Survivors of Suicide
I have lost a loved one to suicide, and it has been a struggle. Could you share some thoughts about how to support the survivors of suicide?
Signed: A Part Of Me Died Too
Dear A Part Of Me Died Too,
No matter how hard we try to let the people around us know that we care about them, we cannot always manage to save those who are hurting at the deepest levels. Those who contemplate or act on their suicidal thoughts are struggling with a level of emotional pain and a depth of self doubt from which they can not always be rescued. By the time a person’s sadness and hurt have reached these lows, a mental health issue has developed – it is very real and often quite damaging. For anyone who has lost a loved one to an act of suicide, the grief and suffering that the survivor experiences is also quite devasting.
When someone we love dies by suicide, we often blame ourselves. We wonder what we missed, or why the love we had for the person was not enough to save them. We might get angry with the world around us and wonder why no one else was able to help the person who died. We might struggle with guilt and shame, feeling as though we are being judged (even by ourselves) in some negative way because we were not able to help the person that we cared about. Our hearts break beyond repair – the gut punch of complicated grief that comes with a death by suicide tears apart a piece of us that never fully recovers. And the whole memory of the amazing person that we loved sometimes gets overshadowed by the final act of their life.
If you know someone who has experienced the suicidal death of a loved one, please reach out.
Be there and listen: Offer your presence and let them know you’re available to talk or simply sit with them. Listen without blame or judgment. Allow them to express their feelings, even if they are painful or difficult to hear. Validate their pain and loss – and their anger, when they have it. Don’t try to “fix” their feelings – simply accept them for what they are.
Show empathy and understanding: Avoid making judgments or offering solutions. Grief is a complex and individual process, and everyone experiences it differently. There is absolutely nothing that you will be able to say to make the person feel “better”. So instead, be honest and use empathetic phrases like, “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling,” or “I’m here for you, no matter what.”
If the loss is recent (or the grief has taken over again), offer practical assistance: Help with day-to-day tasks like cooking, cleaning, or running errands, as grieving individuals often find it challenging to handle these responsibilities.
Encourage professional help: Grief and loss can be overwhelming, especially when it involves suicide. Survivors can often feel quite alone and isolated. Encourage the person to seek professional support from therapists or support groups. Help them build a network of care around themselves.
Be patient: Grieving is a long process, and there is no timeline for when someone should “get over it.” Offer your support for as long as it takes.
Respect where they are at: Some people may not want to talk about the suicide, while others may find it therapeutic. Respect the survivors’ boundaries and let them guide the conversation.
Remember special occasions: Acknowledge the survivors’ grief during special occasions, such as birthdays, holidays or in the weeks surrounding the anniversary date of the death of their loved one. These times can be particularly challenging.
Stay connected: Continue to check in on the person regularly, even after they seem to have returned to regular routines. Complicated grief stays with us on a daily basis, and for years. And it can resurface over time. Don’t be afraid to ask the person how they are doing, even if time has passed or they seem fine. You will not hurt them by doing so.
Promote open dialogue: Encourage open and honest communication about the struggles that the survivor and the person that they lost to suicide have experienced. Avoid treating the topic as taboo, which can further stigmatize what they are going through. It’s okay to say the words “suicide” or “survivor” – you do not have to try to sugar-coat what has happened.
Remember their loved one: Keep the whole memory of the person who died alive by sharing stories or photos of the person; or do activities that the survivor and their loved one enjoyed together.
Offer flexibility: Be flexible with plans and expectations. Grief can be unpredictable, and survivors may need to cancel or reschedule activities or events. Don’t take that personally.
Encourage survivors to prioritize self-care: Grief can be emotionally and physically draining, so remind the person to take care of their well-being (encourage them to start with the foundations – eating, sleeping, hydrating, staying active).
Take care of yourself: Supporting someone through this difficult process can be emotionally taxing. Make sure to connect to your own support network or professional help if needed.
I found these words in a message from the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention (along with some terrific resources, for the survivor themselves, on The Lifeline Canada Foundation website Survivors of Suicide Loss – The LifeLine Canada Foundation) and they express so well the message I am trying to convey – “The fact that someone died by suicide does not diminish our love for them, their value, the contribution they made to our families and communities and our right and need to celebrate and honour their lives and accomplishments. It is how a person lived not how they died that defines someone. Survivors are the most courageous people we know.”
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