By Elizabeth Boyle; Crisis Intervention Specialist
The death of a loved one is difficult under any circumstances, but a loss by suicide is unique in many ways. Suicide often comes as a great shock to a family without recognizable warning signs. Unfortunately, suicide carries a stigma that can cause the family feelings of shame and can cause those around them to avoid the issue and not reach out. These factors can severely complicate the grieving process.
Death by suicide isn’t as rare as many would like to think. According to the American Association of Suicidology, there are 36,000 suicides annually in the US. They estimate that for every suicidal death, there are at least six survivors. Based on that estimate, approximately 6 million people have lost a loved one to suicide in the past 25 years. This makes it likely that we will personally know a survivor of suicide loss at some point in our lives.
So, how can we support someone we care about following a loss by suicide? The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention makes the following suggestions:
1. Refrain from saying “I know how you feel.” Instead, something like, “I don’t know what to say: I have no idea what you’re going through, but I care about you and I want to be here for you,” will be more honest and meaningful.
2. Read about suicide loss. You’ll better understand what they are experiencing, and in the process might discover helpful information you can share with them.
3. Don’t wait for them to ask you for help; they may be too deep in their grief to realize what they need. Rather than saying, “Let me know if I can help,” do something specific for them, like shop for groceries, offer to babysit, bring dinner to their home, etc.
4. Help connect them with other suicide loss survivors through International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, AFSP’s Survivor Outreach Program, and bereavement support groups. When appropriate, consider offering to accompany them to an event so that they don’t feel so alone.
5. Many people find that professional counseling helps them deal with their grief in a healthy way. Help your friend search for a therapist, schedule appointments, etc.
6. Don’t be afraid to speak the name of the person who died. Your friend will be grateful for the opportunity to reminisce.
7. Knowing what to expect and learning from someone else’s experience can help both you and your friend get through the more difficult times.
8. Just be there. Sit with them. Watch TV or a movie. Listen to music. Go for a walk together.
9. Be patient. This experience has changed their life forever. The weeks and months following the funeral, when the initial shock wears off and the full reality of what has happened sinks in, may be the toughest for them. Continue to check in, and let them know you are thinking of them, that you’re there for them, and that you want to listen.
10. Most importantly, be sure to remind your friend of their self-care needs: get plenty of rest, eat nutritiously, etc.
On a final note, Families First’s Crisis and Suicide Intervention Service (CSIS) encourages refraining from saying that the loved one “committed suicide.” The word “commit” has very negative connotations, such as committing a sin or a crime. Instead, we recommend saying that they “suicided” or “died by suicide.”
For further assistance and support,
please call CSIS at:317-251-7575 or 1-800-273-8255