In our culture, death from suicide can be particularly difficult for friends and family due to the stigma associated with it. Survivors often feel incredibly guilty that they didn’t do enough to prevent the tragedy or feel that they missed important warning signals. They may also be searching for answers to why their loved one’s life took such a tragic course. In some cases, police are involved and an autopsy is required by law. To make matters worse, family and friends may be suspected of foul play. Even under the best of circumstances, the family and friends of the deceased are going through a difficult and confusing time.
The most important thing you can do to help someone deal with grief relating to death from suicide is to provide support and compassion. How you do that will depend on the people involved and your relationship with them. Below are a few suggestions to help you navigate the process.
Death from Suicide: What not to do…
- Don’t vanish: Be available, loving, and non-judgemental. Don’t suggest what you would do or how you would feel. It’s not about you.
- Don’t try to take control: Your support is valued, but don’t try to take control of the situation. Loved ones need control to help them work through grief. Avoid pressuring the family to clean out the deceased’s belongings. They need to do this in their own time.
- Don’t push for details: Let survivors share the details they feel comfortable sharing. Focus on the survivor’s needs and be a good listener.
- Don’t bring up other people’s losses: Let friends and family focus on their unique loss.
- Don’t avoid the subject: If the survivors want to discuss suicide, be open to the topic. Remember that suicide is complex and there are usually many contributing factors. Rather than offer simplistic explanations, it is usually best to be a good listener.
- Don’t say…
- “Didn’t you notice something was wrong?”
- “How did he/she do it?”
- “He/She was always a little emotional.”
- “Didn’t his/her mother commit suicide too?”
- “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Death from Suicide: What to do…
- Encourage the person to talk about the deceased: The person may want to share stories about their loved one, talk about the circumstances surrounding the death, and their plans for the future. Don’t press for details unless the person wants to discuss it. Focus on the deceased’s life, not his/her death.
- Encourage the family to plan a memorial: If you are an appropriate person to do so, encourage the loved ones to plan a wake, funeral, or burial and by all means, assist with the arrangements if you are in a position to do so.
- Help make arrangements or do chores: Offering assistance is good but is often declined. Instead, proactively take care of a chore such as lawn care, cooking, cleaning, or transportation. Offer assistance with children or pets. If there was a note and you are the appropriate person, ask the police for a copy. Seeing the contents can help the survivors heal. You can also make sure the deceased’s personal effects are returned to the family after the autopsy.
- Keep in touch: Make sure you are available for support after the funeral or memorial service. Oftentimes, this is when the survivors need help the most and friends and family will disperse shortly after the services have taken place.
- Send flowers with a note or offer a donation to an appropriate charity or research organization: Thoughtful acknowledgments are almost always appreciated. Below are samples of the types of sentiments you can include.
- “It’s too bad he/she died. I will always remember him/her.”
- “It’s so tragic. What you’re going through must be very difficult.”
- “I’m saddened by your loss. We care and love you deeply.”
- Find out about support groups: If you are in a position to do so, ask a support group leader to call the grieving parents to talk or pass information on groups along the family.
The most beneficial thing you can do to help someone is grieving due to a suicide death is to be supportive, patient, understanding, and non-judgemental. It may take a long time for them to process their grief and there will be ups and downs. A listening ear, companionship, and a helping hand can go a long way.