Some People Don’t Believe a Loved One Really Committed Suicide

copyright free, photographer Brandon Anderson of Null Value

I have had several up-close-and-personal views of suicide during my life. I hope I never have another one.

I lost my uncle when I was a teenager. I don’t know why he killed himself. He was a wonderful, larger-than-life man whom everyone wanted to be around. The world faded a little without him.

At nineteen, following my parent’s divorce, my grandmother found my dad sitting on her front porch in a rocking chair with a loaded shotgun between his legs. His gold wedding ring lay on a dresser. Fortunately, that’s as far as he got. We had some great times and many years after that. But for years, long after I grew up and intellectually understood the psychology of suicide, the daddy’s girl inside of me still wondered why my adoration of him-or his love for me-didn’t keep him safe.

One of my first therapy clients died from it. I was devastated. I listened to the audio recording of our last session over and over. I must have missed something. She was looking forward to her out-of-state trip to meet her first grandbaby. She had worn orange, dangling earrings, red lipstick, and a colorful dress. She seemed to be in good spirits. But, I thought, there must have been some clue-and I missed it.

My graduate school advisor assured me I did nothing wrong. Even my client’s husband reached out. He was so kind. Even while wrestling with his grief, he wanted to make sure I was OK. He told me his wife so enjoyed our sessions. He wanted me to know she thought I would be a stellar psychologist, and she described me as “ wise beyond her years.”

Did I know she had tried to commit suicide at least a dozen times before? She’d almost succeeded a half-dozen times. He said that, over the years, he’d become accustomed to living with a locked medicine cabinet and padlocked kitchen drawers. It was a tough way for both of them to live.

The Aftermath of Suicide

For most survivors of a loved one’s suicide, there is nothing easy or straightforward about grieving. It’s a messy bereavement complicated by guilt, anger, and other emotions. Denial is sometimes one of them. But sometimes it’s not.

As a forensic psychologist, I’ve gotten several calls from family members who refused to believe a loved one-someone they knew intimately-had taken their own life. Some believe their loved one was murdered and the crime scene staged. They want my help to prove it. Often, this comes after they’ve reported their suspicions to police and received a response consisting of raised eyebrows, pat reassurances (“we know it’s hard to believe it”; “it’s part of the normal grieving process”), or both.

Clues to a Murder Staged as a Suicide

Sometimes those suspicions are based on information the family knows and the police don’t. And sometimes, the police’s lack of suspicion is driven more by early assumptions than a thorough investigation.

So how do investigators know what cases merit a closer look? How do police avoid drawing premature conclusions that might sabotage critical evidence collection? How do they know when a family’s persistence is likely due to open wounds rather than a more sinister source?

After researching dozens of cases, here’s what I’ve found:

  • The word “suicide” should be avoided when describing a death until after a medical examiner or coroner has conducted an autopsy and the police have completed their investigation. Dispatch should use “unexpected death” when calling out police and medical first responders. It is startling how often an initial report of “a suspected suicide”-whether by dispatch or the 911 caller (who is sometimes the perpetrator)-can influence everything that happens next. I’ve seen countless critical clues get overlooked because the investigative script was for suicide.
  • If it is a staged suicide, the person who calls 911 is most often the perpetrator. It is possible to be emotionally supportive of the 911 caller and not cut corners. This gives them the first chance to influence how investigators interpret the scene. Investigators may also fail to follow routine investigative procedures out of what they believe is respect for a traumatized family member and witness.
  • The unexpected death should be treated as a homicide until proven otherwise. Computers, notebooks, diaries, journals, cellphones, reading materials with suicide-related themes, and suicide notes should all be collected. Investigators should interview critical witnesses. Other significant evidence will depend on the mode of death. If it’s an overdose, for instance, responding officers can complete inventory lists of all drugs found at the scene-specifying where they were found concerning the body, the type of drug, amount, and prescribing physician.
  • A psychological autopsy of the deceased can be extremely useful to create a life history and record recent events. This process involves obtaining mental health and medical records, interviewing family, friends, and coworkers, and creating a timeline and psychological profile. These steps can help with the “big picture” of the person’s life; it is enlightening if the husband, for instance, is describing his wife as depressed or suicidal, and yet everyone else who knows her is reporting the opposite. It is also relevant if there is a history of domestic violence or significant interpersonal conflict (including a pending divorce/custody battle) in the relationship.
  • In my research, I often find a history of previous or recent criminal activity in a perpetrator’s background, most often domestic violence or fraud (especially when there is a possible financial motive). Megan Hargan, who is currently on trial for allegedly killing her mother and sister and staging a murder-suicide, had withdrawn nearly $400,000 from her mothers’ bank account the day of the murders. Michael Seth Perrault is a former Georgia police officer who recently received life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2020 shooting and staging of his wife’s murder. He had a long history of beating his wife and had been arrested for domestic violence shortly before the murder.

The Bottom Line

Few things are more challenging to get over than losing a loved one through suicide. Having a loved one murdered, and then the murder masqueraded as a suicide, might be one.

Originally published at https://www.psychologytoday.com.

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Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.

Forensic psychologist/private investigator//author of serial killer book. Passionate about victim’s rights, the psychology of true crime, and criminal justice.