Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, "There are always two parties
to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved."
Unfortunately, many survivors of suicide suffer alone and in silence.
The silence that surrounds them often complicates the healing that comes
from being encouraged to mourn.
Because of the social stigma surrounding suicide, survivors
feel the pain of the loss, yet may not know how, or where, or if, they
should express it. Yet, the only way to heal is to mourn. Just
like other bereaved persons grieving the loss of someone loved,
suicide survivors need to talk, to cry, sometimes to scream, in
order to heal.
As a result of fear and misunderstanding, survivors of suicide deaths
are often left with a feeling of abandonment at a time when they
desperately need unconditional support and understanding. Without
a doubt, suicide survivors suffer in a variety of ways: one, because
they need to mourn the loss of someone who has died; two, because
they have experienced a sudden, typically unexpected traumatic
death; and three, because they are often shunned by a society
unwilling to enter into the pain of their grief.
How Can You Help?
A friend or family member has experienced the death of
someone loved from suicide. You want to help, but you are not
sure how to go about it. This page will guide you in ways
to turn your cares and concerns into positive action.
Accept The Intensity Of The Grief
Grief following a suicide is always complex. Survivors
don't "get over it." Instead, with support and
understanding they can come to reconcile themselves to its
reality. Don't be surprised by the intensity of their feelings.
Sometimes, when they least suspect it, they may be overwhelmed
by feelings of grief. Accept that survivors may be struggling
with explosive emotions, guilt, fear and shame, well beyond
the limits experienced in other types of deaths. Be
patient, compassionate and understanding.
Listen With Your Heart
Assisting suicide survivors means you must break down the terribly
costly silence. Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener.
Your physical presence and desire to listen without judgment are critical
helping tools. Willingness to listen is the best way to offer help to
someone who needs to talk.
Thoughts and feelings inside the survivor may be frightening
and difficult to acknowledge. Don't worry so much
about what you will say. Just concentrate on the words that
are being shared with you.
Your friend may relate the same story about the
death over and over again. Listen attentively each time. Realize
this repetition is part of your friend's healing process.
Simply listen and understand. And, remember, you don't
have to have the answer.
Avoid Simplistic Explanations and Clichés
Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful
for a suicide survivor. Clichés are trite comments often
intended to diminish the loss by providing simple solutions
to difficult realities. Comments like, "You are holding
up so well," "Time will heal all wounds,"
"Think of what you still have to be thankful
for" or "You have to be strong for others"
are not constructive. Instead, they hurt and make a
friend's journey through grief more difficult.
Be certain to avoid passing judgment or providing
simplistic explanations of the suicide. Don't make the
mistake of saying the person who suicided was "out
of his or her mind." Informing a survivor that
someone they loved was "crazy or insane"
typically only complicates the situation. Suicide
survivors need help in coming to their own search for
understanding of what has happened. In the end, their
personal search for meaning and understanding of the death
is what is really important.
Give your friend permission to express his or her feelings
without fear of criticism. Learn from your friend. Don't
instruct or set explanations about how he or she should
respond. Never say "I know just how you feel." You don't.
Think about your helping role as someone who "walks with,"
not "behind" or "in front of" the one who is bereaved.
Familiarize yourself with the wide spectrum of emotions that
many survivors of suicide experience. Allow your friend to experience
all the hurt, sorrow and pain that he or she is feeling at the time.
And recognize tears are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain
associated with the loss.
Respect The Need To Grieve
Often ignored in their grief are the parents,
brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses and children
of persons who have suicided. Why? Because of the nature of the death,
it is sometimes kept a secret. If the death cannot be talked about
openly, the wounds of grief will go unhealed.
As a caring friend, you may be the only one willing to be with
the survivors. Your physical presence and permissive
listening create a foundation for the healing process. Allow
the survivors to talk, but don't push them. Sometimes
you may get a cue to back off and wait. If you get a signal that
this is what is needed, let them know you are ready to listen if,
and when, they want to share their thoughts and feelings.
Understand The Uniqueness Of Suicide Grief
Keep in mind that the grief of suicide survivors is unique.
No one will respond to the death of someone loved in
exactly the same way. While it may be possible to talk
about similar phases shared by survivors, everyone is
different and shaped by experiences in his or her life.
Because the grief experience is unique, be patient. The
process of grief takes a long time, so allow your friend to process
the grief at his or her own pace. Don't criticize what is
inappropriate behavior. Remember the death of someone to
suicide is a shattering experience. As a result of this death,
your friend's life is under reconstruction.
Be Aware Of Holidays And Anniversaries
Survivors of suicide may have a difficult time during special occasions
like holidays and anniversaries. These events emphasize the absence
of the person who has died. Respect the pain as a natural
expression of the grief process. Learn from it.
And, most importantly, never try to take the hurt away.
Use the name of the person who has died when talking to survivors.
Hearing the name can be comforting and it confirms that you have not
forgotten this important person who was so much a part of their lives.
Be Aware Of Support Groups
Support groups are one of the best ways to help survivors of suicide.
In a group, survivors can connect with other people who share
the commonality of the experience. They are allowed and
encouraged to tell their stories as much, and as often, as
they like. You may be able to help survivors locate such a group.
This practical effort on your part will be appreciated.
(See Directory of SOS Support Groups on main page)
Respect Faith And Spirituality
If you allow them, a survivor will "teach you" about
their feelings regarding faith and spirituality. If faith
is part of their lives, let them express it in ways
that seem appropriate. If they are mad at God, encourage
them to talk about it. Remember, having anger at God speaks
of having a relationship with God. Don't be a judge, be a
Survivors may also need to explore how religion may have
complicated their grief. They may have been taught that
persons who take their own lives are doomed to hell. Your task is
not to explain theology, but to listen and learn. Whatever
the situation, your presence and desire to listen without
judging are critical helping tools.
Work Together As Helpers
Friends and family who experience the death of someone to suicide
must no longer suffer alone and in silence.
As helpers, you need to join with other caring persons
to provide support and acceptance for survivors who need
to grieve in healthy ways.
To experience grief is the result of having loved. Suicide
survivors must be guaranteed this necessity. While the above
guidelines on this page will be helpful, it is important
to recognize that helping a suicide survivor heal will not be
an easy task. You may have to give more concern, time and
love than you ever knew you had. But this effort
will be more than worth it.