When a person loses a loved one to suicide, the effects differ from other forms of loss. Suicide is an intentional action taken by a person who no longer felt the desire to live, although unfortunately these decisions are often made during extreme emotional distress. When you learn that someone you love was in enough pain to commit suicide, the experience of grief can be unique compared to that felt following the loss of a loved one to an illness or other cause of death.
Unfortunately, losing a loved one to suicide also leads to feelings of guilt as survivors contemplate whether or not they could have prevented this tragedy. Support from friends and family is crucial in recovery from the death of a loved one. Here are a few ways you can support someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.
If you or someone you know needs support immediately…
Please contact one of our program partners through their available hotlines.
The Trevor Project, 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386)
National Suicide Prevention Center, 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
1. Keep Them Social
Social withdrawal and depression are common responses to a suicide. Unfortunately, these are also the responses that foster suicide in the family members. People who have lost someone they care about to suicide are more likely to attempt suicide themselves and social isolation is a very common risk factor. So, to prevent further tragedy, keep the person social to a degree. Don’t force them to go to a party or club but do try to get them to talk, see other people, and do relaxing activities.
Yoga, walking, and hiking are all great options for keeping a person active and prevent withdrawal. You may even want to consider pet therapy. Spending time with loving animals has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
2. Foster Open Communication
Suicide is a taboo topic in Western society, making it difficult for people who have lost someone to suicide to talk about their grief. Talking about emotions is very important when coping with a highly emotional event such as suicide. Loved ones of the deceased often feel guilt, many times blaming themselves for not recognizing the warning signs and taking action to stop their loved one from following through.
It is important that these feelings of guilt are not internalized. Many suicides occur because the person did not get the professional help they needed for an underlying issue such as depression, alcohol abuse or drug addiction. These are things an untrained person could not be expected to recognize or treat.
3. Learn What You Should NOT Say
It is very common for well-meaning people to say the wrong thing and make the loss even harder. You should do a little research, reading other people’s experiences and what did and didn’t help. You should never try to trivialize the loss with things like “Well, he had some problems.” The pain a loved one feels should not be shrugged off, regardless of the circumstances.
As tempting as it is, you should also avoid offering advice unless you are asked. Implying you have any understanding of what the person should do will not be received well. Even if you are also a suicide survivor, your experience is unique to you. While many survivors experience similar phases of grief, the grieving and recovery process is not identical for any two individuals. Wait for the person to ask for advice.
Avoid making negative statements about the person. Telling a loved one, “She chose to leave you,” helps no one and can make things much worse. There are a number of other potentially harmful remarks you could make, but instead, stick to the basics: “I’m sorry for your loss,” “He will be missed,” and, “How can I help?”
Supporting someone through the aftermath of a suicide can be awkward and uncomfortable. We as a culture prefer to avoid sensitive topics like mental health and suicide. However, if you want to help, you need to be willing to discuss the loss. You need to cultivate a calm, non-judgmental attitude and let the person know it is safe to talk to you. Get them out of the house, and be sure you know what NOT to say. In time, survivors with strong support systems are able to overcome the feelings of intense grief that follow the loss of a loved one and move forward, while still holding onto precious memories of those they have lost.
About the Expert
Steve Johnson co-created PublicHealthLibrary.org as part of a school project. He and a fellow pre-med student enjoyed working on the site so much that they decided to keep it going. Their goal is to make PublicHealthLibrary.org one of the go-to sources for health and medical information on the web.
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