What should you say to someone bereaved by suicide?
If you avoid speaking to someone in grief because it is uncomfortable, they may feel rejected and isolated
The funeral is also an important aspect of support. Families who have been bereaved by suicide ‘emphasise the benefits of and comfort in having a public funeral so that adequate tribute is given to the deceased’. Photograph: iStockphoto
At every moment of every day someone is grieving the loss of another person by suicide. But when you know a person or family scarred by this awful loss, it can seem impossible to know what to say.
As a result, you may feel embarrassed or awkward about talking to the bereaved but if you avoid speaking to them or avoid all mention of the dead person, they may feel rejected and isolated.
But what should you say? You don’t have to say anything. There is no formula of words that will take the pain away. Just listen and if the bereaved person wants to tell the story a hundred times, let them.
Here are some guidelines for being supportive to people in this cruel situation: - Avoid the temptation to indulge in comforting clichés. Examples include: “Time will heal,” “He/she is at peace now,” “You’re strong.”
- Saying that the person “wasn’t in his/her right mind” can seem disrespectful to the person who died.
- And don’t say “I know how you feel” unless you, too, have been bereaved by the suicide of a person very close to you.
- When you are in a conversation in which the survivors are talking about the dead person, use the person’s name. Not doing so could give the impression that the dead person is being forgotten.
- Don’t judge the person who died. Calling them selfish, cowardly, weak, brave or strong is just not helpful and may be very hurtful as well as untrue.
- Don’t be afraid to tell the bereaved person that you just don’t know what to say. A way to open up the conversation is simply to ask “How are you getting on?” and listen to the answer.
Two free resources which I have drawn upon for this article are You are not alone, published by the National Office for Suicide Prevention and available to download from bit.ly/nospbooklet and an Australian website, Support after Suicide, at bit.ly/melbournesupport.
Support after Suicide has additional suggestions which include:
- Maintain contact personally or by telephone, notes, cards. Visits need not be long.
- Offer specific practical help, such as bringing in a cooked meal, taking care of the children, cutting the grass, shopping.
- Be aware of and acknowledge special times that might be significant, and particularly difficult, for the bereaved person such as Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc.
In a sense what you are doing is being there for the bereaved family in their search for an understanding of this terrible event. Very often, people have to accept that they will never arrive at that understanding. As the You are not alone booklet puts it: “Although a stressful event may appear to have been the trigger, it will seldom have been the sole reason for death. Ultimately, the bereaved will have to live with their loss, in their own way, albeit without having all the answers.”
Survivors often blame themselves or each other while absolving the person who died of all responsibility. The role of providing sensitive outside support, especially a listening ear, is all the more important when you consider this: “Often, in trying to cope with the impact of the death, family members are unable to offer one another support . . . Frequently, feelings of bitterness towards one another may surface.”
So the support you give, just by expressing sympathy and being there to listen, may be all that some family members are getting.
The funeral is also an important aspect of support. According to You are not alone, families who have been bereaved by suicide “emphasise the benefits of and comfort in having a public funeral so that adequate tribute is given to the deceased”.
Sometimes we hear criticisms of the creation of Facebook tribute pages to someone who has died by suicide. But so long as the page doesn’t glorify suicide, so long as it reflects grief and loss as well as love and friendship, I don’t myself see how it can be harmful.
Padraig O’Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. firstname.lastname@example.org