Offering support to someone who has been affected by suicide is daunting. It’s normal to feel like you’re walking on egg shells despite wanting to be there for your friend or loved one. Many of us have no clue what to say. And since we just don’t know any better, we can be unintentionally hurtful or wildly inappropriate. That said, there are several ways in which you can actually be incredibly helpful — and in honor of National Suicide Prevention Week, the Jed Foundation shares a few.
There’s a huge difference between being physically and mentally or emotionally present. After a suicide, your friend or loved one might need to be by themselves mentally and emotionally. But being around others and maintaining connections helps us to heal. Your physical presence may be comforting especially when they aren’t ready to share their thoughts and feelings with you or others. Offer to be with them but make it clear you expect absolutely nothing in return: conversation, entertainment, nada.
People grieve in different ways. Some want to share thoughts and feelings right away. Others prefer to keep intense emotions to themselves. Don’t force someone to open up. Let them know you are there whenever they’re ready to come to you. Your mantra: actions speak louder than words.
2. Be Specific
Remember that someone dealing with suicide loss is in alien territory; just like you are in trying to offer support to them. Go beyond “I’m here if you need me” or “What can I do to help?” More often than not they’ll have no clue how to answer that question. Be specific and practical. Offer to go shopping, pick up the kids from school, bring someone home from the airport, walk the dog, clean the toilets. Go beyond the casserole: Simple, everyday tasks can be overwhelmingly difficult to manage in the wake of a painful loss.
Helping to manage more complicated and emotionally draining tasks, like funeral arrangements or calling people to explain what happened, can be an invaluable support. But remember some survivors may want to do these tasks on their own and they may also gain strength as a result. You probably have the best of intentions but always ask if it’s ok before jumping in.
3. Remember That Grief Is For The Long Haul
A suicide may trigger grief reactions from a recent or past loss, regardless of how much time has passed or how personally connected one is to the current tragedy. In the wake of a highly publicized suicide, be mindful of friends and loved ones who have experienced this kind of loss. Check in and offer support; even just a “Thinking of you. All ok?” text. They may be vulnerable to emotional setbacks and re-experiencing a previous loss when they learn of another person who died by suicide. On the other hand, they may be doing just fine. But you’ll be glad you reached out. And so will they.
Remember that anniversaries, birthdays and even the most innocuous Hallmark holidays can be particularly difficult for survivors. Acknowledge how difficult these occasions might be for them. We all get busy and forget to check in regularly after that initial period of loss. Easy solution: Set a calendar reminder on those trigger days.
4. Mind Your Digital Manners
Today’s digital culture causes information to spread like wildfire. Our news feeds are constantly refreshing and with one click we can share our immediate reactions to friends, friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. Learning of a suicide can trigger pain from a past experience. So be considerate online. Think before you post something related to a suicide. And remember that the world isn’t waiting for you to weigh in and sometimes there’s no need to post anything at all. Our online community is much larger and unknown than we realize. This can be a good thing in the sense that we can be supportive to others who might be struggling by monitoring the way we talk about suicide. We can’t necessarily dictate others’ e-behavior but can certainly control our own.
5. Don’t Assume Everyone Shares Your Beliefs
Some survivors of suicide find comfort in religious or spiritual communities but others do not. Be extremely careful to not impose your beliefs, spiritual or not, on those who are grieving. Regardless of what you believe, avoid telling someone, “They’re in a better place.” It’s a safe bet that even survivors who generally share your spiritual beliefs would rather their loved one be alive and may feel challenged in their faith after a suicide.
6. Be A (Truly) Great Listener
It’s a big deal when a loved one or friend affected by suicide shares their thoughts and feelings with you. Resist the urge to chime in with your perspective or reassurance that they’ll be fine, it’ll be ok, or that they aren’t to blame. Instead, if they open up to you about feeling confused, guilty and angry or any other troubling emotion, ask them for details. Ask about their relationship with the person who died, how they’ve managed since the death and give them the chance to say as much (or as little) as they want about their experience. Remember that grieving may involve grappling with many different emotions like sadness, guilt, anger and confusion – you can reassure them it’s normal to have unexpected and conflicting feelings. Click here for more tips on how to be a mindful listener.
For more information on how to help a friend, check out Half of Us and the resources recommended by The Jed Foundation. You can also find more information and groups for survivors of suicide by visiting American Foundation for Suicide Survivors.