Suicide is Not Painless 24

I lost a friend last week.  He used to be my brother-in-law.  Before he was my brother-in-law, though, he was my friend; conversely, after he ceased being my brother-in-law, he remained my friend.

This friend - because he was family and is still related to my children – has a place in my genealogy program under my first marriage.  I have a few selected short stories under his name to amuse my children and later, their children.  Like the times he and his brothers terrorized the next-door neighbors – or on a dare walked the ledge, outside in front of the living room window in his bvd’s when he was 8 years old…  Yes, 3 boys, no father living with them and a working mother = really funny stories.  But now that he is gone, I’m having a problem categorizing his death.

I have always tried to be truthful when relating stories and careful to cite the sources - who told me these stories or contributed content.  It’s always been important to me that my style be straightforward – with no soft soap or apologies… ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’

I’m struggling with this one, because, his death was not natural.  I’m told he took his own life.  I’ve never had to enter an event like this before and it has me puzzled.  I feel that I want to protect him from writing those words in my program – to somehow shield him and others from recognizing his despair.  It’s been a week now, since the day he died and I sat with his brother and tried lamely to comfort him.

I’ve thought a lot about his memory this week and how I will put a period next to the life I have documented in my genealogy program – and here’s what I have decided:

I will make a bullet point list of his life as I see it at this moment – the good and the bad – about stories that make me want to laugh until I cry and other stories that make me just plain want to cry… then I’ll leave it.

I will walk away for a year and make no reference to it, nor add to it.  I will divorce myself from that list for a year and when that year is up, I will be better equipped to deal with the real man who passed away – and not the saint (as some people portray their deceased)  and not the man who I am so terribly mad at right now.  In a years’ time, my feelings will have softened and I should be through most of the grieving process.  Then, I will take out my list and with a clearer view, portray my children’s uncle and my friend with more clarity.  This is what I will do.

It’s dawning on me that there are probably a lot of “whispered about” situations that are just as hard as this – things that as genealogists we must think about and figure out.  I’d like to hear from any of you who have faced these situations.  How did you handle it with regard to entering information in your tree?  Did you enter details?  Did you mention the “S” word? Or did you just plainly document a death date, omitting the details?  Is this something that is easier to document from a distantly removed ancestor, rather than a contemporary or another relative that you have actually known?  It would be great if you could comment below – so we can all make educated decisions about difficult family issues and genealogy.  Thanks.


About Leslie (Gignac) Drewitz

Leslie (Gignac) Drewitz (PLCGS) is a graduate of the National Institute of Genealogical Studies, with a Professional Learning Certificate in Genealogical Studies - Librarianship and currently works for a suburban Chicago public library where she has overseen the Local History collection for the past 11 years; as well as their Genealogy Club, where she teaches and lectures. Lately, she has been named a curator at the Bloomingdale Park District Museum in Bloomingdale, IL, as well. She also does private contract genealogy. Leslie lives with her husband Michael; her four children, Ellissa, Trevor, Jon and Katie; and their wonder dogs, Harley, Birdie and Mr.B. You can contact Leslie by email, or on LinkedIn

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24 thoughts on “Suicide is Not Painless

  • Karen

    There is a history of suicide in my husbands family. His mother & his sister both committed suicide. Its not painless for the ones left behind. You have my condolences on the loss of your friend & family member.

    In the ones in my file that have committed suicide I put in the obituary (if there is one), and I pretty much leave the rest of it alone, except in cause of death. Under cause of death I put .. suicide/gunshot wound which was the case in both his mother & sisters case. No explanations or anything. I left it at that, basically because without seeing in someone’s head, or reading their minds we can only guess at what the real cause of the suicide was.

    I left the memories intact, the stories, the pictures. Would it help if we knew the real cause of the suicide? Maybe? Could we have done something different to maybe change things? Maybe… but we’ll never know.

    Smart decision to wait a year. By then the feelings of anger and hurt will have dissipated and you can see clearly how you want to handle this very difficult situation.

    Thoughts & Prayers for you & those in your family touched by this tragedy.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      My Condolences to you and your husband as well – I am truly sorry for your loss.

      Yes, there are so many questions that will never be answered when suicide is involved. Perhaps with this post and all of the heart felt replies that it received, we can start a dialog about this subject. I can only feel incalculable sorrow for the loved one that would feel so desperate as to do the unthinkable.

