Until the 1960s, people bereaved by suicide were a largely hidden group. The attention of researchers, clinicians and policy-makers was focused almost exclusively on people who attempted suicide or took their own lives and efforts were directed mainly towards suicide prevention. Survivors were isolated from one another, little was known about them and about their circumstances, and they received little or no help in coming to terms with their loss. Interest in survivors and awareness of their situation began to emerge in rather roundabout ways.
The development of what became known as 'psychological autopsies' drew attention to the needs of suicide survivors. These autopsies began in the late 1950s, when staff at the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center were asked to study a series of equivocal deaths where the coroner had not been able to certify the mode of death. Relatives, friends, employers and others who had known the deceased were interviewed in order to reconstruct the person's background, personal relationships, personality traits and character (Shneidman 1993:191). During the course of these interviews, it became apparent that survivors wanted to talk about their grief, their guilt and anger, and often their own suicidal feelings. 'It was usually the first time [they] had been given the opportunity to talk about the suicide' (Colt 1987:14).
Although the psychological autopsy has certain limitations as a research tool, a number of researchers who have used this methodology, have also drawn attention to its therapeutic value for interviewees (Colt 1987; Asgard and Carlsson-Bergstrom 1991; Shneidman 1993; Hawton et al. 1998). Asgard and Carlsson-Bergstrom, for example, found that 65% of their informants reported experiencing a positive effect on their emotional balance and 34% thought it had shed new light on the suicide (1991:26). Litman and colleagues (1970) also found that the experience could help to lessen the survivor's guilt and make acceptance of the death easier.