When a person has lost a loved one to suicide, their pain is caused not only by the actual loss but also the realization that their loved one was hurting very badly to get to the point where suicide was seen as the only option. If you know someone who has had this type of loss, you might not know how to support them. A suicide loss survivor does need support, however. Read on for some tips on talking to and supporting your friend or family member who has suffered this tremendous loss due to suicide.
Admit That You Don’t Know What to Say
The trite sayings such as, “he is in a better place,” or “she isn’t suffering anymore,” are seldom helpful after a death, but they are especially unhelpful when the person died from suicide. Inquiring about the details of the death are also not appropriate, so it can be difficult to think of conversation topics when you are with someone who is grieving this loss. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I would like to support you.” This might lead to the person wanting to talk about his or her loved one. Or it might not. Either way, this shows that your silence is not a reflection of you not caring but of you not knowing exactly what you can say to be of comfort.
Don’t Give the Person Advice — With Exceptions
Everyone grieves differently, so it generally won’t be helpful for you to advise a person to go out with friends more, to get back to work, or to otherwise get on with their lives. If your friend is going out and working or going to school, refrain from advising them not to. Grief is very personal and your friend or relative is handling it the best way they know how.
With that being said, there are a few things that you can give advice about. One is to remind the person to take care of themselves in terms of eating and sleeping. A person in the grieving process might not remember to take meals and might be suffering from insomnia. If the person is exhibiting signs of depression or severe anxiety, you can suggest that they get help. Most people will benefit from counseling after such a traumatic loss, and you can be the one to suggest it.
Bring Them Necessities and Give Tangible Help
Many people will tell the grieving individual, “tell me what I can do to help.” While this is a kind thing to say and while the person might have every intention of following through if asked, someone in the midst of grief often cannot verbalize what they need. They might not even know what might make the coming days, weeks, and months easier. Call and ask if you can bring them dinner. Or you can send a gift certificate to a restaurant that offers takeout or, better yet, delivery. You can also ask if you can coordinate a meal train so someone brings a meal to them every day or every other day for a certain number of weeks.
As far as offering tangible help, ask them if they need specific things done for them. For example, if they have children, offer to babysit or to give them rides to their activities. Ask if you can do their laundry for them; take it to your house to wash and dry, then fold it and bring it back ready to be put away. If they have a dog, ask whether you can walk him. Particularly if the person who died was the one who handled some of these tasks in the home, this can be very appreciated and helpful.
Do Not Assign Blame
The person who died by suicide was most likely in a great deal of pain and would not have otherwise made the choice that they did. Do not talk about how suicide is selfish or say anything else negative about that choice. The people left behind are well aware of how their loved one’s suicide is impacting others.
At the same time, do not try to assign blame to the survivors. Asking whether they noticed any signs or how they tried to help the person is not appropriate. For the rest of your friend’s life, he or she will be asking him or herself whether they could have done something differently to prevent the death. You do not need to add your thoughts on this matter.
Stick Around for the Long Haul
After a sudden death in the family, survivors often get an outpouring of love, support, and help in the days and weeks following the event. As the months go by, however, people not as strongly impacted tend to get back to their regular lives. The survivor is then left dealing with his or her pain and all of the logistics that go along with a death on his or her own. Be there for your friend for the long haul. Plan on checking in each week even after months have passed. Send a card or check in on the deceased’s birthday and during the holiday season. Be aware that even after years pass, these days will often cause pain and angst to those left behind who are missing their loved one terribly.
Don’t Forget the Individual Who Died
Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who died. Death makes us uncomfortable, and suicide even more so, but the individual’s loved ones who are left behind want to remember their family member. While you shouldn’t bring up the circumstances of his or her death, it is appropriate to talk about him or her by name and to bring up good memories that you have of the person who died by suicide. Don’t let his or her survivors think that their loved one has been forgotten.
It can be difficult to know how to support those impacted by suicide or other traumatic deaths, but by following the above suggestions, you can give some comfort to people who have suffered such a traumatizing loss.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.