LifeWays Blog

How to Talk to a Suicide Loss Survivor

November 13, 2020

Talking to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide can be challenging to navigate. Regardless of intentions, the urge to comfort someone may unwittingly cause us to say hurtful things. Due to the common fear of making the loss survivor’s pain worsen by saying the wrong thing, it is common to begin to avoid someone who is grieving or to censor our words in unhelpful ways.

Below are ten tips to help you navigate conversations with suicide loss survivors in a kind, thoughtful, and responsible way:

  1. “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you”.
    Suicide loss is complicated, confusing, and devastating. Acknowledging that you don’t know what to say and that there are no easy answers, is not only honest, but shows the survivor that the complex feelings they feel are not misplaced.
  2. Refrain from saying, “I understand what you’re going through”.
    Because suicide loss is not like other losses, you cannot truly understand how the loss survivor is feeling. That’s okay, and by acknowledging this – it shows that you recognize the complexity of the loss survivor’s grief and helps keep the conversation open.
  3. Do not ask questions about how the person died.
    If the suicide loss survivor does not bring up the method used, it is best to assume they would prefer not to talk about it. If the loss survivor does offer some details, it is not advised that you ask for additional details.
  4. Avoid giving advice and using hurtful clichés.
    It can be important to remind the suicide loss survivor to attend to their basic self-care needs (rest, exercise, nutrition, hygiene) but try to avoid giving advice in other areas pertaining to their loss; including how they are handling the loss and if children are involved how they should speak to the children about it. There isn’t one way to cope with a suicide loss and it is up to the loss survivors to determine how they want to cope and what to tell children closest to the person lost. Refrain from offering unsolicited advice such as, “They are too young to hear about such a death,“ or, “Just say it was an accident.”

    In addition, some of the common sympathetic phrases we reach for when expressing our sympathies to someone may be hurtful to a suicide loss survivor – “She’s in a better place,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “You are never given more than you can handle,” and “You’ll get over it” – these phrase may minimize the survivors feelings of grief and the magnitude of loosing someone to suicide.
  5. Do not place value judgements on suicide.
    Do not refer to the suicide as a selfish choice, a sin, an act of weakness, or a lack of faith or love or strength.
  6. Do not assign or imply blame.
    In trying to answer the question of why, suicide loss survivors often place blame on themselves. You do not want to amplify this feeling of blame by saying things or asking questions that could imply the loss survivor is to blame for the suicide, whether directly or indirectly.
  7. Be proactive about offering help.
    People often find it hard to ask for help or may not even know what kind of help they might benefit from, especially in the shock of the early days following a suicide loss. For that reason, a simple, “Let me know if you need anything” may not suffice. Offer help repeatedly and specifically. What everyday things that might be adding stress can you help with in the short term? Does the loss survivor need help running errands or picking up the kids from school?

    Would they like someone to just sit with them for a while? Making concrete suggestions shows that your offer to help is genuine and will make it easier for the loss survivor to accept.
  8. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who died.
    Remember to say the person’s name as you would after any loss. Give the loss survivor an opportunity to remember the person they loved with fondness.
  9. Be patient.
    Don’t place a timeline on the loss survivor’s grief; healing after a suicide loss is a lifelong journey. Well-intended though they may be, frequently heard phrases such as “This too shall pass,” and “You need to move on” can make the loss survivor feel pressured to “get over it.”
  10. Don’t disappear.
    Remember that the weeks and months following the funeral, when the initial shock wears off and the full reality of what has happened sinks in, may be the toughest for the loss survivor. Continue to check in with them, let them know you are thinking of them, and that you’re there for them.

Adapted from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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