At one point in their lives, everyone encounters grief after losing a relative or close friend. It is a challenging moment that tests our strength, but that can also bring people closer together and rekindle family relationships. However, death by suicide is different and even more soul-crushing. Comforting and supporting someone who lost someone to suicide seems to be a sensitive and perhaps even paralyzing topic for the friends of survivors.
What should you say to them? Why did they kill themselves? How can I help? All of these are questions that will spin in your head as you hear the news and as much as you wanted to help, you’re so afraid you might say something wrong, that you are tempted to simply avoid contact until some time passes.
Understanding the complexity of grieving suicide deaths
The trauma that someone experiences when a loved one dies by suicide can be crippling and life-changing, and that is mainly caused by the unpredictability of this kind of loss. Suicide loss survivors experience grief in a different way, so it’s very important to understand their feelings before reaching out to them. More often than not, the people who were close to the departed feel shocked and confused at the situation and take some of the blame for this tragic event. It is in fact very common for them to feel like they are responsible, to have a strong sense of quilt for the suicide, that they should have seen it coming and that they should have done something to stop it. They can also feel angry at the person who died by suicide because they should not have abandoned them. On the other hand, they may view it that the person who died has done so to end their own suffering and to end the suffering of their families. All these emotions can be suffocating and burdensome, preventing the bereaved from reaching a healthy conclusion and resuming their lives.
So how can you help?
First of all, be there for them. Unfortunately, suicide is still shrouded in stigma and those who are grieving suicide are often marginalized when in fact they deserve just as much support and understanding as those who lost a loved one as a result of old age, illness or a tragic accident. No matter how uncomfortable you may feel to talk to someone who is grieving a suicide death, it is even worse for them. They are an extremely vulnerable point in their life where they feel alone, angry, confused, ashamed and guilty.
Learn to listen and don’t try to fix things for them. You’re not expected to hold all the answers and explain why that person took their own life. Your presence alone is greatly appreciated and the fact that the bereaved has someone to talk to means a lot.
Ask if and how you can help. Sometimes, your friend may need some time alone to process their feelings, and that is completely normal. Reassure them that you are there for them and if they need anything, all they need to do is pick up the phone.
Lastly, keep in mind that those who lose a loved one to suicide can grieve for longer and they may experience intense trauma reactions. Sometimes, grief can be followed by periods of anxiety or depression, even post-traumatic stress disorder, so they might require counselling to feel better.