Book Review: Dying to be Free: A Survival Guide for Families after a Suicide

According to estimates, every 17 minutes someone commits suicide. Those left behind, called survivors of suicide, number forty each hour, almost one thousand per day, according to AAS[1]. The total of survivors of suicide today number ten million. Due to many factors, these huge numbers are thought to be under reported.

Beverly Cobain is a psychiatric nurse who is also Kurt Cobain’s cousin. A certified psychiatric nurse, she and social work colleague Jean Larch are experts in this field of suicide. Jean Larch has offered the workshop, Understanding Suicide, since 1989, training for mental health professionals. Their book is a boon to anyone who has been left behind by a suicidal loved one. It’s short, packed with important knowledge, and includes stories of other survivors. Stories + knowledge help a lot, especially when the subject is as painful as this.

For many, it’s impossible to fathom why anyone would end their life by their own hands. A few key concepts of the book explain why someone would take such a desperate measure. Growing inner turmoil they term a “psychache” makes them feel there is no way out. Either there will be psychache relief or they must end the pain through dying. This inner distress creates a secret dialogue and a type of tunnel vision for the suffering person. They can be skilled at keeping their experience to themselves, and can become more afraid of living with the pain, than dying. Dying offers deliverance and the slippery slope to this choice is not always gradual.

One of the most illuminating sections of the book is Bev Cobain’s personal account of her own near suicide. I appreciate her courage in sharing this. Her hope that this will help others understand suicide is realized – at least, it helped me see more clearly how that slippery slope to suicide can work. For twenty years+, Bev struggled with anxiety, depression and insomnia before she received proper mental health treatment. Once she found the right treatment, finally life was working for three years or more. Then one day she woke in a state of despair and hopelessness and was not sure why. She describes the day that followed, and her near suicide, and the coincidence that saved her. It is a harrowing yet illuminating tale that shows how the suicidal mind can take over.

Key points she notes:

  • In that impersonal and disconnected state, she did not think of loved ones. The next day she was appalled to think how her two sons would have been impacted.
  • Once contacting help (which happened accidentally), she was compliant, responsive, and willing to follow directions to safety.
  • The next morning, there was no trace of this despair.

Suicide hits everyone. The myths and stereotypes we may hold – that these folks are losers, are really not true. Many brilliant successful loving creative souls somehow find themselves taking this choice. Grief of the survivors left behind is compounded, the authors say, due to the sudden nature of the loss, and the unanswered questions behind the death. The authors explore why grief can be complicated and can include elements of guilt, PTSD and stigma that interfere with healing.

How do you aid survivors, if they experienced this? The authors have a few recommendations: Listen. It’s OK to talk about the loved one who has died. Find help and ongoing support. I loved this suggestion: “It is all right to cry as long and as soften as you want to for the rest of your life”.

Bev Cobain also wrote the book, When Nothing Matters Anymore: A Survival Guide for Depressed Teens. Both authors recommend The Psychology of Suicide: A Clinician’s Guide to Evaluation and Treatment, by Edwin Shnedman et al, a seminal work by a clinician they admire.

Another good book from a survivor for survivors is by Judy Collins, titled, The Seven T’s: Finding Hope and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy. Judy lost her son to suicide, and had bouts of suicidality in her youth, as well as struggles with addiction.

A helpful trend I see in my locale is support groups by a local hospice for survivors of sudden death of a loved one. Whether suicide or some other unexpected death, grief is often different than with a death that is part of the natural life cycle, or one that is expected. Grief with sudden deaths can be even more challenging and complicated.

I wish you the best in finding the support and healing ground you need, if you are dealing with a sudden loss in your life. And below are resources if you are ever feeling an urge to harm yourself. (You can always just dial 911 or go to your local emergency room to find compassionate help in this case.)


National: Suicide Prevention Lifeline – a national network of local crisis centers offering free confidential support 24/7.   800-273-TALK (8255)

Local: Hope Coalition of Boulder, Depression awareness and suicide prevention resources.

From the Hope Coalition website:

National Suicide Lifeline  800-784-2433
Spanish Hotline 800-784-2432
Trevor Hotline (GLBTQ Youth)  866-488-7386

24 Hour Walk in Center and Crisis & Addictions Services
3180 Airport Road. Boulder, CO 80301

[1] American Association of Suicidology,

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