  • Nancy

    I have two suicides in my family tree, both ancestors that are far enough back that I didn’t know them or have any emotions attached to them. I listed both deaths as suicides and the apparent reasons for said suicides. Those were easy.

    A close relative of my husband’s committed suicide, too. I am not keeping that tree since his family already did it. If I was, though, I would do like you are doing. Give it some time and revisit it. This man has been gone for 25 years, but the damage his suicide did is still present. His daughter still tears up when she talks about him, but not so with her mother. His daughter also can’t bring herself to listen to audio recordings of her father. It just tears her up. Even my very stoic husband can’t hardly talk about this man who he loved dearly.

    Time will make it easier to come to terms with the facts of the situation. I think eventually you will be able to give the reason for his death in a straightforward way but with additional info that gives indication as to why he took this action. Revisiting it in a year is a good plan, but it might take longer than a year for you to have lived with it long enough to write it down.

    I’m sorry you and your children and your children’s family are having to deal with a loss like this.


  • Larry

    That has occurred in our extended family as well. Someone being murdered, someone being abused, someone who commits suicide are all unhappy events. What I have done in those cases in just put the birth. marriage and death dates and what they may have done for an occupation. I am careful not to editorialize, make judgments etc. even in my notes.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      Yes, Larry, thank you for bringing that up – Editorial comment is probably one of the foremost issues with this. I will, I know, have to restrain myself from doing this as I know who was responsible for his pain and sorrow and – as I will eventually forgive – I may never forget their cruelty. Leslie

  • Maryanna Stever

    It has happened in our extended family several times. Yes it hurts to lay it out in print. What I have done is post the usual stats but attached a copy of the death certificate and any newspaper articles that I have found. Our particular family is prone to alcoholism and chronic depression. Since I am documenting family illnesses for future generations I want these facts to also be documented so that people are aware of them and can watch for warning signs so that suicide happens less often. I also try to balance this with as many happy stories as I can gather from family and friends. These people were dear and they were loved and the pain of those left behind was tremendous. I want future generations to know these people as whole people, not just because of the way they died.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      Maryanna ~ What you are doing is very smart. Alcoholism and depression seem to go hand in hand and it’s heartbreaking to watch. People who were once happy and productive, sinking into that black hole is the hardest thing you will ever watch and you’re helpless to stop it. You are an amazing person because you want it known to other loved ones – through medical genealogy – that these problems exist in your family. God Bless.

  • Amy Johnson Crow


    I cannot imagine the loss that you feel. You have done a remarkable job of paying tribute to him, while inspiring others who find themselves in your situation.

    I have highlighted your post on “What We Are Reading,” a new weekly column on the blog.

    I hope that in a year, you’ll be able to go to your list and have a clear view of how you want to remember him.


    • LDrewitz Post author

      Amy ~ Thank you for the recommendation in your Blog on Ancestry – that was very kind of you.

      I know that a year will soften my feelings around the edges. Unfortunately, within the stages of grief, I am still extremely angry not only for what he did; but what the people closest to him did…which was nothing.

  • Jim

    When someone gets a divorce they have a ex-wife or ex-husband. No one else in the family is an ex unless they go to court and file to be an ex. So he was still your brother-in-law unless you changed it legally. I’m sorry for your loss. He was your friend and brother-in -law.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      Thank you for recognizing that, Jim.

      Actually, I knew him for 3 years before I knew he had a younger brother (whom I married). He dated my sister, as well for almost a year and when they broke up, he never left that circle of friends. I watched him grow up into a sensitive, caring man – and one HECK of a CUBS FAN! Go Cubs!

  • pjg

    My dad and my sister both committed suicide (1970/2009). Not easy for anybody to deal with, but keeping it ‘secret’ doesn’t help anyone.

    One of the things I initially discovered when I started my tree in 2010, was that my dad’s dad had been adopted at age 11 (another ‘secret’ none of kids knew!) which led to other interesting findings.

    Turns out, my dad had a paternal Grand Uncle, a Great Grand Uncle and a GGGpa who also killed themselves (as cited in newspaper articles). Out of the last six generations, five have had a suicide. That’s quite a consistent pattern, and I think future generations should be made aware of the tendency. I’m more concerned with maybe saving someone’s life, than about stepping on someone’s toes.

