Tips to Support the Suicide-bereaved
If you have a friend, family member, or other acquaintance struggling with bereavement of suicide, how can you best offer support? What attitudes, translated into caring actions, can best facilitate the bereaved person’s coping in the immediate and short term, and their healing in the longer term? Because of the remaining societal stigma and also the lack of knowledge about how to be with the suicide-bereaved in a sensitive way, many friends and even family members simply avoid the situation — including the bereaved person — altogether. So how can you help? What is your best role as support person? Here are some tips:
Accept the intense, back-and-forward nature of grieving
Because grief from suicide is more complicated than grief from other death, survivors need more time to work through the experience. Their task is to reconcile themselves to the new reality. They may be going along, and you and they both think that they are making progress, then: BANG! They get hit with sudden, uncontrollable intense emotions; guilt, fear, shame, rejection, sadness, and anger may explode all at once — sometimes when they least expect it.
Your urge may be to tell them to “get over it.” In a way, they never will; the death will always be part of their experience.
What is more helpful is to listen to the explosion of emotions with patience, compassion, and understanding, truly accepting what they are dealing with.
Listen with your heart
Your help begins with your physical presence and your active, non-judgmental listening; these aid in breaking down the barrier of silence that stalls survivors’ healing. Your supported person might relate a story about the death — and then relate it again, and again and again . . . Listening attentively each time helps to progress your person’s healing.
Your urge could be to worry about what you will say, trying very hard to “get it right”.
What is more helpful is to focus on what is being shared with you, resting in the knowledge that you do not need to have the answers, just the ability to acknowledge the pain, the feelings, and the questions.
Avoid clichés and simplistic explanations
Some words and phrases will be experienced by survivors as extremely painful. Use of clich?d phrases such as “He’s in a better place now” or “Think of all that you have to be grateful for” do nothing to help the survivor. Minimising or trivialising their experience may help to lessen the pain for you, but that is not why you are there. Offering simplistic explanations or statements with a veiled judgment in them make your friend’s journey through grief more difficult. Even saying supposedly positive things, such as “You’re coping very well with this” have a tendency to restrict the freedom your supported person may feel to express what is really happening with them.
Your urge may be to say something like, “She was out of her mind” or “It was an insane thing to do.” Again, this may serve your needs (providing some way of making meaning, perhaps?). It does not help the survivor.
What is more helpful is to encourage the survivor’s own search for meaning and understanding.
You do not know exactly how your supported person is feeling (they can teach you), but in allowing your friend the full spectrum of experience — as intense and difficult as it may be for both of you to be present for that — you are helping without judgment, criticism, or expectation of how they “should” heal. You are truly walking “beside” them, rather than “in front” or “behind”.
Your urge could be to say “I know just how you feel.” You don’t; don’t ever say that.
What is more helpful is to become the learner here, not the teacher.
Respect the need to grieve
Because of the stigma, the nature of a suicide death is sometimes kept secret. Wounds that are not allowed the light of day are wounds that are very slow to heal. If the need to grieve of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses, children, and friends is ignored, their journey to a restored sense of self is retarded. As a caring person in their lives, you may be the only one available to listen non-judgmentally. Making yourself available physically through your presence and emotionally through your receptivity is a wonderful gift to give.
Your urge may be to strongly encourage them to talk, but if you do that they may feel pushed.
What is more helpful is to back off and wait until you get a signal that they are ready to talk; then your readiness to listen and your availability are maximally effective.
Respect the “Under re-construction” sign
Have you ever gone to a website online only to see with disappointment that you cannot have the experience of the site that you hoped: it is “under re-construction”? The individual nature of the grief response means that each person approaches the task of healing differently and in their own time, according to the experiences and influences that have shaped their life. The person may be taking longer than you thought they should to heal; their behaviour may seem inappropriate at times. But remember, the death has been a shattering experience for the person; their life is now “under re-construction”.
Your urge may be to criticise how they are going about the re-construction, or to guide them to do it differently.
What is more helpful is to merely accept their pace, their way. The “website” of their life will come back “online” when they are ready, once re-construction has gained serious traction.
Be aware of holidays and anniversaries
Events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays used to be special, and for the suicide-bereaved, they still are: special and potent reminders that the loved one is no longer with them. It is hard. Their pain and hurt is a natural part of the grieving, but it may fall to you as support person to be there when the bereaved person is most in touch with grief over the loved one’s absence.
Your urge could be to try to take the hurt away, make it immediately “better” for the survivor.
What is more helpful is to allow the expression of grief, and not shrink from remembering the person, as that can be a comforting confirmation that the person who was so much a part of the bereaved person’s life is not forgotten.
Suggest a support group
Connecting with other people who have had the same traumatic experience is one of the best ways to accelerate healing. Generally, survivors in a support group are allowed, even encouraged, to tell their stories as often as they like while the group listens patiently.
Your urge may be to help your supported person find such a group. If so, indulge in it!
What may also be helpful is to offer any assistance necessary to help the bereaved arrive at the meeting. This could include offers of a ride to the meeting, looking after children while the person attends the meeting, or something else.
Respect faith and spirituality
If the bereaved person has access to a spiritual holding of some sort — a religion, stillness practice, or some sort of faith-based path they follow — it may help them to face the death. Because their philosophy may be different from yours, it may be more difficult for you to support them when you hear them make statements emanating from a spiritual tradition that seems invalid to you. One way this can manifest is in a person getting angry with God. Your religious or spiritual path may find that objectionable, but remember: getting angry with God means having a relationship with God. The person might also need to explore how religion complicated their life: for example, by being brought up to believe that those who suicide will “go to hell”.
Your urge might be to explore the finer points of theology, “helping” them to understand more. Stifle it.
What is more helpful is to listen and learn, allowing the expression of even seemingly inappropriate feelings about religion and spirituality. It’s all part of the process of working out what has meaning.
Understand that without love there is no grief
The grief arises because the bereaved person loved, because they were in relationship with the deceased. The need for loving support still goes on, so wherever possible, the bereaved family can heal better if they can join forces with others, such as other family members and friends who are also grieving, and grieve together in healthy ways: not alone, not in silence.
Your urge might be to underestimate just how much energy, time, and caring it takes to support a person bereaved by suicide: probably more than you ever dreamed possible.
What is helpful is to understand that, ultimately, your effort will be more than worth it, in terms of your relationship with the bereaved person, and your relationship with yourself (Wolfelt, n.d.).