Losing a loved one to suicide is one of the hardest losses to bear. In addition to missing someone you loved, many survivors are left with intense feelings of guilt and may wonder, “How did I miss the signs? I should have known. I should have been able to prevent this.” On top of that, misinformed people may tell you that your loved one’s act of taking his or her own life was selfish, weak, or a misguided bid for attention. While none of that is true, unfeeling comments like that can add a huge weight of guilt to the psychological burden you are already carrying.
In 1999, Senator Harry Reid (now retired) introduced a resolution on the Senate Floor which led to the creation of the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, held each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Reid’s father shot himself in 1972 when Reid himself was 32. Reid didn’t speak much about his father’s suicide and its impact on him. When he did, he received an abundance of correspondence. He realized that suicide happens to many people, and devoted part of his career to raising awareness of suicide and improving prevention through legislation.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, also called Survivor Day, is sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). According to the AFSP’s website, survivors of suicide loss “come together to find connection, understanding, and hope through their shared experience.” The organization sponsors events and provides resources to those who have experienced a suicide loss. In 2019, the AFSP sponsored 417 events in more than 20 countries. The timing of the day, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, is intentional. Holidays can be especially difficult for those who have experienced the death of a loved one, particularly to suicide.
According to the AFSP, in 2018, 132 people died by suicide each day in America or 48,344 in that year. In addition, 1.4 million Americans attempted suicide that year but survived, which means that over 4 million people each year experience the loss of a loved one or an attempt. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the country and the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10 through 34. Suicide also has a ripple effect; one of the risk factors for suicide is having someone close to you die by suicide or make an attempt.
Don’t let “not knowing what to say” stop you from reaching out to a friend who has lost a loved one to suicide. The truth is, no one knows what to say, and there really is nothing that anyone can say to make it better. It’s perfectly fine to tell the person that you don’t know what to say but that you are there for them. There are, however, there are some dos and don’ts when talking to someone who has lost somebody to suicide.
Do not tell your friend that you know what they are going through–you probably don’t. Don’t ask detailed questions about the person’s death, but do listen to what your friend has to say. Take your cues from him or her. And don’t feel like you have to avoid talking about death. Your friend will need people willing to listen.
Refrain from offering advice or platitudes. Don’t tell the survivor that the loved one “is in a better place,” that “everything happens for a reason,” or that “God never gives you more than you can handle.” While these sentiments may be honest expressions of your beliefs or the survivor’s beliefs, they may not want to hear them. Just listen.
Do not make judgments about suicide. Do not tell the survivor that their loved one was weak, cowardly, or looking for attention. Do not blame anyone else for suicide. Ultimately, the person who took the action is responsible for his or her death. The reasons behind the action may never be fully known or understood.
Do offer help specifically. Offer to bring dinner on a certain evening, or to go to the grocery store for them or take the kids to school. If you say, “let me know if you need anything,” you are putting the burden to reach out on them. The survivor may have trouble reaching out, not wanting to be a burden, or they may honestly not know what they need.
Do be willing to talk about the person who died. You will not be reminding the survivor of what happened–the suicide and loss of their loved ones are likely all that they can think about, and they will need to talk about it. The survivor may appreciate hearing your memories of the person who died. Take your conversational cues from them.
Respect the survivor’s healing process, which will take time. It is not helpful to tell them that they need to “get over it,” or that it’s “time to move on.” There is no schedule for grief, and the survivor will never completely “get over” the loss. With time, however, the grief will lessen.
Be a support system for the long haul. The suicide survivor will need support for a long, long time. The days following a death are very busy making arrangements. Many people will call, come by, or send flowers or food. Then after the memorial service, it can get very, very quiet, and lonely. Immediately after the death, the survivor may be in shock, or emotionally numb. In a few months following the death, the full impact of the loss will begin to be felt.
If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, help is available:
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-(800) 273-TALK (8255)
TTY 1-(800) 799-4889
911 (emergency response)
Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741
Enlightened Solutions is a recovery center located on the coast in the southern part of New Jersey. We are also licensed to treat the co-occurring mental health disorders that frequently accompany substance abuse disorders. Mental health disorders, like depression, often accompanies or leads to substance abuse and can lead to suicide. We offer a range of treatment options, which are tailored to the needs of each individual client. These services range from traditional talk therapy, both one-on-one and in a group setting, within the framework of the 12-Step philosophy. We also offer a number of holistic treatment modalities including art and music therapy, yoga, and chiropractic treatment. We focus on treating the whole person. If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, please call one of the numbers listed above. If you or a loved one is struggling with addictive behaviors, please call (833) 801-5483.
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