How to Help a Friend Who’s Lost a Loved One to Suicide
“A person never truly gets ‘over’ a suicide loss. You get through it. Day by day. Sometimes it’s moment by moment.” — Holly Kohler
Suicide is currently the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the numbers are rising each year. Every day, approximately 123 Americans take their own lives.
Suicide is complex and rarely caused by a single issue. Relationship problems or loss; substance misuse; physical health problems; and job, money, legal or housing stress are often contributing factors. Regardless of the cause, the grief can be emotionally devastating to those left behind. Each suicide death leaves an estimated six or more "suicide survivors"—people who have lost someone they care deeply about and are left struggling to understand why it happened.
Losing a loved one to suicide is among the most heartbreaking tragedies a person can endure. While any cause of death—particularly if it’s sudden or unexpected—leaves friends and family coping with feelings of tremendous grief, suicide brings with it a unique set of challenges. Those touched by it are often filled with unanswered questions, immense guilt, and social stigma from those who don’t understand. People coping with suicidal loss often need extra compassion and support but may get less because it’s hard for them to reach and out and because others are unsure how to help. However, the emotional support of friends and family can make a real difference to those who are bereaved by suicide and their capacity to manage the experience. While spending time with them may feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, don’t let it prevent you from showing up in their time of need. Here are some practical suggestions for how you can help a friend who’s bereaved by suicide.
Knowing what to say is often the biggest challenge. Often, what a grieving person needs most is a willing friend who can be there and listen to his or her feelings in a nonjudgmental way, without trying to problem-solve.
- Avoid clichés and platitudes. ‘You're so strong', 'time heals all', 'she's at peace now', 'you still have other children', 'I know how you feel.' While well-intentioned, trite comments like these can leave the bereaved feeling misunderstood and even more isolated.
- Do not ask intrusive questions about how the person died. If the loss survivor doesn’t bring up the suicide method, it’s safe to assume they don’t want to talk about it. If they do mention how their loved one died, don’t ask for details beyond what they offer. Instead, offer an open invitation to talk.
- Don’t cast value judgments on the deceased. Saying that they were selfish, cowardly or weak isn’t going to help your friend. Allow the bereaved to come to his or her personal understanding of the situation.
- Be truthful about and aware of your limitations. It’s perfectly OK to acknowledge that you can’t fully understand or know how to react to what they are going through.
- Do say the name of the person who has died. Not talking about him or her can leave the bereaved feeling as though their departed loved one is being forgotten or dismissed. Give the loss survivor an opportunity to reminisce with you about the person they loved.
There are plenty of opportunities for to provide practical and emotional support at this difficult time. The sorrow that comes with suicide is enduring. Your friend is likely to need assistance and support for a long time as he or she comes to terms with the loss.
- Help attend to the things that might get left behind during this challenging period. Offer to handle specific tasks. For example, “I’ll bring dinner tomorrow. What would you like?” or “I’d like to pick up some groceries for you and mow the lawn this afternoon. Would that be OK?” Many bereaved people find it difficult to ask for assistance and they may also have a hard time identifying ways you can assist.
- Be aware that your friend is having a hard time. Respect his or her right to grieve and accept the intensity of the anguish. Allow expressions of guilt, confusion, anger and blame in whatever way is most comfortable for them.
- Stay in touch. The weeks and months following the funeral, after the initial shock wears off and the full reality of what has happened sinks in, are often the hardest for survivors of suicide. Continue to check in and let your friend know that you’re there for them.
Sometimes it can be helpful for survivors of suicide to connect to others who have experienced the same type of loss as they have. Suggesting resources for counseling and suicide survivor support groups is another important way you can help someone who is grappling with such a loss. If you need more information about reliable area resources or how you can support your grieving friend, we can help. Please reach out to our compassionate funeral directors.
About Vaughn Greene Funeral Services: For more than 20 years, Vaughn Greene Funeral Services has been providing a ministry of care to Baltimore’s African American community. As a leading local, minority- and family-owned provider, we promise to provide our highest level of service and respect to families who entrust us to honor their loved one. For more information, please call us at 410.655.0015 or visit us online at https://vaughncgreene.com/.