Family members and close friends of someone who dies by suicide are at increased risk of suicide themselves. Here’s how you can help.
By Sarah Klein
There’s a common estimate that every suicide leaves behind six survivors who are the most affected by the death. Not to be confused with suicide attempt survivors, who have taken action toward ending their own lives, suicide survivors or suicide loss survivors are friends or family members of someone who died by suicide.
Suicide loss survivors are themselves at an increased risk of mental health conditions and suicide in the future. One study found that people who knew someone who died by suicide in the previous year were 1.6 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, 2.9 times more likely to make a suicide plan, and 3.7 times more likely to make a suicide attempt than people who did not know someone who died by suicide.
Family members may be genetically predisposed to suicide, while friends and peers may be influenced by the behavior of a person who died by suicide—or distraught by the “emotional destruction suicide leaves in its wake,” says John R. Jordan, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and the author of several books and articles on bereavement after suicide.
To address this increased risk, experts in the field of suicide practice something called suicide postvention. “[Clinical psychologist] Edwin Shneidman coined the term to mean what we do after a suicide has happened to help people who are loss survivors and help reduce their risk of suicide,” Jordan says.
Postvention tactics can include professional measures, like therapy sessions or meetings with a support group. But help can also come from family and friends. If you know someone who is a recent survivor of suicide loss, here are expert-recommended ways you can help.
“Even though this is changing, suicide is still a very stigmatized death,” Jordan says. “Losing someone to suicide can be tremendously isolating. Many people either don’t know anybody or don’t know they know somebody” who was close to someone who died by suicide, he says. Help break down those isolating walls by being there for your friend or family member
Kim Ruocco’s husband died by suicide in 2005. A Marine Corps pilot, he came back from what she describes as a “pretty difficult deployment” in Iraq with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Their sons were 8 and 10 at the time.
Ruocco, who has a master’s degree in social work and is now the vice president of suicide postvention and prevention at the Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors, says she took comfort in people simply being by her side. “The people who were most helpful to me could be in my presence and tolerate my pain and didn’t have to say anything,” she says. “There are no right words really, but it was really comforting to have someone who can be with you with that much pain.”
Deflect feelings of blame
Grief is never easy, but grief in the wake of suicide can be particularly complicated, says Mara Pheister, MD, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who has researched suicide prevention and postvention. “There’s the sense that it is a little different than the grief involved in losing someone in general. There can be a lot of guilt, a lot of what if,” she says.
Because a suicide loss survivor may already be blaming themselves for not doing something differently, comments like, “How could you not have known?” or “Why didn’t you stop him?” are particularly unhelpful, Dr. Pheister says. “That’s not something that needs to be said.”
Other survivors may be working through feelings of blame surrounding what turned out to be their final interaction or conversation with the person who died, Ruocco adds. “Help them understand that suicide is a multi-factor event that comes together on a kind of ‘perfect storm’ day,” she says, and encourage them to try to let go of that kind of guilt.
Let them dictate how much detail to share
Although it can be uncomfortable and scary to talk about suicide, avoiding the topic altogether might make a suicide survivor feel like you’re pretending nothing happened. Don’t shy away from talking about suicide—but don’t pry for details, either. Listen to how the survivor is talking about it and take cues from them. “Be there for them if they want to talk about it,” Dr. Pheister says. “It depends on what the person feels like bringing up themselves, what they’re okay talking about.”
That includes how you talk about the person’s death, Ruocco says. “Everyone is different in what kinds of words they want to use in connection with their loved one’s death,” she says. “Listen carefully to how the survivors are talking about the death and use those words.”
When in doubt, ask for guidance. Say something like: “I can only try to imagine what this is like for you. Would it be helpful for you to talk to me, or would you rather not talk about it?” Jordan says. However they respond, treat the person with compassion, as you would anyone who is grieving the death of a loved one, he says.
Celebrate the life the person lived
Put aside your curiosity about how the person died and instead share stories of how they lived. Funny stories of her husband or memories she may not have heard before were most comforting, Ruocco says.
“Use their loved one’s name, remember who they were before they struggled with whatever their issues were, acknowledge that the death doesn’t define them,” Ruocco says. “Talking about the life they lived is incredibly helpful.”
Reassure the survivor their feelings are normal
Alongside the guilt that a survivor might be feeling, there could also be sadness, self-doubt, anger, helplessness, and a wide range of other totally normal reactions, Dr. Pheister says. “Depending on how much the person [who died by suicide] was struggling, the survivor might [also] feel relief, which then induces more guilt,” she says. You can help by reinforcing that these and many other emotions are all well within the range of normal reactions to suicide loss. For example, help them “recognize that relief is the natural response to the removal of stress,” Dr. Pheister says.
Talking about how a person is feeling—and that it’s okay to feel that way—might help stave off some self-judgment and self-doubt, Dr. Pheister says.
Help them embrace their grief
Survivors often expect to grieve for a set period of time and then get over it, Ruocco says, which isn’t always the case. “Grief and loss become a part of who you are; people grieve their entire lives,” she says.
With time, grief can certainly become less painful—but it may still linger, she says. She counsels survivors to think of it in a somewhat more positive light. “Grief is love. You grieve because you loved someone. See it as a connection with a loved one.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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