How to Respond When Someone Has Lost a Loved One to Suicide
By Theresa Anthony
Since releasing my book, My 13th Station, last summer I regularly receive emails and messages from complete strangers who reach out to share about how my book has touched them personally. I cannot begin to describe how much this means to me—how my son’s story has impacted so many lives. Many of these messages mention their own suicide loss, or that of a close friend or relative’s, saying how they could relate to my description of the horrific grief that follows.
Last week I received an email by a woman sharing that her friend’s daughter had tragically taken her life the night before. She then asked me if I have ever considered writing “about the dos and don’ts for how to help grieving parents after a suicide.” Until her email, I hadn’t. But that question rolled around in my head for a few days; I couldn’t get past it, so today I wrote this blog.
First off, I am not a grief expert by any means. I am just a mom who was devastated by her son’s suicide—as any mother would be. So, I will attempt to provide a few tips for readers to gain a deeper insight into the very painful world of a suicide loss survivor. My suggestions are derived from my own personal experience, but hopefully they will be helpful for others who may find themselves in the position of hopefully providing some comfort to someone who lost a loved one to suicide.
6 Tips for Those Who Know a Suicide Loss Survivor
1. Do not offer rote platitudes, such as “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” If you really want to be a light to the grieving person, just tell them you are there for them. That you are available to sit with them, to hold their hand, to answer their texts at all hours. A sincere expression of support followed by clear examples like these goes a long way, trust me.
2. Do not say, “I am here for you, just ask.” The fact is we are so blown out—in total shock, in full-blown despair, that we will likely not reach out to you and ask for anything. Instead, just text the person and tell them you would like to drop off dinner for the family, or offer to stop at the store or run errands for them. Have a specific offer to present to the person.
3. Be patient with the person. Losing someone by suicide is shocking. No one is prepared for such a tragic loss, and the fallout is lengthy and quite intense. Your friend or relative will not snap back to their old self for a very long time, if ever. Respect the grieving process for what it is and do not have any preconceived expectations for a grieving timeline.
4. Do not stop mentioning their lost loved one. Nothing is more painful to the survivor of a suicide loss than the fear their loved one will be forgotten. Talk about the person, mention his or her name, share a fond memory, and mention how they mattered to you if you knew them personally. Do not avoid saying their name!
5. Encourage self-care. When engulfed in grief the last thing a survivor is thinking about is his or her own wellbeing. There is no energy to devote to self-care, no motivation to take care of oneself. When you are depressed you honestly do not care about planning healthy meals or getting your nails done. Offer to accompany them to the hair or nail salon. Give them a gift card for a massage. Offer to go on daily walks with them. Encourage them to seek out grief counseling or a grief support group.
6. Small gestures mean a lot. Looking back, certain things stand out as being especially soothing during the worst of it. I am a Catholic, so whenever a friend would mail me a card denoting Mass intentions for my son I would just melt. Any handwritten card or letter was also such a beautiful gesture. I will never forget opening my front door to find some flowers (or a bottle of wine!) on the step, left there by a friend who was just thinking of me. Or answering the doorbell to find neighbors holding casseroles, salads, and desserts—with faces that depicted love and intense compassion as they passed it off to us. One very close friend, Francesca, was always available during the darkest days to answer my sorrowful, pleading texts at all hours. I knew I was never alone with a friend like her.
Losing someone to a stigmatized death like suicide is a huge cross to bear. Around a suicide float the emotions of guilt, anger, shame, and indescribable pain. Half the time your chest feels like an elephant is sitting on it because you can barely breathe. Life is forever altered, reshaped in ways you cannot imagine. Hopefully, my suggestions will come in handy in the unfortunate event that someone you care about should experience what I have.