It is often very difficult to know how to express your condolences when a friend or family member is experiencing the loss of a loved one by suicide. I know that a good friend of mine experienced the loss of her ex-husband by suicide and I was at a loss for the right words to express my sincere condolences to her. It felt especially awkward to me as in this situation the children were also survivors.
No matter their age, anyone confronting the loss of a person to suicide is grieving not only the loss of the loved one but also the trauma of knowing the loss was by suicide. Most survivors experience guilt and feelings of frustration that they could not prevent the death or did not see the warning signs that the person was hurting so badly.
Here are a few tips about what to do and what not to do when someone dies by suicide.
LISTEN without judgment when your loved one expresses the intense feelings that are part of the grieving process. The trauma related to suicide can intensify the emotions in survivors. Also, allow the grieving person as much time as they need to grieve. The immediate grief upon the death may recede rather quickly, yet the longer mourning process can take years.
Keep in touch with the bereaved through e-mails, phone calls, and visits. Keep the visits short and prepare to listen, help with chores, or just sit quietly offering your companionship.
Do talk about the person who died. Be tactful and use your discernment in this area. Most people want to share about their loved ones; however, some do not want to think about the person. Respect the different ways people grieve.
Treat them as you would anyone who is grieving the death of a loved one.
Offer practical help, such as taking care of the children, bringing in a cooked meal, or shopping.
Don’t use words and phrases to describe suicide in negative connotations. Avoid saying “committed suicide;” using the word “committed” implies a crime. Don’t use language that implies the person who died by suicide was to blame. It’s inappropriate to say “killed themselves,” “ended their life” or, “they took their life by their own choice.” Why a death by suicide happens is often a very complicated matter. No blame needs to be assigned to anyone involved.
Don’t stay away because you fear you’ll say the wrong thing. Instead, express your deepest condolences and share how sorry you are for the loss. If uncertain, keep your words simple and short.
Don’t compare grief stories. Each situation is unique. This has been shown to aggravate survivors rather than help them while grieving.
Don’t ask why the person died. Death by suicide is much more complex than it can appear. Survivors rarely know why a person made the choice they did. They can speculate, however, this has been found to hinder not help the grieving process.
The most important thing to do when a friend experiences a death by suicide is to stay their friend. Stand beside them and let them grieve. Listen, listen, listen and limit your own talking.