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November 6, 2019 Beyond The Dash

How to Write an Obituary When the Cause of Death Was Suicide or Overdose

Considerations for including cause of death, making a statement, and maintaining privacy

How to Write an Obituary When the Cause of Death Was Suicide or Overdose
When there is a taboo subject surrounding the cause of death, it can be difficult to know what's acceptable to write in an obituary. (Getty Images)

Losing a loved one is never easy. It can be even more agonizing when the death was the result of mental illness, addiction, or another issue that is stigmatized in society.

In recent years, there has been a shift away from viewing depression and addiction as issues of morality. These are now widely considered to be mental health issues, as deserving of treatment as any other health issue. Progress is being made in government, health and the public eye to destigmatize these issues, but there is still a way to go. 

This is apparent when a loved one dies under tragic circumstances. How to navigate an unexpected death in an obituary when the circumstances of the death are shameful to the surviving family, or could possibly paint the deceased in a negative light?

Many families consider skipping the obituary entirely, under the circumstances.

For some, a tragic or accidental death in the family is reason enough not to write an obituary. Grappling with grief, the traumatic circumstances of the death and their community's perceptions of those circumstances, there may be little will to write the life story. 

Anger is a common response to any kind of loss. It's often even more prevalent for those who are grieving the victim of a suicide or overdose. This, coupled with shock, confusion and the usual emotional logistics of planning a funeral make writing an obituary difficult. 

Some considerations for those thinking of skipping the obituary:

  • The manner of death does not change the events of a life.

  • No matter the death circumstances, your loved one deserves to be remembered in an obituary if that was their wish.

  • There is no need to rush — a retrospective obituary may always be written at a later date. 

  • You are allowed to keep the cause of death out of the obituary — focus on life instead.

  • You may not have the ability to contact all of the deceased’s friends and colleagues. They will want to know and have the opportunity to deal with the loss in their own way.

Cause of death can be intensely private.

Revealing the manner of the subject's death is not the purpose of most obituaries. In fact, it is relatively uncommon to see a family list an explicit reason for death. No matter what, no one should feel compelled to include this private information in an obituary.

Considerations for keeping cause of death private:

  • Keeping cause of death vague or private is a completely valid and reasonable choice.

  • Revealing this information can cause distress for some families — check in with loved ones before doing so. 

  • What would the deceased person think of a memorial revealing their cause of death? 

Obituaries sometimes reflect the cause of death to make a point.

Those who have lost a loved one to mental illness understand that this kind of grief is complicated. Everything about it feels unfair, unlucky and preventable. For many, part of moving through the grief process involves engaging deeply with the issues that contributed to the death. 

Obituaries that include a call to action are few and far between, but every once in awhile, a family will turn to a loved one's story to let their thoughts about social issues be known. From calling out fatphobia in the medical system, to advocating for gun reform, to challenging readers on their perceptions of death, these five obituaries had a point to prove. 

Some considerations for using the cause of death to prove a point:

  • Personal grudges should never be part of an obituary. Make sure the cause you choose is worthy of informing part of your loved one's final tribute.

  • Calling for change in an obituary may bring your loved one's story to the attention of trolls — be prepared for potential backlash. 

Including a tragic cause of death in an obituary can be healing for the family and helpful for the community.

Though there should be no pressure to directly address a suicide or overdose in a person's published life story, there are some advantages in doing so. 

Those closest to the deceased person may be exhausted from answering the same questions over and over. Putting the circumstances in the obituary can help ward off the questions of curious acquaintances. Those acquaintances will be more equipped to be sensitive and supportive during this time. 

Considerations for including cause of death in an obituary:

  • It's usually best to be brief, direct and honest. 

  • Don't dwell too long on the death — the story should mainly focus on life.

  • It's okay to express the pain of such a loss, but try to keep the obituary clear of judgement and bias. Don't blame the deceased person or others for the death. 

  • It may be a good time to include a request for a charitable donation to a relevant cause.

Collaborate with those closest to the deceased about the message. 

An obituary is often a family affair. It can be difficult to face family so soon after a loss, but that doesn't mean you should write a loved one's story alone. Ask for input, clarify facts, double-check spellings of names and collaborate with others who knew the deceased person to tell a full and accurate story of their life. Including others is the process may make them feel like they have more control during uncertain times. 

Considerations for collaborating:

  • Including a tragic cause of death in an obituary can be controversial within families. 

  • Talk with those who were closest to the deceased person before including an overdose or suicide in a life story. 

  • Writing an obituary that includes cause of death requires tact and understanding of the issues.

The person entrusted to write the obituary should have a good handle on the issues that led to the death, especially if they plan on including this information in the published life story. 

Write tactfully, be as kind as possible to the subject of the obituary, and remember that this story will be public once it's published. Strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, friends, family and others may come across this life story. If you are planning on being direct about the cause of death, make sure you have considered the audience and impact in full.

Ready to write? Beyond the Dash obituaries are free to publish, never expire and include a guestbook for family and friends to share memories.

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