When word gets out about a death by suicide, there is a ripple effect. The loss moves out in ever-widening circles and whoever hears or knows anyone impacted by the loss wants to do something. Bake lasagna, make the calls, organize logistics, walk the dog, help with the service, be a shoulder, lend an ear. They want to feed you, nourish you and hold you. They want to help you stay afloat when you are drowning in heartbreak. They feel your loss, and your loss becomes their loss.
Loss is primal; we all feel it. And this is especially true when we hear of a suicide, and especially, the suicide of a young person with their unfurled life before them.
It is hard to see our loved ones doubled over in grief and pain. We want to do something – anything — to help ease their misery.
What can we do when someone we care about loses a loved to suicide?
- Stand there.
I know that might sound funny, but what I mean is that you stay grounded, are present and don’t head for the hills. You do not shy away or avoid the reality before you. It is the truth that is in the middle of the room. You bring your fully present, open-hearted self into the room. Presence – and that includes acceptance, non-judgment and compassion — are the greatest of gifts.
- Expect the unexpected.
Death can bring out the best and the worst in people. Death by suicide can become a trip-wire for some. Their unconscious, what-were-you-thinking criticism, inappropriateness and nervous chatter can surface and stun a room for all the wrong reasons. Try not to react and let it go.
Conversely, death can imbue a person with a sensitivity, gentleness and strength that soothes the soul. These people bring a loving, other-focused attendance that knits together the emotional safety nets for the bereaved.
Further, every one expresses their grief in their own unique way — whatever their style, be it get-up-and-go or shut-the-door-on-the-world. Grief is an idiosyncratic, winding road of a process. There is no calendar. There is no right or wrong. It takes as long as it takes as each person ploughs through their own murky waters to find sturdier footing.
- Speak from the heart.
Suicide is not an easy conversation. People get tongue-tied. They don’t know what to say or they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Please withhold the shoulda/coulda/woulda’s and any form of judgment or criticism. Avoid peppering the bereaved with questions asking for all the suicide details.
Listen. Be kind. Offer specific help – not the ubiquitous, “Call me I can do anything.” – but offer to run an errand, cook a meal, take care of the kids for the afternoon
More than likely the bereaved is overwhelmed and exhausted. Go gently. Don’t take anything personally. Simply be there and speak from your heart. You do not need perfect words. You only need to share from your heart. Who knows, you may cry together, hold hands, sit in silence or giggle momentarily at something absurd.
Going forward, please note that many survivors of suicide find “committed suicide” to be insensitive as suicide is no longer illegal in the Western world. You might try “died by suicide.”
- Tell stories; remember and honor.
One of the best gifts you can give the bereaved is to tell stories of their deceased loved one. Parents, especially, never tire of hearing stories of their lost child. They appreciate his/her name being mentioned. Their child will always be in their thoughts and in their heart.
If bereaved loved ones are joining your holiday table, consider a small candle lit in the deceased’s honor or, perhaps, a toast…Let’s raise our glass to Sam who always made us laugh or Here’s to Sarah, we sure miss her – and her pumpkin pie, too.
- Give some latitude.
This grieving business is not easy. Everyday can be an effort to put your feet on the floor and take a step. Survivors of suicide are awash in complicated grief. Suicide leaves the survivors in an emotional muddle.
Further, suicide is a trauma. And, be aware, that survivors of suicide are at high risk for suicide themselves due to the broken taboo, the overwhelming grief, guilt and relentless replay of their lost loved one’s life and wondering if they could have done anything to change the outcome. It requires enormous fortitude to walk this particular path of grief. Go gently.
There are times when we all need a little help from our friends, and most especially when there has been a death by suicide.
Jungian analyst, poet, and cantadora (keeper of the old stories), Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us that the wise, elder women of her family would say, “The only miracle medicine we have is each other.” Indeed.