Trigger warning: This post contains mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.
If you or anyone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 741741.
Grief is one of those things that is often not discussed, but at one time or another we’re all going to experience it. Suicide grief, however, is not something that everyone will feel. On one hand, this is a blessing for those who don’t have to experience it. But on the other hand, it can alienate those of us who do. So, speaking as someone who has been through the complicated and varying emotions that accompany a suicide loss, here are some tips on how to help a loved one who is grieving a suicide loss.
Don’t compare your grief with their grief.
All too often people won’t know what to say and truly do their best to comfort someone who has experienced a suicide loss. However, suicide grief is different than other grief so comparing the loss of that person’s loved one to a different loss is not helpful. Instead, just be with that person and allow them to share whatever feelings they are experiencing.
Don’t tell them “everything happens for a reason”.
Even if this is something you or that person truly believes: Do. Not. Say. It. I’m serious. The last thing I wanted to hear after my brother’s death was that there was some kind of reason for it. My brain was too busy trying to process what happened to think about the larger picture and my heart was too busy missing him and wondering why he left the way he did. There are times where encouraging quotes are helpful but suicide loss is not one of those times. It’s okay to not say anything and it’s also okay to admit you don’t have the right words to say.
Don’t tell them they should be over it.
Whether it’s been two months or two decades, don’t tell someone they should just “get over” a suicide loss, or any loss if I’m being perfectly honest here. With time, they may be able to come to peace with what happened, but that doesn’t mean they have or could ever get over it. Today’s society wants us to process and work through our feelings and then place them in a box, wrap it up, and tie a bow on it. But it’s not that easy. Let the person grieve in their own way and at their own pace. There is no right or wrong in grief.
Don’t try to fix it.
Oftentimes people hear about a problem a loved one is having and do their best to fix that problem to make everything okay again. Suicide loss is not something that can be fixed, nor is grief. One of my favorite grief authors has a quote I have to share.
“Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
– Megan Devine, author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK”
So instead of being uncomfortable that your friend or loved one is in pain, sit in the pain with them. Let them know they aren’t alone in it and that it’s okay they aren’t okay with what happened.
Say their loved one’s name.
Sometimes people are afraid to say the name of the lost person because maybe the bereaved person has forgotten and will be reminded of their loss. Spoiler alert: we haven’t forgotten. We will never forget. However, it’s nice to know that other people also remember our loved one fondly and saying their name means they won’t be forgotten.
Just be with them.
Literally just be with your loved one when they’ve experienced a suicide loss. So often people are afraid to do or say the wrong things and will unintentionally alienate the person they need to be embracing. Instead of fearing the discomfort, lean into it to show them you are there for them.
Encourage them to eat.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, simple things often go forgotten. Even if their fridge is full of casseroles, take notice on what your loved one is eating. If they seem to be skipping meals, encourage them to have a few bites of something so their energy levels won’t deplete quite as fast. On the other hand, make sure they have plenty of healthy options to choose from. Maybe cut up some fruits or veggies to have on hand so they don’t have to put forth the effort if their hunger strikes in the middle of the night.
Let them share – or not.
Some people want to talk about their loss or the details of what happened, and some people don’t. Be there for your loved one regardless of how much they want to share. Don’t ask for details, but be prepared for them to share if they need to get it off of their chest. If you’re afraid you can’t handle what they are going to share, encourage them to reach out to a professional.
Send them texts or call them.
If you know it’s going to be a particularly rough day, like the birthday of their loved one, or a special holiday they shared with their loved one, let them know you remember and that you are with them through their feelings. You can offer to celebrate with them or hold a small event in memory of their loved one, but even a simple “I’m thinking of you today” text will remind them you care and they aren’t alone.
Be specific with your offers to help.
Many people send messages offering to help, but I know I was hesitant to take them up on their offers for fear of being a burden. I remember one neighbor in particular was always very specific in her offers to help our family, such as “I’m going by the grocery store, what do you need me to pick up?” or “Where is your broom, I’m going to sweep the leaves off the walkway so people don’t slip.” Even though these offers were simple, they meant so much because that person had already committed to doing something for us and it seemed less of a burden. So instead of saying “Let me know what I can do”, try to be more specific in your offers to help.
Above all, showing your loved one that you are there for them and they aren’t alone is the most important thing during this time. Grief is a difficult thing to experience, and that is only compounded by the confusion and feelings that accompany a suicide.
For other resources on suicide grief, check out https://trianglesos.org/resources.
About the Author
Katherine Thompson lost her brother to suicide in 2016. Since then, she has volunteered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and is currently pursuing her licensure for Clinical Counseling at East Carolina University. Katherine lives in North Carolina with her husband and two dogs.