- Be available for someone who has learned about a death by suicide.
- Avoid blaming and judging.
- Remember that the joyful moments of the deceased person's life should also be discussed.
Sadly, if, like most people, you have friends, colleagues, and relatives, you are likely to learn at some point that someone has lost a loved one to death by suicide. According to the CDC, in 2020, suicide was among the nine leading causes of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 64. Furthermore, the Division of Vital Statistics reported that the number of deaths by suicide in 2021 was 4% higher. These rates approximate 46,000 deaths by suicide in the United States in a single year, including children as young as 10; no age group is protected from death by suicide.
If someone confides in you about a death by suicide, they clearly want your support. They are likely feeling devastated, shocked, and maybe even (unfairly) guilty that they didn't see the "signs" and prevent the death of someone they cared about greatly. Of course, professional help is often necessary but there is great value in the support and availability of a relative, friend, or colleague.
Sadly, what I see too frequently in the aftermath of suicide are individuals not only blaming themselves but looking for culpability among others in the life of the deceased. This not only exacerbates the devastation in the moment but also can destroy connections that should be sources of support. Keep this in mind as you try to be helpful. Assigning blame is a very dangerous game; avoid it in every way possible. Losing more friends due to blaming is not needed after a major loss. Support is the answer.
I have witnessed the aftermath of suicide and how it impacts people in the moments following the arrival of the police at the door with the devastating news. I have also heard about how things can go awry when people are confused and don't know what to say. There is no playbook for how to best support people after losing someone they loved but I would like to help develop one. Suicides are no longer a rare event and individuals are more likely to talk about experiencing a death by suicide than in the past. Stigma may still be in play, but we must do our best to de-stigmatize and talk openly in an effort to provide support.
My suggestions include:
- Provide comfort to those who have lost someone. Every card, meal, phone call, and attempt to reach out will be appreciated. Do not underestimate the power of what might seem like small gestures.
- Check in frequently. Do not forget about the event. This person has just lost a lot. Your presence helps fill a deep void.
- Listen without judgment. It helps absolutely no one to assign blame.
- Be available physically as well. If your friend reaches out make it a priority to respond. Keep in mind that you are dealing with someone who needs you. Just sitting beside them may provide great comfort.
- Do not try to normalize the death. It is tragic, and it is not something that anyone could ever be prepared for.
- Over time, encourage your friend to talk about good memories as well as their sadness. These are all necessary for dealing with a loss. A death by suicide does not erase the many pleasant and wonderful moments of a person's life.
- Pay attention to when your friend, relative, or colleague needs a topic change and perhaps a distraction.
- Suggest a support group. These are often extremely helpful since no one benefits from being or feeling alone.
- Be sensitive to your words. The right way to refer to suicide is death by suicide, not "committed suicide." It's gentler and more compassionate.
- Be sensitive when talking about your own life. For example, if your friend has just lost a 22-year-old daughter, consider a little less discussion of your own child right away. You are dealing with a very sensitive person at this point in time.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.