Losing a loved one to suicide is a difficult and complex experience. It can be difficult to comfort a loved one surviving the loss of a friend by suicide. There are many ways to help but there are also plenty of ways that are unhelpful and compound the trauma. Suicide also has a lot of cultural contexts because many people view it differently. However, when somebody you know has lost someone else to suicide, that isn’t the time to pontificate your views.
Suicide is also difficult to parse because the surviving loved ones can be overwhelmed by grief, anger, frustration, guilt, incompetence, or loneliness. Suicide loss survivors can feel abandoned or betrayed, even when it’s irrational. They can also feel shame, as though they didn’t do enough to prevent their loved one from taking their life. Self-blame, humiliation, and feeling directionless are also common, especially if their loved one was someone they relied on. Unlike death by accidents, illness, or old age, suicide is self-inflicted which leaves those surviving feeling unmoored.
This creates a vulnerability that can be amplified by outside opinions and can lead to reinforcing negative opinions. For instance, if you are insensitive, even unwittingly, you can cause your friend to lose any empathy for people experiencing depression or suicidal ideation. It’s important to be careful with the language used when talking to suicide-loss survivors. While the intent can be to comfort or help your loved one avoid blame, it doesn’t negate any negative impact you may cause. There aren’t any perfect things to say but there are guidelines you can follow to know what to say and avoid.
What to do for a loved one who has lost someone to suicide
1. Educate yourself
It’s always better to be someone with knowledge, not just opinions. Suicide is a common phenomenon but many people still don’t understand much about it. According to the World Health Organisation, 703000 people worldwide take their lives each year. Many more attempt suicide. The most common people who attempt suicide are between 15 and 29 years old. However, people of all ages attempt suicide for different reasons including chronic illness, clinical depression, mental disorders, and environmental causes.
Arming yourself with knowledge about suicide helps you build more empathy and understanding for vulnerable people. It also demystifies it. Suicide is taboo for many people. But acting like it doesn’t exist or it’s something to be hidden doesn’t help your friend. When you have a holistic comprehension of a complex emotional loss, it makes it easier to be a better friend. Mental Health: Demystifying Suicidal Ideation
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2. Be intentional
Language matters. Don’t send your friend an ended text simply saying, “Hi.” That puts the labour on your friend to drive the conversation. They don’t need that responsibility. Tell them that you want to help and are there for them. In addition, you can make specific offers if you know about their personal life. You can offer to babysit, run errands, or clean their house.
3. Offer to support them when they get support
Grappling with suicide loss can’t be managed only with prayer or sharing feelings. Your friend may need to seek professional help from counsellors or therapists. This is an intimidating experience. Your friend may also not understand why they need the help when it wasn’t them who “suffered”. Offer to accompany them to seek psychological help and give them moral support. You can also help them find appropriate counselling and whittle down a list based on convenience, affordability, and if the therapist specializes in suicide loss.
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4. Be there for them
People process loss differently. Some only need company when doing daily activities. Offer to watch movies with them, sit in silence, listen to music, etc. if that’s what they prefer. Try not to fill in the silence with inappropriate or mistimed questions.
Exercise patience when dealing with loved ones experiencing suicide loss. The magnitude of their loss can change their personality as they continue to process the grief and think about how things could or should have been. Let your friends know that you are there for them whether they want a sounding board, a silent partner, or someone to help with daily life. Don’t feel impatient if they don’t bounce back within a few weeks.
6. Choose your words carefully
Say things like “I’m sorry for your loss”. Don’t try to offer explanations about why their loved one decided to end their life. Use the same verbiage you would if your friend had lost their loved one to more common forms of death. Loss by suicide is just as valid. Acting like it’s different contributes to the stigma associated with it.
7. Say their name
Due to the taboo nature of suicide, you may think you’re being helpful by avoiding saying their name. However, it’s important to say their name as needed. Your friend will appreciate how you’re making the effort to remember the victim. If they were a mutual friend, offer to reminisce about them to keep their memory alive.
What to avoid
1. Don’t impose your experience
Don’t tell your friend that you know what they’re going through unless you have also lost a friend to suicide. It’s better to acknowledge that you don’t know how to comfort your friend through such a profound loss but you will be there for them, no matter what.
2. Don’t ask for details
Temper the urge to be curious about it. You don’t need to know why they died by suicide, if they left a suicide note, or if they had a history of attempts. Don’t ask your friend invasive questions even if you tell yourself your intent is compassion. Unless your friend tells you wilfully, don’t speculate or interrogate.
3. Don’t berate
Your friend is already grieving. If you believe that suicide is sinful because of your religion, it’s not your friend’s business. Don’t attempt to preach to your friend about the moral failings of suicide. This will make your friend feel worse. In addition, don’t try to yell at them because you assume they didn’t do enough to prevent the suicide.
4. Don’t try to explain death
A common practice when trying to provide comfort is to tell the bereaved that their loved one is in a better place. This assumes that your friend has similar beliefs to you when they may not. In addition, some religious beliefs treat suicide like a cardinal sin therefore anyone who attempts it won’t get eternal salvation. If you want to help your friend, don’t mention things like, they’re no longer suffering, at peace, or in a better place. Avoid cliches when trying to provide comfort. Don’t tell them things like time heals everything.
5. Don’t complain about suicide
There is the mistaken belief that suicide is selfish. This contributes to the stigma. It also makes it difficult to discuss suicidal ideation. When people feel like they can’t continue anymore, they’re discouraged from seeking help because society makes suicide sound inconsiderate. Your friend doesn’t need lectures about your beliefs. Calling their loved one selfish doesn’t help them process their grief. It just makes them more miserable. Avoid also mentioning how you would never try suicide. It’s not about you.
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