In my work as a suicidologist and thanatologist, I have observed that suicide is one of the most misunderstood causes of death in our society and that our culture has stigmatized and silenced suicide with devastating results for individual survivors and communities. Approximately one million people die every year of suicide worldwide, leaving millions of grievers who are bereaved due to suicide death loss, yet often, survivors feel the weight of suicide stigma and do not receive the supportive and helpful responses they need to navigate their complex grief journeys.
When I work with students and clients who want to support someone they care about who has lost a loved one to suicide, the most frequent concerns they express are, “I don’t know how to help them,” and “I don’t know what to say.” These frustrations are understandable – we live in a culture that often silences open and educationally-supported conversations about suicide, so many people feel at a loss for how to assist a loved one’s grief journey after suicide.
It is my hope that the following information will assist you in being an empathic and helpful presence in the lives of suicide loss survivors.
Resisting Myths About Suicide
In my blog post, “Surviving Suicide Stigma,” I discuss several of the most harmful myths still circulating in dominant culture:
- Suicide is always the result of clinical depression.
- The suicide death was a “quick fix” for problems that could easily have been solved or an “easy way out.”
- If we talk about suicide, or about a loved one who died of suicide, we may risk becoming suicidal or causing another person to become suicidal.
- Suicide is an act of cowardice or personal weakness; while everyone feels badly sometimes, suicide is “wrong,” “selfish,” or “weak.”
Several of these myths stem from the ultimate misunderstanding of suicide, the belief that it is an act of free will or a rational choice. In fact, we now understand that suicide is a complicated phenomenon rooted in pain. Usually, there are many sources of pain – psychological, sociological, spiritual, and even biological – that accumulate for some people who are suicidal until the pain becomes so great that the suicidal person literally cannot see another way to end their pain.
If we can understand that someone who died of suicide was experiencing complex suffering and that suicide was the product of a mind that was not working right, then we can begin to be of support to suicide loss survivors without the confusion and stigma that myths about suicide reinforce.
Suicide Loss Survivorship
Because of the intense stigma associated with suicide, suicide loss survivors may internalize feelings of guilt and shame on their own behalf and on behalf of their deceased loved one. These feelings are often reinforced by thoughtless or harmful responses from co-workers, friends, and family members. In recent years, social media has increased incidences of suicide loss survivors feeling shamed and isolated, both through posted speculation about the death and judgment, often from people not even known to the survivor.
The shame and isolation often experienced by survivors complicates their already-difficult grief over the loss. As we know, all grief experiences are unique, but for suicide loss survivors, the interpersonal and institutional responses they receive following the death can introduce unique elements to their responses to the death. In the months following a suicide death loss, many survivors report an increase in physical problems such as brain fog, insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, and chronic headaches. The sociological stressors due to silence and shame may increase survivors’ isolation and make them less likely to reach out for support. Psychologically, suicide loss survivors are at high risk for disenfranchised grief and prolonged grief. And while studies differ in terms of numbers, we also know that primary survivors of a suicide death loss are at higher risk for developing suicidality over the course of their lifetime.
Being a suicide loss survivor is like being in a club that you never wanted to join. I encourage survivors to speak to others bereaved by suicide because it can be easier to tell their stories without fear of judgment, but it is equally important that people who have never lost a loved one to suicide feel equipped to support loved ones who have.
Strategies for Supporting Suicide Loss Survivors
Use appropriate and non-criminalizing language. Instead of using terms like “committed suicide” or “killed himself,” use language that demonstrates that you understand that the person who died was not a criminal for their suicidality but was suffering: “John died of suicide.”
Acknowledge the pain of the person who died. “John’s death is a tragedy. I am so sorry that he was in so much pain that he could not see another way to end that pain.”
Do not ask inappropriate questions. Asking someone about the specific means by which their loved one died of suicide, the condition of their body, or other details that can provoke trauma responses is never appropriate.
Practice empathy. Work to dismantle any biases you might hold about suicide and try to resist mapping your own belief system or judgments onto survivors. Be receptive to the feelings they can identify or express, and validate all of those feelings. Survivors may be experiencing shock, anger, and confusion in addition to other grief responses – be ready for it and be patient.
Follow their lead. When talking with a suicide loss survivor, give them space to tell the story of their loss without probing them. After a suicide death, survivors may talk about the timeline of the day of death in minute detail in an attempt to come to terms with the reality of the loss. They may be very repetitive, or they may not want to talk about the details at all in the early days following the loss.
Engage in attuned listening. When talking to a suicide loss survivor, maintain eye contact, demonstrate that you are hearing them, and engage in non-threatening physical touch if appropriate. Importantly, do not look away if they begin to cry.
Keep confidentiality. If a suicide loss survivor shares details, feelings, or worries related to their loss, assure them that you will not share that information with others. Because of the stigma associated with suicide, having someone trustworthy in which to confide is crucial to survivors feeling supported.
Offer to help them make meaning of the loss. While everyone’s trajectory of mourning is different, many suicide loss survivors actively seek to make meaning from the loss, either through doing public education on suicide, creating public memorialization of their loved one through scholarships or other donations, or via community involvement for suicide prevention. While I would not advise encouraging survivors to throw themselves into these kinds of activities in the first few months following a suicide death loss, I have seen the value in them for many survivors even years after the loss has occurred. If the person who died valued education, ask if you can start a scholarship fund in their loved one’s name. If they were a nature lover, ask if you can organize a tree planting for them.
Help them remember the life of their loved one. Those bereaved due to suicide do not ever forget their loved one, though strangely, they often report friends and family not talking about the loved one after the first few weeks of the loss. Do not be afraid to speak the name of the person who has died, share memories you have of them, or remind the person you care about of memories they had told you about with their loved one. Because our culture often reduces the life of someone who has died of suicide simply to their cause of death, it is both valuable and meaningful to remember the birthday and date of death of the deceased and check in on those days. It can also be immeasurably helpful to talk about the person who has died regularly in conversations, acknowledging their interests, work, hobbies, and unique qualities, rather than only talk about their death.
This year, International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is Saturday, November 19, 2022. As both a suicidologist and suicide death loss survivor, I will be spending the day thinking of the lives that ended tragically and honoring the pain with which they suffered prior to their deaths. I will also be thinking of all the other suicide death loss survivors I have known and wishing for them an easing of their grief. Finally, I will be renewing my promise to help end the epidemic of suicide in our culture in hopes for a future in which so many are not lost and so many are not bereaved.
Thank you for your commitment to supporting the suicide loss survivors in your life.