You want to be there for your friend, and help them in their time of grief. But it can feel so overwhelming knowing what to do to support them during this loss, because suicide is such a difficult and complex kind of loss. A death by suicide is very different from other deaths. There are the unanswered questions, the associated guilt, but also the stigma of suicide in our culture that make this grief even harder to bear.
So please know, your friend needs you now more than ever.
After a suicide, many people will not know what to do or to say. Your friend may be feeling very alone. Sadly, even good friends may shy away for fear of “making a mistake.” But the only mistake is not reaching out to them. So I applaud you for seeking answers and discovering ways to support your friend.
- Reach Out Immediately. A kind presence or voice of compassion is so important right now, so reach out to your friend immediately. Don’t wait “for the right time” or hold off calling until it’s less hectic. Your friend needs to hear your love and condolences right away.
- Be Specific. Make sure your friend knows you’re there for them, not just in words but action.
- If you live nearby: Don’t just say, “I’m here if you need me.” Be specific in what you are offering to do, and let your friend know how much it means to you to be able to help. For example, say “I’d like to help you however you need. I’m about to go to the grocery store. Can I also pick up some groceries for you? It’s no trouble, and it would mean the world to me to help you.” Other ideas include phone calls, funeral arrangements, picking up the kids from school, even getting the mail could be a big help. Or if the “tasks” are all covered by family, invite your friend out for a movie or chat over drinks. Distraction is an important part of grieving too.
- If you do not live nearby: Again, don’t just say “I’m here if you need me.” Tell your friend you’ll be there for them every day, and find a way that works for you to do just that. Perhaps that means calling each day at a set time. Or calling twice per week and texting on off days. Or writing a letter or email each day. Make sure your friend knows you’ll be reaching out because you love them and want to offer support. But also let them off the hook…if they don’t feel like talking, it’s OK not to answer.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Speak of Their Loved One. Say their loved one’s name. Speak of his or her life. The good times. The happy memories. It’s not uncommon for others to shy away from speaking of the deceased after a suicide. But the sadness of the method of death does not negate or diminish their wonderful life. Being able to remember, and talk about the good can be so helpful and healing. You might even consider writing down a few funny or happy stories you remember (if you knew their loved one) to share with your friend via email or snail mail. A nice surprise to bring a smile during this time of grief.
- Encourage Them to Seek Self Care. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, find more information about self care here. As I mentioned above, a movie or night out for drinks is a great distraction and also good self care. But you can also encourage and help motivate your friend to take care in many other ways. For example: Invite your friend for a weekly walk. Play an online game together. Buy your friend a meditation CD.
- Offer Suicide Loss Resources. There are many resources for survivors of suicide loss but at a time of shock and grief, it’s not easy for your friend to seek them out. Do a little digging yourself to find what resources are available in your local area. AFSP.org is a great place to start.
- AFSP’s Coping with Suicide Loss section offers some wonderful information including books and survivor stories.
- Connecting with others who have also experienced a loss can be very healing. AFSP’s Suicide Outreach Program offers in-person, by phone or video call visits with suicide loss survivors. These are not trained therapists or medical professionals, just volunteers who have been there and can offer support. In addition, you can help them find local or online support groups in your area.
- Download and share with them “Surviving a Suicide Loss: A Resource and Healing Guide”.
- Keep an Eye on Them. In the coming weeks and months, keep an eye on your friend for signs of depression. This will be a very stressful time and it’s not uncommon from those who experience a suicide loss to suffer from depression themselves. Mental illness often runs in the family. Arm yourself with the warning signs and crisis resources. If you feel your friend is in need, please reach out for them. You’ll find tips for being more suicide alert here.
If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, what things did your loved ones do that you found helpful? What were the things you wish they wouldn’t have done?