Helping a person who has lost a friend or loved one to suicide.

If you have a friend, family member or colleague who has lost somebody to suicide, you may be wondering how to be there for them. You are not alone. In 2019, 3,318 Australians died by suicide (Source: ABS) leaving behind many loved ones in need of solace as they grieve and attempt to heal. Although suicide is tragically common, we as a society are often not great at talking about it, especially with those who are left behind.  Research states that for every suicide approximately 135 people are impacted by the loss, and between 80 – 85% of Australians have been touched by suicide.

Because of the taboo and stigma attached to suicide most of us either don’t know how to start the conversation or think that maybe it’s better if we don’t bring it up at all. Remember grief is an individual journey and will affect each one of us differently. Being bereaved by suicide has been described as ‘grief with the volume turned up’, so it is important that we don’t go into the conversation with assumptions about how the person is feeling or what they are experiencing, rather we go into the conversation to listen and ask what they need from us.

Choosing to talk about the loss despite any uncertainty, helplessness, or discomfort you may feel is an act of love. While every loss is different and there are no lines of dialogue that will apply to everyone, suicide bereavement counsellors do have some recommendations for how to have the conversation.

Some actions that may offer comfort:

Some phrases or actions not recommended:

DO be there – pick up the phone, write a letter, send an email, call by or arrange to visit. Offering practical help – asking what they need.

DO aaccept that there is no normal way to grieve, everybody has their own journey.

DO encourage them to talk about whatever they want to talk about – and listen.

DO create an environment where they can be themselves without having to put on a front or pretend.

DO contact them at difficult times – anniversaries, birthdays, special occasions.

DON’T avoid somebody who has been bereaved.

DON’T use cliches to try to make them feel better e.g. ‘I understand how you feel’; ‘Time heals all’; ‘They are in a better place’.

DON’T tell them it’s time to move on, everybody has their own journey and there is no time limit to grief.

DON’T try to change the topic when they want to talk about the person they have lost.

Some phrases that may offer comfort:

1. “I’m sorry for your loss”

Losing somebody we value and care for is painful, and yes, losing a loved one to suicide may be different from other kinds of death in various ways. Acknowledge the loss and grief and often shock, acknowledge the person who is no longer with us. Treat the bereaved as you would treat anybody you care about who is grieving and in pain.

2. “I know how much you loved (loved one’s name), this must be so hard”

Mention the person who has died, talking about them is a subtle but effective way to convey your support. This tip might seem obvious, but many people in this situation avoid saying the name of the person who died (or avoid referring to them by their relationship to the bereaved friend, like your mum). Acknowledging who has gone, instead of treading on ‘eggshells’ may help them feel as though their loved one isn’t going to be forgotten.

3. “I want you to feel safe sharing anything with me. Do you want to talk about it?”

Many myths about suicide persist and many survivors of suicide loss have internalized this stigma. They may be reluctant to speak about the experience for fear of being judged or making someone uncomfortable. 

It is hard to separate all the feelings and thoughts that come when somebody dies suddenly and can often feel overwhelming. 

Feelings may include these…(but are not limited to)

   

   

 

4. “It’s OK if you don’t want to talk now, I’m here to listen whenever you want to talk”

Whether your friend, colleague, loved one is preoccupied with what’s on their plate or is still in shock, they might not be ready to talk yet. Some people don’t always have time to grieve right away. Samantha, who lost her sister said, ‘For me, it didn’t hit for a while’.

If that is the case, they will probably give you a cue to back off and wait. Honour that. Let them know you are ready to listen when they want to share, and you can always ask again later or reiterate your availability. Stay steady in your efforts and keep in contact.

5. “Can I make dinner/do laundry/run that errand for you?”

Don’t underestimate the power of simple actions. Taking something off their to-do list can be invaluable.

It is more helpful if you are proactive rather than saying, ‘I’m here if you need anything’, which puts the onus of asking on the person who is grieving. 

A few ideas: Bring prepared food, clean the kitchen, help sort mail, babysit, give their kids a ride—whatever you can do to make their life even a little easier.

In addition to providing practical support, you are showing how much you care at a time when it’s hard to come up with comforting things to say. Sometimes, when words are inadequate, actions can speak volumes. 

6. “I remember that time when…”

Usually what people grieving this loss want to do, especially after they get past the initial shock and confusion, is to remember the person’s life—not just their death. They are thinking of their loved one all the time. 

 It is most likely a relief for them to get an invitation to talk about the person who has gone, hearing what people loved or liked about them, remembered about them, moments or memories, sharing their history, stories and experiences. People don’t what those that have left to be remembered by their death or have the suicide define them, this conversation is more about what happened when they were alive.

If you can’t get a sense of whether or not they would appreciate hearing a memory, you can always ask first, say something like, ‘I was thinking about a memory of [name], can I share it with you?’ 

7. “You can grieve as long and hard as you need to, and I will be here for you”

It’s not unusual for a survivor of suicide loss to be flooded with concern and support right after the death, then to watch everyone go back to business as usual a week or two later. In combination with our culture’s general avoidance of grief and suicide, this decline in support can make many people who have lost someone to suicide feel pressured to get over the death.

But grief doesn’t usually follow designated timeline, adding the unexpected, traumatic nature of losing someone to suicide can make the process even more complex. 

Encourage your friend, loved one or colleague to mourn at their own pace. Make it clear that you’re in it for the long haul, and follow up in the weeks, months, and years after the suicide. When you talk to survivors, the person they really appreciate is the person who continues to be there for them and check in from time to time.

Here are some phrases to avoid: 

1. “I know exactly how you feel”

If you’ve never lost somebody to suicide, you might feel totally unequipped to relate to their loss, and even if you have lost somebody to suicide, your journey, your experiences and your feelings may be very different to what they are going through. 

Instead, acknowledge that you can’t claim to know what they are going through. It’s actually very useful to recognize that you do not know what this loss feels like, and that there is nothing you can do or say to fix things for them. This level of honesty and humility is a powerful way to express compassion.

2. “Oh no, what happened?”

It’s natural to be curious about the exact details of how someone took their life or what may have contributed to the decision, but that really isn’t your business. Asking for details may make a suicide loss survivor feel like they are a spectacle, or the suicide rather than the person is the issue for discussion.

3. “They’re in a better place now”

When you don’t know what to say after a suicide, you might feel tempted to rely on platitudes for example ‘Time heals all wounds’, “he’s in a better place now or ‘at least they’re not in pain anymore’. Even if you intend to be comforting, these statements can feel trite and even insulting to some because they may minimize the depth of your colleagues’ pain.

Being a fully present listener is often more important than figuring out what to say.

Remember that listening with empathy and without judgment is often what people need at this time, if you would like further information on why this works you may find Megan Devine’s YouTube clip “How do you help a grieving friend” helpful. Losing somebody to suicide causes incredible pain, you can’t change that, but you can be there and walk alongside them.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t try to always fill the silence or get anxious over landing on the exact right words. You can’t necessarily make things better for your friend, but you can give them space to feel their feelings. Sometimes that’s enough.

How do you help a grieving friend

References:

Clinical psychologist and grief counsellor Jack Jordan, Ph.D.

Clinical psychologist Vanessa McGann, Ph.D., suicide loss division chair for the American Association of Suicidology

Grief counsellor and educator Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., founder-director of the Centre