by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, “There are always two parties to a death: the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved.” Unfortunately, many survivors of suicide suffer alone and in silence. The silence that surrounds them often complicates the healing that comes from being encouraged to mourn.
Because of the social stigma surrounding suicide, survivors often feel the pain of the loss yet may not know how, or where, or if, they should express it. Yet the only way to heal is to mourn. Just like other bereaved people grieving the loss of someone loved, suicide survivors need to talk, to cry, sometimes to scream, in order to heal.
As a result of fear and misunderstanding, survivors of suicide deaths are often left with a feeling of abandonment at a time when they desperately need unconditional support and understanding. Without a doubt, suicide survivors suffer in a variety of ways: one, because they need to mourn the loss of someone who has died; two, because they have experienced a sudden, typically unexpected traumatic death; and three, because they are often shunned by a society unwilling to enter into the pain of their grief.
Accept the intensity of the grief
Grief following a suicide is always complex. Survivors don’t “get over it.” Instead, with support and understanding, they can come to reconcile themselves to its reality. Don’t be surprised by the intensity of their feelings. Sometimes, when they least expect it, they may be overwhelmed by feelings of grief. Accept that survivors may be struggling with explosive emotions, guilt, fear, and shame well beyond the limits experienced in other types of death. Be patient, compassionate, and understanding.
Listen with your heart
Assisting suicide survivors means you must break down the terribly costly silence. Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judgment are critical helping tools. Willingness to listen is the best way to offer help to someone who needs to talk.
Thoughts and feelings inside the survivor may be frightening and difficult to acknowledge. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on the words that are being shared with you.
Your friend may relate the same story about the death over and over again. Listen attentively each time. Realize this repetition is part of your friend’s healing process. Simply listen and understand. And remember, you don’t have to have an answer.
Avoid simplistic explanations and clichés
Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a suicide survivor. Clichés are trite comments often intended to diminish the loss by providing simple solutions to difficult realities. Comments like, “You are holding up so well,” “Time will heal all wounds,” “Think of what you still have to be thankful for,” and “You have to be strong for others” are not constructive. Instead, they hurt and make a friend’s journey through grief more difficult.
Be certain to avoid passing judgment or providing simplistic explanations of the suicide. Don’t make the mistake of saying the person who completed suicide was “out of his or her mind.” Inappropriate judging only complicates the suicide survivor’s grief. Instead, suicide survivors need help in coming to their own search for understanding of what has happened. In the end, their personal search for meaning and understanding of the death is what is really important.
Give your friend permission to express his or her feelings without fear of criticism. Learn from your friend. Don’t instruct or set explanations about how he or she should respond. Never say, “ I know just how you feel. You don’t. Think about your helping role as someone who “walks with,” not behind or in front of the one who is grieving.
Familiarize yourself with the wide spectrum of emotions that many survivors of suicide experience. Allow your friend to experience all the hurt, sorrow, and pain that he or she is feeling at the time. And recognize tears are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain associated with the loss.
Respect the need to grieve
Often ignored in their grief are the parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses, and children of people who have taken their own lives. Why? Because of the nature of the death, it is sometimes kept a secret. If the death cannot be talked about openly, the wounds of grief will go unhealed.
As a caring friend, you may be the only one willing to be with the survivors. Your physical presence and permissive listening create a foundation for the healing process. Allow the survivors to talk, but don’t push them. Sometimes you may get a cue to back off and wait. If you get a signal that this is what is needed, let them know you are ready to listen if, and when, they want to share their thoughts and feelings.
Use the name of the person who has died when talking to survivors. Hearing the name can be comforting, and it confirms that you have not forgotten this important person who was so much a part of your friend’s life.
Understand the Uniqueness of Suicide Grief
Keep in mind that the grief of suicide survivors is unique. No one will respond to the death of someone loved in exactly the same way. While it may be possible to talk about similar phases shared by survivors, everyone is different and shaped by experiences in his or her life.
Because the grief experience is unique, be patient. The process of grief takes a long time, so allow your friend to proceed at his or her own pace. Don’t criticize what you may think is inappropriate behavior. Remember that the death of someone to suicide is a shattering experience. As a result of this death, your friend’s life is under reconstruction.
Be aware of holidays and anniversaries
Survivors of suicide may have a difficult time on special occasions like holidays and anniversaries. These events emphasize the absence of the person who has died. Respect this pain as a natural expression of the grief process. Learn from it. And most important, never try to take the hurt away.
Be aware of support groups
Support groups are one of the best ways to help survivors of suicide. In a group, survivors can connect with other people who share the commonality of the experience. They are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories as much, and as often, as they like. You may be able to help survivors locate such a group. This practical effort on your part will be appreciated.
Respect faith and spirituality
If you allow it, a survivor of suicide will teach you about his or her feelings regarding faith and spirituality. If faith is a part of her life, let her express it in ways that seem appropriate. If he is made at God, encourage him to talk bout it. Remember having anger at God speaks of having a relationship with God. Don’t be a judge; be a loving friend.
Survivors may also need to explore how religion may have complicated their grief. They may have been taught that people who take their own lives are doomed to hell. Your task is not to explain theology but to listen and learn. Whatever the situation, your presence and desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools.
Work together as helpers
Friends and family who experience the death of someone loved to suicide must no longer suffer alone and in silence. As helpers, you need to join with other caring people to provide support and acceptance for survivors, who need your help mourning in healthy ways.
To experience grief is the result of having loved. Suicide survivors must be guaranteed this necessity. Helping a suicide survivor may not be an easy task. You may have to give more concern, time, and love than you ever knew you had. But this effort will be more than worth it.
About the Author
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner’s Book of Hope, and The Depression of Grief, from which this article was excerpted. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.