When a loved one dies, those closest to the deceased individual nearly always have a desire to memorialize or commemorate the person who has passed on in some manner. For many people, there are religious traditions that form the basis upon which a deceased person is memorialized or commemorated. When a person dies by suicide, survivors of that loss are in a uniquely challenging position to appropriately memorialize or commemorate the individual who has died.

Through this article, we address some of the primary challenges survivors of suicide face when it comes to memorializing or commemorating a person who has died by suicide. These considerations include:

  • Crafting a memorial service or commemoration event for a person who died by suicide
  • Focus on a celebration of life rather than a memorial to death
  • Addressing special concerns regarding memorials in a school setting
  • Suicide postvention and prevention in a memorial setting

Memorial Service or Commemoration Event Following a Death by Suicide

When it comes to a memorial service for a person who has died by suicide, there are a number of recommendations to bear in mind, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Focus on Celebration of Life

Around the world, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds. As a consequence, questions about memorializing or commemorating the lives of those who have died by suicide arise with great frequency. A key factor to bear in mind when it comes to memorializing or commemorating a person who has died by suicide is focusing on a celebration of that individual’s life. Attention should not be paid to the death of an individual who died by suicide.

In the final analysis, even when it comes to a person who dies by suicide, that individual’s life can be memorialized or commemorated in a manner that celebrates what he or she did while alive. That type of positive memorialization can provide a meaningful tribute to a person whose life ended too early.

Special Concerns Regarding Memorials in a School Setting

The loss of a young person as a result of a death by suicide is a uniquely tragic event. As a consequence, when a student dies by suicide, there is a natural inclination among the broader school community to want to do something of a more lasting, permanent nature to memorialize the deceased young person. With that said, there are some very important special concerns that need to be considered when it comes to memorializing or commemorating the death of a student by suicide, according to the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.

In the aftermath of a teen dying by suicide, there is a strong (and understandable) inclination among survivors of that loss to do something concrete and lasting in memory of the deceased student. The reality is that there tends to be a stronger drive to memorialize a student who dies by suicide in a lasting manner than there is when a young person dies for some other reason.

Examples of ways in which students who’ve died by suicide historically have been permanently memorialized include:

  • Memorial plaques in school hallways
  • Trees planted in memory
  • Gardens planted in memory
  • Benches or bleachers in memory

On the surface, memorializing a student who died by suicide in a permanent manner such as this may seem like a fitting, nice tribute. The reality is that there are a number of significant negative aspects to permanently memorializing a student who died by suicide:

  • By definition and design, schools have transient, ever-changing populations. As time passes, within a matter of a handful of years, a school’s population of students will be entirely different than the one that existed when a particular student died by suicide. Because of that, a permanent memorial will have less significance as time goes on when it comes to the students who attend a particular school.
  • A permanent memorial can end up representing something different than what was intended when it was created. Consider a garden dedicated to the memory of a student who died by suicide. Time and again, a memorial of this nature ultimately can become known as something to effect of “the suicide garden.”
  • There is growing evidence that permanent memorials of a student who dies by suicide may contribute to suicide contagion. Suicide contagion is defined by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services as “exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.”

Suicide Postvention and Prevention and a Memorial

The matter of suicide contagion was discussed a moment ago. In addition to the points made thus far in this article, a memorial to a person who died by suicide must also take suicide postvention and suicide prevention into consideration.

A memorial should not be crafted in such a manner that it somehow romanticizes the concept of a death by suicide. A death by suicide is a public health concern and not something that should be romanticized in any way. Indeed, a memorial to a person who died by suicide can be created in such a manner than it not only celebrates the life of the individual who has died but includes elements that can aid in controlling suicide contagion and preventing suicide.