The topic of suicide makes people uncomfortable.
Survivors of the lost loved one often feel misunderstood because they don’t know what to say.
Friends often feel helpless. They, too, don’t know what to say or do for fear of making a gross misstep. So, they say nothing and do nothing, which is even worse, said Joanne Harpel, senior director for public affairs for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The most appropriate things to say are the simplest, she said. They are, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” And, “I’m thinking of you.”
You might also ask the survivor to tell you about their loved one and refer to them specifically by name, Harpel advised.
“It gives them an opening to make the suicide safe to talk about,” she said.
You might also write down a story about their loved one, especially one with which they are not familiar, and give it to them, so that they can read it when they’re ready.
“Don’t be afraid to say their loved one’s name,” Harpel said. “Don’t worry about making them cry. It hurts so much more when no one talks about the person they lost.”
Joan Nye, chair of the Montana Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, agrees. “Everyone is so afraid their loved one will be forgotten.”
Some people won’t say anything for fear of reminding the survivor of their loss. The survivor, Nye said, has it on their mind all of the time. So, ask.
“If they cry, it’s OK because tears can be healing,” she said.
It is important to honor and respect the needs of the survivors in the days, weeks and months following the suicide. Before you assume responsibilities, it is important to ask survivors whether they need your help, Harpel said. Some survivors gain strength from performing many of the responsibilities associated with their loved ones’ suicide, while others might want to rely on friends or family for support and guidance.
Some recently bereaved people might have trouble concentrating or making decisions, Harpel said. So, instead of simply asking, “How can I help?” you might try asking if you can help with specific chores, such as babysitting, grocery shopping, cleaning the house, watering the lawn, or organizing paperwork.
In addition, Harpel offered the following suggestions for friends of survivors:
- Surround them with as much love and understanding as you can.
- Give them some private time. Be there, but don’t smother them.
- Show love, not control.
- Let them talk. Most of the time they just need to hear out loud what is going on inside their heads. They usually aren’t seeking advice.
- Expect that they will become tired easily. Grieving is hard work.
- Let them decide what they are ready for. Offer your ideas but let them decide themselves.
- Give special attention to members of the family – at the funeral and in the months to come.
- Allow them to express as much grief as they are feeling at the moment and are willing to share.
- Allow them to talk about the special endearing qualities of the loved on they have lost.
When in doubt, keep it simple but sincere, Harpel said. “Telling someone you’re sorry for their loss or that you are thinking of them can be very powerful.”