Living with Suicide grief
Suicide, unfortunately, is still far too prevalent in Western society. While researchers are increasingly finding cures or new ways to help people live longer from cancer and other illnesses, the toll from people deciding to end their lives is bucking the trend.
Loneliness, homelessness, depression and other mental health issues are rising, despite many people living a more affluent lifestyle. And the growth in social media and new technologies isn’t helping. It seems to be making things worse.
Internationally, the World Health Organisation estimates that each year about one million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds.
It’s also been estimated that for every suicide death around six or more ‘suicide survivors’ – that is, family members and friends – are left to come to terms with the tragedy. For those left behind the pain can be unbearable.
Victor Parachin, a US-based grief counsellor and religious minister, has some tips on how to help those grieving a suicide death.
Caring. Show up and let them know that you care. “Comfort my people, says your God” is the instruction from the biblical prophet Isaiah (40:1, New International Version) Although the stigma attached to suicide is softening, survivors continue to feel blemished and isolated. That’s why it’s important to make your presence felt as soon as you learn a family member or friend has experienced a suicide death. If you are geographically distant, call, text or send an email of support. If you are local, then simply be there – at the home, at the funeral service.
Listening. Plan to listen far more than you speak. Any questions you ask should be for purposes of clarification and not intrusive or invasive. Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of Suicide: Prevention; Intervention, Postvention, states: “Bereaved people need to express their emotions. They can be encouraged to talk when others say What are you feeling? … Tell me what is happening with you. … It must be very hard on you. Friends should focus on where they are. Accept their moods. Friends are not there to judge but to listen.”
Saying. Be guided by this biblical wisdom: “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones,” (Proverbs 16:24). Keep in mind that suicide grievers are struggling with a wide variety of confusion and conflicting emotions such as anger, guilt, regret, shock, denial, emptiness. Avoid adding to their pain by making trite clichés and meaningless platitudes no matter how well intentioned they may be. Here are some things not to say:
- I know how your feel.
- This too shall pass.
- You will find a way to cope.
- It’s time to move on.
- At least he/she is no longer in pain.
- Don’t cry. He/she wouldn’t want that.
And here are some comments which suicide grievers find helpful:
- I am sorry.
- Just know that I care.
- We all need help at times like this; I’m here for you.
- I don’t know how your feel but I want to help in any way I can.
- I am here for you; have an open heart and time to listen.
- I will stand with you through this time.
When reaching out to a suicide griever choose your words carefully so that they heal rather than hurt. Tracy Roberts, a writer who lost her sister to suicide, cited an example of hurtful words in her essay Suicide Etiquette”: “After Amy killed herself. She recalled that “someone said, by way of comforting me, ‘Suicide is the coward’s way out.’ Besides being an inane truism, this pronouncement indicted the sister I was mourning. How was that supposed to console?”
Understanding. While there are many common elements of grief after a loved one has died, suicide grieving has additional and different components adding complexity to the grief process. These are the four main challenges. First, there is the suddenness of the death. Suicide is often unexpected leaving no space to say goodbye or to resolve any lingering issues. Secondly, there is the anguishing question of “why”. Survivors exhibit a frantic need to know why the suicide happened.
There can be a desperate and relentless search for clues before there is recognition that one may never know why or fully understand the act. Thirdly, there can be acute guilt which is self-assigned. Both family members and friends experience intense guilt driven by “if only” thoughts – if only I had noticed; if only I hadn’t said that; if only I had said that; if only I had been home, etc.
Supporters can try to gently guide grievers to recognise that they are not responsible for the person’s decision to end their life. Fourthly, there is the social stigma attached to a suicide. This can be seen by the simple fact that, until recently, a suicide act was considered a crime in many countries or a spiritual “unforgivable sin”. Also, the phrase “commit suicide” is a legally pejorative one similar to “commit murder” or “commit a crime.” Suicide survivors have to deal with a long history of stereotyping, mistrust, judgment, blaming and avoidance.
Recommending. “There are many general grief support groups, but those focused on suicide appear to be much more valuable. In a small pilot study that surveyed 63 adult suicide survivors about their needs and the resources they found helpful, 94% of those who had participated in a suicide grief support group found it moderately or very helpful, compared with only 27% of those who had attended a general grief group. The same study found that every survivor who had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with another suicide survivor found it beneficial.”
Remembering. Grief can be triggered at any time and on special days, i.e. Christmas, Easter, the New Year, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, as well as birthdays and anniversaries. Remember to reach out on these days. Even a simple text, email or mailed card can go a long way to lifting some of the anxiety and stress survivors feel on special days. On the death date of a person’s suicide, consider lighting a candle and sending an email to the survivor for whom the loss is most painful.
Supporting. Be there for the long haul, for the entire journey through grief. Rabbi Grollman says: “The survivor-victims often need to talk about their loved one for months and years –not for just a few days following the funeral. Healing is a long, long process. Friends need to continue to call and visit. Survivor-victims desperately need continuing love, support and concern.”
By extending support, sympathy and understanding to those who grieve, you will help suicide grievers know that it is possible to experience living while grieving. You, as a compassionate friend, will be a lifeline for suicide survivors providing them stability and strength for their challenge.
Victor Parachin is a US-based grief counsellor.