It goes without saying that when someone you care about loses a person they love to suicide, you want to do everything you can to support that person. That being said, survivors of suicide loss endure an array of emotions: Guilt and loss, fear and anger, confusion and resentment.
During that experience, you want to do whatever is necessary to help your friend through their trauma. But you want to do so in a way which is most supportive of them and respects their complex emotional needs.
That’s a tough balancing act. On one hand, you want to be there for them – checking in on them, calling/texting, asking if they need anything. On the other the loss can be exceptionally painful, and you want to respect the other person’s space while still making sure they know you’re there.
Walking that line can be difficult. Here are some tips on how to do it.
1) Have realistic expectations: Your friend is undergoing the worst trauma and pain of their life. You cannot make it all better. All you can do is be supportive and caring. Make sure you remember that in all of your interactions with your friend. When my friend lost her husband, I gave myself two goals: Be there for her, and make her laugh with the occasional terrible joke. If you can make a wounded person smile, even for a moment, you’ve done a good deed.
2) Check for professional advice: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a great blog entry on how you can support someone who suffers a suicide loss, and their tips are extremely valuable. Among their advice: Be patient, don’t attempt to empathize (unless you’ve been through a suicide) and read up on suicide loss. Alternatively, if you have access to one, check with a therapist or other professional to get guidance about how to best approach the situation.
3) Follow their lead: The “how” of talking to someone who lost someone to suicide can be difficult. Follow their lead. If they look like they are looking for humor, engage. If they don’t want to talk, but appreciate your calls, tell them about your day. If they are too depressed to move, wrap an arm around them, bake them a cake and watch TV with them. Take your lead from the person in question and understand how emotionally volatile of a time it is for them.
4) Be explicit with your friend: “I will text you every day to say hello, see how you are doing, and ask if you need anything. If you want me to stop, say the word and I will.” Tell your friend anything and everything you are prepared to do. Be specific: Offer to cook meals or do the laundry. Just make sure the person knows you are there. Even if they don’t seem like they appreciate it, I bet they do.
5) Don’t ask questions: “How did they die? Was it suicide? Were they depressed?” It’s a human impulse, but the answer is absolutely, positively none of your damn business, unless your friend decides to tell you what’s happening. Then, and only then, is it appropriate to ask questions, and even then, use restraint and caution. Remember, your goal is to alleviate your friend’s pain, not get your own curiosity satisfied.
6) Don’t spread rumors: Shut. Up. Keep what you learn in confidence. Don’t discuss anything you haven’t been specifically cleared to discuss. In some cases, your friend may want other people to know. In others, they may desire privacy. Whatever your friend wants, respect it. Remember, it’s not your story to tell.
7) Check with people closer: If you’re confused about how to behave – should you call/text, do they want flowers, should you cook a meal, etc – check in with someone closer. There may be closer friends or family in a less emotionally fragile state, and if that’s the case, you can get some additional guidance. When my friend lost her husband, I texted her best friend to ask if it was alright for me to be regularly texting and checking in. The friend confirmed, and I continued.
8) Don’t stop when the immediate crisis is over: In the immediate aftermath of a suicide, the world swarms. Then the funeral happens, and too many people forget. Don’t be that person. The wounds will last a lifetime – don’t let go of your friend. Don’t stop checking in. The pain will remain – make sure your support does as well.
For those of you with additional experience in this realm, I really welcome your feedback for all of us. If you’ve endured such a loss, what did your friends do right? What did they do wrong? What did you want the world to know that they didn’t?
Thanks for reading. I hope if was helpful.