Every day, people die unexpectedly and tragically, leaving behind loved ones to mourn.
But when that tragic death comes at the hands of the very person you are mourning, it takes on a whole different group of feelings. Not only are you feeling sad, but you are left wondering why, asking yourself if it was something you did. You feel angry and hurt. You may even feel betrayed.
Everything is uncertain except for two things, your loved one is gone and you now belong to a group of people you never never imagined you’d be part of. You are a survivor — clinically known as a “suicide survivor.”
Suicide survivors often feel isolated. With each situation having a unique set of circumstances, the notion that nobody understands is in actuality a fact, because not even the survivor understands.
So what do you do when your friend or family member has lost a loved one to suicide?
As a suicide survivor, I have come up with some things to help and enlisted the help of two other experts to weigh in on the topic.
1. Don’t say you understand
Unless you have lost a loved one to suicide, you don’t understand, and even then, it is difficult to lay claim to that phrase.
There are so many reasons people commit suicide, making each situation unique. Likewise, each survivor has his or her own experience related to the person lost. Maybe she was a mother, sister, friend or former friend.
Saying that you understand will not bring comfort because you simply don’t — and that’s OK.
While your survivor friend may be asking why, he or she is not looking for you to give the answers but is most likely trying to sort it all out. You need to be there to listen and validate — even if your opinion may vary.
Wendi Christensen of Lake Mountain Counseling and Stress Management, who also spearheaded the peer group The Hope Squad, said, “Suicide grief is intense. Assisting someone dealing with a suicide means listening with your heart. Let them share their own grief story without interruptions, cliche phrases or reasons ‘why’ this may have happened. No one knows exactly why.”
3. Say something
Many friends of survivors forgo saying anything for fear of saying the wrong thing or of bringing things up that may cause the person to cry or get upset.
“In reality, one of the most difficult things survivors experience is silence,” Christensen said. “We hide it, we deny it, we’re ashamed to discuss it. We sometimes don’t know what to say, so we don’t say anything at all. This creates a type of stigmatization that is especially painful for suicide survivors whose overwhelming guilt and shame can be evident by a lack of support or even questioning from society wondering what the survivor’s role might have been in their loved one’s decision to die.”
4. Let the person feel
You may visit your friend one day, and he is feeling sad, another day he is content, and another, he shows signs of anger or hurt. These are all normal feelings, and he needs to be allowed to feel them all.
Christensen said, “Respect the survivor’s right to feel bad for a while (anger, guilt, sadness). Their grief is real and they need to go through the healing process. Your loving support with help them through the painful task.”
5. Let the person resume a sense of normalcy
As much as losing a loved one to suicide is a defining moment in a survivor’s life, don’t let it define him or her.
This is especially important for surviving children, author Wendy Parmley said. In her book, “Hope After Suicide: One Woman’s Journey from Darkness to Light,” Parmley writes about losing her mother when she was 12 years old.
She recalled the terror that was that day, but spoke about the importance it was to be able to remain a child in a very difficult situation.
“Friends had me over for a birthday sleepover the night of the viewing and a motorcycle ride the day of the funeral,” Parmley said. “It was important for me to still be a kid and to be included in kid things.”
6. Remember them
Yes, time does pass, but the adage that “time heals all wounds” just isn’t the case. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and just everyday reminders will cause tears to come. The survivor will continue to remember and be affected by the person’s death for the rest of his or her life.
A simple phone call, email or gift, letting your friend know that you are thinking of her, will not add to her grief, but will help in the healing process, knowing that she and her loved one are not forgotten.
7. Lend support
If you can give anything to a friend who has lost a loved one to suicide, it is support. And with this week being National Suicide Prevention Week, with Sept. 10 being World Suicide Prevention Day, it is a perfect time to do just that.