How To Support A Friend Who Lost Someone To Suicide

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.

What you should know if you love someone with depression or anxiety

In the course of my +15 year battle with mental illness, I’ve experienced many emotions that aren’t directly related to the actual depression/anxiety.

One of the most prominent of those is a tremendous feeling of guilt.

I’ll be honest: Loving someone with depression, anxiety or any mental illness sucks.  It just does, and I’ve experienced it from both ends.  You feel so helpless, you don’t know what to do, what to say, you always feel like you are walking on eggshells…it just plain sucks.  And I’ve always felt so bad for my wife and for my kids, who have seen me at some of my worst moments.

I’ve been lucky: I think most of the relationships I’ve had over the course of my life have been healthy ones, and that’s to say nothing of my wonderful wife.  In an effort to figure out how to better help me with my mental illness, she once came with me to my therapist in order to get a better grasp on how to pull me out of an anxiety attack.  This is one of the kindest things I think she ever did for me.

Mental illness is a difficult thing to describe.  It’s hard to convey the hopelessness of depression, the sheer terror of an anxiety attack, the slavery of addiction.  It’s even harder to explain it if you are actively in the throws of it.  When I’ve been at my worst, there have been so many things I’ve wanted to say to the people who love me or care for me, but haven’t been able to find the words.  So here are a few.

First: Don’t think you can make us better.  Suffering from depression has sometimes felt like flinging out a lifeline to someone, anyone, searching for hope before drowning…but it’s still okay.  We don’t expect you to heal us…at least we shouldn’t.  That’s not your job, and even if someone you love does expect that, that’s not fair.  No one should expect you to cure them, to save them.  Love and support is all you can give, and that’s all anyone can reasonably expect of you.

Second: You don’t have to understand.  You don’t have to know everything that we are going through, largely because we may not be able to communicate it at that particular moment.  That can be one of the most difficult things, knowing that someone you love is in pain and not quite being sure why.  As difficult as it can be, let that part go.  Just focus on trying to get someone through that difficult moment.

Third: Your primary job needs to be to get someone through a crisis.  From there, turn to the professionals.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  You may feel incredible guilt and pain at not being able to heal the person you love.  Say it with me, over and over again: It is not your job to fix what is broken.  Support is the only thing anyone can reasonably expect.

Fourth: We’re not always going to be up for talking about it.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t want you there.  Sometimes, sitting there, holding our hand is the best and only thing you can do.

Fifth: Mental illness is not an excuse – ever – for poor treatment.  Understand this.  Mental illness is never an excuse for bad behavior – it may be the reason, but not an excuse.  If someone is making a legitimate effort to find their way out of the darkness, they deserve your love and support.  If they refuse to seek help, it becomes an entirely different matter.

Sixth: Everything you have to offer may not be enough.  Despite your best efforts, despite herculean levels of love, support, care and affection, it may not be enough.  You have to understand that the mental state of the person you love may continue to decline, and that isn’t your fault.  You cannot hold yourself responsible for the declining mental state of someone you love and someone who is ill.

Seventh: Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.  You alone may not be enough to get someone through a crisis, but if someone else is there, don’t hesitate to reach out.  When I’ve had some of my worst moments, my wife connected with my family and friends – if the option is available to you, do the same.

Eigth: Odds are, we’re really, really sorry.  Like I said earlier, I can’t tell you how badly I’ve felt for the lack of control I’ve endured for my own emotions, how that has effected my life and my behavior.  Trust me, it sucks every day to know that my own mental illness may lead to my kids having their own challenges one day.  That being said, if you love someone with mental illness and they’ve experienced these feelings of guilt, I’d encourage you to ask the person you love the same thing my wife has asked me: “So, what are you going to do about it?”  I may not be able to help the way I feel, the disorder I suffer from, but I can control my decision to seek treatment as necessary.  Tell the person you love to get help.  Tell them you love them.  Tell them to use those feelings of guilt as a motivator to be better, for themselves, and for you.

There’s more, but this is just my perspective, my thoughts.  I’d love to hear yours.  Please comment below, from either perspective – that of someone who is mentally ill, or someone who loves someone who is.  What do you wish you knew, or want to communicate?