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Showing Support to Suicide Survivors

A personal perspective on helping in a time of need

For the past three years, I’ve written a post around the anniversary of my dad’s death by suicide. Writing these posts and wrestling with the feelings they bring up is, surprisingly, incredibly healing for me. The dialogue they inspire, in real life and in this virtual space, is a source of support for me and always shows me that it’s better to talk about suicide than it is to keep silent.

As time has gone on, I haven’t exactly run out of things to say. At the same time, I acknowledge that my perspective is limited. The kinds of questions I’ve been asked by friends and readers aren’t questions I can’t always answer, in part because I was very young when my father died, and in part because I can most authentically speak only from my perspective, as a daughter.

A few months ago, it occurred to me that I had a great source, someone who could speak from an entirely different perspective—my mother. So, a couple of weeks ago, I spent almost an hour talking to my mom about my dad’s suicide, which may be the most amount of time I have ever spent talking with my mom about my dad’s suicide, total. In 24 years, I’ve asked some questions here and there, she’s shared this and that, but we’ve never sat down and really talked about what happened.

What did I want to know?

After my dad died, what did people do that was supportive? My memories are quite blurry, and many are not particularly positive.

The kinds of things my mom shared were simple, human: a neighbor took all three of us kids into their home while my mom dealt with the EMTs and police; the EMTs and police “didn’t make it worse;” people from our synagogue helped by bringing food and assisting with funeral arrangements; a friend helped my mom sell my dad’s car and arrange for a death certificate so that she could access life insurance and survivor’s benefits.

But, they were all things I wouldn’t have noticed as a kid. What I remember—a collection of memories perfect for a case study on “magical thinking.” Playing at my neighbor’s house. Thinking that if an ambulance was coming to our house, they would save my dad. At the funeral, my father’s best friend crying like I’d never seen anyone cry. People from our synagogue telling me and my brother and sister that we had to be “good for our mom.”

It’s so valuable to have my mom’s perspective to complement mine. The two of us tell a much better story than one of us could on her own.

She was an adult woman who, in an instant, became a single parent to three children. She had to explain my father’s death—and life—to us.

I’m the oldest of the three kids. Of my siblings, I have the most memories of my dad. I’m the daughter who’s made a career out of searching for strength that grows from adversity.

But, despite coming from these very different places, there are some things about which we feel exactly the same.

The question I wanted to answer by talking with my mom was one I have struggled to answer, at least from a personal perspective. What can people do at the time of a suicide death to be supportive? The answer is one I’d give to anyone who wants to truly help a friend at almost any time of need:

Be there. Do the little things. Don’t say something to make yourself feel better, but say something to make the person who’s just lost someone feel better. Sometimes, you don’t have to say anything at all.

Let the person who’s lost someone be angry. Let her feel abandoned, which, as my mom said so thoughtfully, is “a different form of anger.”

Don’t be too quick to help look for a “silver lining.”

It took me 20 years to find my “silver lining”—a career that gives me permission to talk about adversity and to help others talk about it, too. For my mom, who had to find a job to support her children, becoming an artist and teaching art was part one of her silver lining. Part two? “He gave me a gift, even though it was so hard. I have you three kids. If I hadn’t met him, maybe I would have had kids, maybe I wouldn’t have had kids. But, if I’d had kids, they wouldn’t have been you all.”

My mom’s a pretty loyal reader of this blog, so I’d like to thank her here for talking with me about my dad. Our conversation reminded me that it’s much easier to say, “Talk about suicide” than it is to actually talk about suicide.

This year, as I remember my dad, I think about the complexity of our stories. Each of us—my dad, my mom, me. We’re not one-dimensional figures. Our stories have layers and layers. Through my mom, I had the chance to build on the story I’ve been telling myself about my dad. Telling and retelling stories gives life to our memories.

Those who lose loved ones to suicide are often afraid or ashamed to tell their stories. But, in a world where more people than ever talk openly about mental illness, suicidal thinking, and suicide, there’s truly no time like right now to just talk.

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Past posts on my personal perspective on suicide:

Sharing Stories of Survival

The Significance of One Death By Suicide

What Is the Role of Survivor Stories in Suicide Prevention?

More from Elana Premack Sandler L.C.S.W., M.P.H
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