Trigger warning: This post contains a discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
When a loved one dies by suicide, the survivors are shattered. Facing a death by suicide can easily overwhelm a survivor with grief.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2018, suicide claimed the lives of over 48,000 American people. In 1999, U.S. Senator Harry Reid, reeling from the suicide of his father, introduced a resolution that created International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.
Also known as Survivor Day, the awareness day was intended for those who survived the loss of a loved one to suicide to come together for support and healing. Survivor Day always falls on the Saturday before American Thanksgiving (November 21, 2020), as the holidays are difficult for many suicide loss survivors.
But how can you slupport a friend who is dealing with the poignant loss of a loved one by suicide?
Be There and Listen
One of the best ways to support a friend whose loved one died by suicide is to simply be there for them. Your friend will be suffering a world of conflicting emotions such as grief, anger, and helplessness, and they will need you to listen to their anxious worries.
Listening to your friend’s concerns means trying not to offer solutions to their problems. Most people who are overwhelmed by grief don’t want to listen to advice you can give them. They simply want you to listen.
Ask how they feel. Don’t assume you know how the bereaved person feels on any given day; they might feel differently from moment to moment.
The Dos and Don’ts of What to Say
Oftentimes when dealing with a grieving friend, we want to say the right thing. As it turns out, there are a few good things to say and a lot of bad things to say. Here are the dos and don’ts of what to say.
- Do tell them that you love them and are thinking of them. Let them know you will be there for them no matter what.
- Do tell them that you are sorry for their loss. You can and should of course offer your condolences.
- Do tell them that you want to listen to stories about their loved one. Do reminisce with your friend. If you have good memories of their loved one, share those memories with them.
- Don’t tell them that you understand their pain. Even if you’ve been through a similar situation, everyone’s grief is different.
- Don’t tell them that they’ll get over it soon. You do not know when your friend will recover from the loss of their loved one, if ever. Don’t presume to know when their grieving cycle will finish.
- Don’t tell them they are lucky to have other loved ones, especially children. Nothing will substitute for the loved one they have lost.
If you are with someone who is grieving but you don’t know what to say, you don’t have to say anything. Simply placing your arms around your friend’s shoulders and letting them cry in silence can help them feel less alone.
And remember: Finding the right words to say is less important than simply listening.
Grief makes people do ridiculous things. In the course of their grief, your friend may want to rail against God, or scream about the deceased not getting help, or yell at anyone and everyone who failed their loved one.
Let your friend scream. Let them say whatever they want to say without judging them or trying to offer them advice. Don’t show off your skills in psychology. Your friend will need you to be there for them, not lecture them.
Tell them, “I love you and I am here for you.” In their moments of difficulty, calm, non-judgemental acceptance can be incredibly powerful.
Night time can be particularly difficult for survivors of suicide loss. Your friend may struggle with their sleep. They may need a listening ear at three in the morning.
Keep your phone on. Your friend may feel awkward or tell you that they won’t call, but when it comes to long nights, they may need you to be available at any time of the day for them.
Try to let them wake you up with grace. Their grief won’t be a permanent thing–they’ll only need you temporarily. But do be there for them.
Remember Your Friend Throughout the Year
Your friend will undoubtedly find that the first year after the loss of their loved one is difficult. And about two weeks after the loved one dies, most of the cards and flowers and well wishers dissipate.
Don’t forget your friend. Send them a note on the month markers–for example, if their loved one died on the 6th of March, then the 6th of April may be difficult, as well as the 6th of May, and so on.
Other important dates to remember are birthdays and special holidays that the deceased loved, especially Christmas and the other holidays in the November-December-January season. If your friend lost a spouse, the anniversary of their wedding date is incredibly important to remember.
Send your friend a note or give them a call on these important days. Let them know you are thinking of them and their loved one hasn’t been forgotten.
Watch for Warning Signs
After the death of a loved one, your friend may spiral into a deep depression. If your friend exhibits any of the warning signs of suicide themselves, encourage them to talk to a mental health professional.
Watch for these warning signs, especially up to two months after the death:
- Extreme focus on the death
- Declining grades or work performance
- Lack of concern for personal welfare
- Excessive alcohol or drug use
- Anhedonia – the lack of pleasure in normal activities
- Extreme and persistent anger, bitterness, or guilt
- Talking about needing to escape the pain
- Neglect of personal hygiene
- Planning a suicide attempt
If your friend is acting strangely and trying to say goodbye to their life, they may be planning a suicide attempt. If you suspect that they will act on their plan, call 911 immediately.
People who are grieving will never “get over” their loss. They will constantly have a loved-one-shaped hole in their life. The best you can do to support them is to help them begin to heal.
Be there for your friend, listen actively and ask them how they feel, don’t judge them, be available anytime, remember them throughout the year, and watch for warning signs of deeper problems.
You can help your friend who is suffering suicide loss. You can be there for them.
I wish you well in your journey.