After receiving news of my sister’s suicide, I hissed an angry message into my mother’s answering machine. (I later made an amends.) Shortly after I hung up, I had a very strong impulse to harm myself. It came out of nowhere and rattled me. I knew I’d be wise to get outside support as soon as possible (and I did, the day after I returned from the memorial).
I’ve come to learn it’s normal for loss survivors to think about ending their lives, because they’re longing to be with their loved ones. However, suicide loss survivors attempt more often because of the stigma (shame, guilt, and blame) associated with suicide itself.
According to the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, losing any first degree relative to suicide increases the mourner’s chance of suicide by about threefold. That’s a scary reality.
I’m hoping to shed some light on a dark topic to help you better understand what suicide loss survivors need in order to effectively process their grief and move forward.
Allow me to begin with a story...
I attended a picnic one Sunday afternoon, within about three weeks of my sister’s suicide death.
I was sitting alone (I didn’t know the other guests) and I was content to watch the boats on
the water without feeling obligated to make small talk with strangers I’d never see again. It was
a nice afternoon and it felt good to be sitting outside in the sun. I was there, present, and very
grateful not to have to cook that day. I’d already spent some time conversing with my friends,
so this quiet time to myself was a soothing respite. I’d made the effort to attend the picnic and
I thought it was going pretty well, all things considered.
After about an hour or so my friend Steve came over to the table and told me I needed to
“smile because I was bringing everyone down.” (Nobody there knew me or anything about me.
They were busy chatting among themselves and having a good time.) I looked at him
surprised, wondering why he was acting as if I’d been sitting there wailing and drawing
attention to myself.
I flatly stated, “Steve, I just lost my sister. I might not be whooping it up at this particular moment, but I’m here and having a nice time. I’m not crying. I haven’t even brought it up. I’m just sitting here quietly enjoying the weather.” He then informed me I needed to “get over it,” and that I was “depressing.” Stunned, I told him I wasn’t willing to act fake to make him feel more comfortable.
That was a strangely empowering moment for me, and I learned a few helpful things at the same time:
I was aware Steve’s discomfort had nothing to do with me personally.
He simply reacted to his own discomfort regarding my loss and wanted me to act as if
it never happened so he could feel better again.
Some people just can't to deal, and that’s okay, but I need to express myself in a genuine way, so I do.
I took responsibility for my experience that day by telling Steve I wouldn’t put on a fake face to make him feel better. Steve ultimately took care of his by walking away. Understandable, yes, but not at all helpful to a friend grieving a suicide loss.
So… how can people support loss survivors effectively without wigging out or walking away?
Here are ten suggestions for more sustainable connections:
1. Allow them to grieve in their own way and in their own time.
Grief knows no timelines. It’ll take as long as it takes, and you can’t rush or control it. Doing so will only silence and isolate the survivor. Grief isn’t an illness, it’s a process. Most people eventually adjust to their loss. Allow them their own unique experience.
2. Ask them if they want or need to talk about it.
Some will and some won’t, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. For those who will, repeating their suicide loss story again and again and saying the word ‘suicide” will eventually help the survivor accept and integrate their loss. BE PATIENT. This takes some time.
3. Listen without judgement and validate their feelings.
Suicide loss survivors can experience some volatile emotions which can surprise and disturb even them, so don’t be alarmed. This is natural and normal. All feelings need to be heard to heal, especially the most difficult ones. Paraphrasing and restating the survivor’s emotions is validating. Feelings left unaddressed or invalidated tend to eventually become problematic. Don’t be scared of silence; you don’t have to fill in the gaps. Silence helps a survivor integrate so don’t pressure yourself. Sit and be silent.
4. They will be different: Don’t expect them to “get back to normal.”
Parts of the survivor died when their loved one did, so they’ll never be quite the same. Understand they take on lots of guilt. Remind them suicide is a solitary act, and they didn’t live between their loved one’s ears. The mind is a private and personal world, and we’re not able to watch over people 24/7.
Don’t pepper survivors with questions or blame them for “missing the signs.”
Always, always respect their wishes and their limits.
5. Be genuine and avoid platitudes.
You can’t and won’t ease their pain, so don’t even try. Survivors can smell B.S. a mile away, so make sure your intentions are pure if you decide to connect. Expressions such as, “Time heals all wounds,” “He/She’s in a better place,” “It was God’s will,” or “He/She wouldn’t want you to be sad,” are not helpful.
It’s better to say, “I don’t know what to say,” or “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
If you put your foot in your mouth, you can always remove it, apologize, and try again. (I’ve done this many times. It’s really okay.) If you really don’t know what to say or are scared to approach them, say a prayer or set an intention instead.
We can always do something to support a loved one in pain.
Above all, be kind and respectful.
6. Offer to be of service.
Offer to help with regular household tasks like, cooking, laundry, lawn care, shoveling, child care, rides to and from school events or activities, etc.
Suicide grief is exhausting and overwhelming. People often don’t know what they need, so it’s best to offer something specific or give them some options. If you can’t help in practical ways but know someone else who can, ask on behalf of your loved one.
Never ask a survivor to “call if they need anything.” I guarantee you they won’t.
7. Ask specific questions about their lost loved one.
Not everyone will be willing to talk initially, but the ones who do will appreciate the opportunity.
Survivors don’t want their loved ones to be remembered for the way they died. They want them to be remembered for the way they lived when they were well. Telling personal stories can initiate healing and keep loved ones alive.
8. Take care of your own unresolved feelings: Don’t make it about you.
It isn’t fair to put a survivor in caretaker mode when they’re already in a black hole of shock and despair. Resist the urge to tell your sad stories now. If their loss has in any way triggered anything unresolved in you, find someone (else) to confide in so they don’t feel the need to hold back or rescue you.
Supporting others grieving a suicide loss can be painful and draining, especially if you tend to absorb the feelings and emotions of others. Take breaks and honor yourself. None of this is easy, and you’re a rock star for showing up!
9. Check in on a regular basis.
Let them know you love them and they matter to you.
This journey is long and hard and sometimes continued strength can be hard to muster. Words of love, acceptance, and encouragement can go a very long way. No eloquence required; just speak from your heart.
10. Direct them to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Survivor Outreach Program.
Even if they aren’t initially ready for peer support, they might be relieved to know there are resources available for the future. Nothing is more healing than genuine connection with others who’ve been there, and it might be the only confirmation they aren’t totally alone in their experience.
You can also contact your local health department for support groups and other mental health resources.
Survival is serious business and, in all honesty, it takes a small village to heal after suicide loss.
So, remember to show up for your loved one with kindness, compassion, and patience.
When in doubt ask a specific question, offer to help with a task or chore, or simply say a prayer.
Serve others in alignment with your natural strengths. If you’re a good listener, listen. If you love to do acts of service, do some manual labor. If you happen to have money, give some to the family.
Remember to stay connected because grief is ongoing, and your loved one will need help for awhile. Understand survivors carry lots of guilt and blame, so they’ll need perspective to release it.
Together, we will always be stronger.
Together, we can recover from unspeakable tragedy.
Together, we can learn to love each other, and ourselves, better.
Together, we can heal and come back to life.
R Jade McAuliffe-
Author and advocate; believer in things unseen.
"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart and bids it break."