    In that regard, for each person, I’ve attached a rainbow-colored tree as their ‘profile pic’, so the line is easily identifiable in the family view, and might pique some future researcher’s curiosity. I also made a note in the ‘Comment’ section for each of them, noting their death was by suicide (no details), and referencing the other family members who also died in that manner.

    It’s not an easy topic, and a very personal decision. Luckily, nobody in my family even looks at my tree! 🙂

    • LDrewitz Post author

      I’m in the same boat as you, pjg, no one wants to look at my research either (with the exception of my daughter) – all of my family members are indifferent.

      I have a relative that is a funeral director. Before they became a FD, their opinion was that suicide was a selfish, cowardly choice. After a year in the business, however, they have changed their tune. Now they describe it as – heartbreaking and hand-wringingly unbearable for those left behind; but, for those that have left this world in that way, there is nothing but peace, where there was once chaos.

      I’m not saying that I agree with that – but it sure makes the thought bearable when it happens to you in your family…

  • Leslie

    I am so sorry for your loss. Suicide exists in both my family tree as well as my husband’s — I am grappling with the very same questions you are (and, more generally, with how to handle painful stories of all kinds). I think your decision to put some time and distance between yourself and how you will portray the death is a very good one. The right thing to do will probably become clear. For myself, I have set the following boundary for my blog: The feelings of the living always take precedence. If a living person will be harmed or upset by the telling of a particular story, then I hold back. This is not the right rule for everyone, but it’s the one with which I can best live for my own family history writing.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      I wholeheartedly agree with your reasoning. It’s always best to weigh the feelings of a family member against anything that you document in your research – and pray that you did and said the right things. We are human – and I think that says it all. Thanks Leslie

  • Marie

    We’ve had several touchy deaths in my family (several suicides, including my son, and my sister was murdered). I struggled with how to deal with it in my genea software and records. In the end, I opted to record the information as known, without adding my own emotion to it.

    So the cause of death is listed per the death certificate, and any articles or correspondence concerning are attached. I didn’t, for example, try to get my other sister’s ‘story” of being present during my sister’s murder (which would be tough to do even now, 50 years later) … I just left it to the newspaper articles.

    Even though newspapers are often wrong, in cases like this it’s sometimes best to have an “unbiased observer” reporting the story.

    And then, like you, I try to offset all of that with the good stories and pictures from the life of the person.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      Wow, Marie, you have endured so much and it sounds like you came out the other end stronger and wiser.

      I agree, editorializing i simply wrong and should be avoided in these cases. My prayers for your son and your sister…

  • Carolyn Henderson

    I have a brother-in-law who suicided and few years later his wife did the same, he suffered PTSD as a result of war experience and his wife just missed him so much tragic! I have not placed anything on their pages only because I would imagine it too raw for their children to read it still.
    I know the children are doing their own trees, to me, they can place that in their tree if they feel it important for them to do so. It is not my place when that close.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      My condolences on the death of your brother-in-law and sister-in-law. I’m sure what one child leaves out of their research – another child will include.

  • Deborah Martin-Plugh

    I read your post with great interest as it is a topic I have tackled in my own blog in a post this past January. From my young girlhood, I have known that my father’s father committed suicide. The how and why were blurred and the topic was always discussed in the briefest and most hushed terms. My mother told me that my then 5 year old father ‘found his father’. And I never asked questions. Ever. Until I became the family historian. By then the previous generation had all died and the truth with them. In fact, I had no exact idea when he died, where he died and where he was buried. I was determined to know more about my young grandfather and to take off the cloak of secrecy about his suicide. Along with the facts of my grandfather’s life and death, I learned a great deal about humanity and compassion during my discovery. But then, that has been my philosophy as a genealogical researcher. We are researching humanity…the angels with clay feet.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      Deborah ~ I read your article and I LOVE your writing style! Editors, take note!

      But what really threw me was when you said “…humanity…the angels with clay feet”. Beautiful, just beautiful.

      Thank you.

  • Sylvia

    Not all will agree with me but I would put accidental death. We don’t know if he had a chemical imbalance or regretted it when it was too late to stop. Believing in God as I do I know he is forgiving and merciful and the last thing he’d want for anyone is hurt. No one will ever know what drove him or if we could have handled it better. He is at peace now and I know he wants that for you too. If he could do it over a better way he would.

    • LDrewitz Post author

      Thank you, Sylvia – yes, I have thought of that – but he did leave a note and his intentions were clear. It is what it is…