Supporting the bereaved

People who have been bereaved by suicide can feel very isolated. The understanding and support of family, friends and others is critical in helping them to cope and recover but sometimes people avoid the bereaved because they don’t know what to say or they don’t want to upset them.  Sometimes survivors find it difficult to accept help and may push you away and become more isolated.  Be patient and don’t give up – as the months pass they will need more support, not less.

Talking about suicide
Knowing what to say to someone who is grieving can be hard enough and it can be especially difficult to talk about suicide. The bereaved themselves may not be comfortable talking about because of the unfortunate stigma that still surrounds suicide.
However, avoiding them will only add to their pain. You don’t need to rehearse a speech – a hug, a handshake or simply making eye contact conveys far more support than trying to find the right words. In fact, the best thing you can do is not talk at all but listen. Many survivors feel a strong need to talk about their loved one, even months and years after the event.  Your physical presence and willingness to listen without judgment are critical helping tools.
Here are some suggestions taken from from SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) and Survivors of Suicide that may make it easier for you to talk with survivors:
  • Accept the intensity of suicide grief.  Survivors don't "get over it" but with support and understanding they can come to reconcile themselves to the reality. Don't be surprised by the intensity of their feelings. Sometimes, when they least suspect 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 deaths.  Be patient, compassionate and understanding.

  • Allow the person to be in the moment and experience what they are going through – don’t try to distract them away from thinking about the person who has died or focus on the future.  Even though is it painful, they need to experience it.

  • Be reassuring and supportive – let their words be your guide.  They have the right to feel the way that they do.

  • Don’t try to explain or rationalise what has happened.  We sometimes do this as a way to try and lessen the sense of distress but the bereaved need to be supported as they work out their own answers.

  • Focus on the loss of the person rather than how they died.  When the moments are right, share positive memories – this can be very comforting. 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 such a big part of their lives.

  • Avoid the term “committed suicide” as this has the historical connotations of when suicide was considered a criminal act in many countries – “took their life” or “died by suicide” are better phrases.

  • Be prepared –  they may be experiencing a bewildering array of powerful emotions all at once.  They may need to repeat themselves or go through patterns of feelings several times in order to make sense of them.  They may contradict themselves or act out of character, avoid making judgements about how they are behaving or what they are saying.

  • Avoid simplistic explanations and clichés - Sometimes people make remarks, perhaps well intended but which can be very painful and upsetting – for example "Time will heal all wounds," "Think of what you still have to be thankful for", "You have to be strong for others", “at least you have other children”, “you’ll meet someone else”, “I know how you are feeling” or “you need to move on”.

  • Respect their faith and spirituality. Survivors may find comfort or conflict in their religious or spiritual beliefs after a suicide. Do not judge or try to explain, just listen.
Other ways you can help
  • Ask what you can do to help but at the same time don’t wait to be asked. In the early days of grieving, it is often difficult to focus on routine tasks so make specific offers – cook a meal, bake a cake, babysitting, do the school run, walk the dog, cleaning, shopping, etc. They may need help with arranging the funeral or sorting through finances and papers.

  • Attend the funeral or memorial service. Just being there makes a difference and will be much appreciated.

  • Offer your support or practical help during the investigation process – this can be very stressful for the bereaved.

  • Stay in touch. The grieving and recovery process is a long one and a friendly phone call, text or email weeks and months later lets survivors know that they are not forgotten. 

  • Be aware of holidays and anniversaries. Survivors may have a difficult time during special occasions which emphasise the absence of their loved one. Respect the pain as a natural expression of the grief process and never try to take the hurt away.

  • Watch for symptoms of prolonged grief or depression and encourage them to get medical help if you are concerned.

  • Take care of yourself. Supporting someone else can be exhausting both mentally and physically – especially if you are grieving yourself. We can only help others if we look after ourselves.