After a loss, many people wonder how they can go on without their loved one, and struggle to find hope. The struggle can be more difficult for survivors of suicide loss. Many studies, such as those by researchers De Leo and Heller, found a higher rate of suicidal behavior among survivors of suicide loss than in the general population. For some who have lost a loved one to suicide, the choice to triumph in spite of loss has been a conscious, daily victory.
There are roughly over 41,100 suicides in the United States every year, with each suicide leaving at least six survivors struggling with the pain, shock, anger and guilt, wondering "Why?" According to the American Association of Suicidology, approximately 6 million people in the United States became survivors of suicide in the last 25 years. This is more than the current populations of San Francisco, Manhattan, Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Baltimore combined. And yet the stigma and ignorance surrounding suicide too often leaves these voices silent, feeling as though their struggle is in isolation.
Project Semicolon was started in 2013 by Amy Bleuel, after her father died by suicide, to support others dealing with suicide loss or mental illness. She chose to get a tattoo of a semicolon to honor him, because "A semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life." The symbol honors not just suicide survivors, but also those who struggle with self-injury, depression or addiction. In the Project Semicolon mission statement, Amy Bleuel writes, "The vision is that people see the value in their story...The vision is that suicide is no longer an option to be considered...The vision is hope, and hope is alive...You are not alone. Your story isn't over yet." The project started as a day to draw semicolons in remembrance, but now people all around the world are getting semicolon tattoos to celebrate survival.
Tattoos are not just a way to honor and remember a loved one, but a conversation starter to talk about your loss, to share your story, and maintain the presence of a loved one. I know a family through my monthly grief support group in Redwood City whose son died in an automobile accident, and his mother, father, uncle and aunt each have his picture tattooed on their arms. After the death of my son, Scott, in a car accident, my daughter, Dr. Heidi Horsley, had a butterfly tattooed on her ankle in memory of her brother.
Audrey and her sister, Molly, were best friends growing up and through their teen years. They often joked that they were "psychic" because they would think of the same thing at the same time, or reach for the phone to call the other just before the phone rang with a call from her. They both struggled with depression, but it still came as a life-shattering shock to Audrey when she reached for her phone to text Molly and saw she had a one-word text: "Goodbye." Molly died by suicide minutes later. Because they were always inseparable, so alike they were often mistaken for each other, Audrey sought to completely differentiate herself after Molly's death, she was so determined not to follow the same path. It was only years later that she looked back and realized she'd lost part of herself by recreating herself only in opposition to Molly, moving far away from family, and switching career paths from their shared passion. Audrey decided to have a semicolon tattooed on her wrist to remind herself that her choices were her own. She missed Molly every day, but she was free to decide what kind of life she wanted to build going forward. "I wanted to have a permanent physical reminder of my sister--she will always be with me. I finally realized that it was okay for me to be angry at Molly, but her choice didn't need to define my life."
Remember that your story deserves to be shared, to be lived, and is yours to write. Whether you have lost a loved one through suicide or other means, you are a survivor, a person who has faced darkness and had the courage to go on. If you have lost hope, lean on mine until you find your own.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.