missed.

  • Our daughter died from leukemia and I am always second guessing what we did. why did I let the Dr put her on hormone replacement…I should have yelled louder when everyone said it was protocol. four months after starting the hormone replacement therapy she went from 13 months of remission to myeloid sarcoma in her breast and reproductive organs. Think that came from the hormones? I do. Noone wanted me to interfere….I knew it was the wrong thing to do….so now she is dead and I am left knowing I should have fought harder.

    Honestly, part of being a parent will always be pushing ourselves and asking why…..we should not watch our children die. It is wrong and riddled with guilt because we love them so much. I tell myself to stop changing what I can not…and move on. But the moving in is very difficult.

  • Hello and thank you, Sara. Your article encourages those of us who have suffered this loss and by the looks of the wonderful responses, others losing their loved ones in tragic circumstances. Me, too. We found NAMI in Maine very helpful as we learned to speak about our experiences in effort to help others in different positions of helping during the emotional time that never goes away-‘you don’t get over it, you get used to it.’ We, too found a different perspective emerging as we met with groups and spoke about our son in a different light, spoke about the event of that night with a different purpose-to bring understanding to the emergency response teams and those caring in those critical moments.
    We met Cheryl and Vic Morin who host the JD Foundation out of Abbott, Maine – promoters of awareness being the answer, opening the discussion, releasing the social stigmas and making the subject one that can prevent people taking this early exit. Resources are what we need, those of us lying in the wake of this horrible event. Peer support is immense, listening, just listening is sometimes what is needed at first. This is a group no one wants to belong to yet we all understand one another.
    Open the doors, throw on the lights, get talking. Weep when you need to without apology.

    Be well and be strong,
    Patricia Heitmann

  • I feel so angry on your behalf that people should treat you in this way. It’s so unfair. Your loss is as acute and painful as anyone who has lost a child, whatever their age and the cause. My daughter died of natural causes last year but had previously attempted suicide. I had no idea whatsoever. No signs or clues at all. She was very intelligent and hid it well. I was devastated when it happened, just heartbroken. How dare anyone judge you.
    I am glad you have found an avenue to channel your pain in such a positive way. You are an incredible lady and will always be Katrina’s mom.
    Take care of yourself
    Sam – Emmy’s Mum xx

  • I lost my only child, my 17 year-old son to suicide on Jan. 7, 2018. I was the person who found him. I am forever haunted and broken by the grief and PTSD. I understand the stigma and have learned how to deal with nosy people who want all the details of his death. These are almost always strangers who I have just met. These people are very lucky to have never experienced tragedy. I feel so separate from people who haven’t experienced trauma and tragedy. I will miss my son every minute for the rest of my life.

  • Sara, Thank you for putting down in words what we all feel, all of us with a stigmatized loss. I now live with two. Ive known you through our support group for several years now and it was really great to have met you in Orlando at the TCF Conference in 2017. I have always remembered your beautiful daughters story and her life, keep sharing it with others and letting her be a teacher. That’s what we have had to become as well, teachers. For some of us, we need to make good come from tragedy and educating others does that. I would like to say to the other parents who have lost a child to suicide, first…I am so very sorry for your inconcievable loss. Second, there are now many support groups that you should give a try. TCF has “closed facebook groups” that you can join where you never have to say a word if you are not comfortable. They are private from your public facebook presence. You can read the stories of others on the same journey, learn about what you are facing and may be struggling with. It is a great comfort and relief to find that you are not alone, not crazy, but in fact very normal, just dealing with life altering trauma. And walking your path alongside those who “get it”, and seeking the advice of those who have traveled before you, can help you find that little shard of hope you need. I have been a part of TCF-Loss to Suicide’s facebook closed support group since shortly after my eldest son’s suicide on Aug 20, 2014. It’s been just short of 5 yrs since I found my first born, my 28yr old baby boy, and I can tell you I never thought I would live 5 months after, much less 5yrs. I found a home with these people who I now consider my family. I formed close bonds and I learned so much from others, that I became an admin for the group for a year or so. Being able to look back on where I began, to a point where I was becoming less of a lost soul reaching out my hand, but to someone ready to grab anothers hand as they reached out…….it is a powerful healing moment of transition. TCF has support groups for many different manners of death of our children, our grandchildren or our siblings. I wholeheartedly urge anyone new or even seasoned in child loss, stigmatized loss especially, to check out the group you most identify with. Give it a chance, you never have to speak (or type) a word if you are not comfortable doing so. But I will almost guarantee you that you will soon find a trust and will feel safe to share without fear. However everyone grieves differently, and if this type of support group is not for you, know one will ever know if you decide to leave the group. You simply click the “Leave group” box and not one person is notified of your departure. To join any group, search in facebook or on the TCF website and when you request to join, you will be asked just a couple of questions to verify your loss. It’s not meant to invade your privacy but to protect the privacy of the group members and only one admin will see your answers to make sure you are in the right place. What you share in group stays in group and no one else on your facebook group of friends or the public will ever see what you share in group. Only the members of that group. I will tell you that 2 1/2 yrs after losing Justin, my younger son, Jason (27) was murdered by his friend. I suddenly found myself losing both my children to stigmatized loss in less than 3yrs. The first place I went to scream “help me” was to my Loss to Suicide group. And thank God I did, they surely saved my life. While I no longer admin this group, I remain close to the admin of many of the groups and highly recommend you check it out. As it turns out, I am now a member of 5 different TCF Loss groups, each different, each a great support system. I had to leave my volunteer post as an admin to the suicide group as I was anticipating the upcoming murder trial of the so called friend and as you may have already noticed, a bereaved parent can barely get out of bed some days, I could only focus on one thing at a time. It took all my strength to be present as a voice for my son. Dealing with guilt, anger, stigma, and the many other emotions that you have bombarding you, somedays all at once, is just nothing short of exhausting. Soul sucking even. Find a group you feel at home and safe with. You will be glad you did. There are many out there now, find yours……find your hope. There really are people who will take your hand, all you have to do is reach out with yours. Big hugs to all of you who have replied here, you are brave, you are understood and you are never alone. And Sara……again, thank you for speaking your truth, thank you for sharing your Kara with all of us. She indeed continues to live thru you, and thru your sister moms. I am honored to say her name with you.

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