September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Death from suicide provides a unique set of complications for the affected family, their friends, and the funeral service professionals who serve them. Offering comfort to the bereaved also becomes a bit more difficult. What should a friend or funeral director say? Is there anything to avoid mentioning? If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, how should you respond?
Here are some tips for coping with the loss of a loved one to suicide and comforting the family of a suicide victim.
LOSING A LOVED ONE TO SUICIDE
1. Acknowledge and overcome the stigma.
There is a stigma associated with suicide that doesn’t come with any other type of death. In this context, a stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.” Many in society view suicide as a selfish act or the result of a weak character. Suicide victims are often not afforded the same dignity in death as those who die of other causes.
Helpful Tip: Remember that your loved one had many admirable qualities. At the same time, they were dealing with insurmountable distress. Remind yourself that the manner of your loved one’s passing should not detract from the validity of your loss or their value as a human being.
2. Know that you are not alone in this experience.
Suicide is among the ten leading causes of death in the United States. Over the past fifteen years, suicide rates have increased. Many families have experienced and coped with losing a loved one to suicide. Many more will experience a similar tragedy in the future.
Helpful Tip: Realize you’re not alone. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers a way to find a support group for the loved ones of suicide victims.
3. If necessary, seek professional help.
“Acute, chronic, unremitting grief” is known as complicated bereavement. According to Psychology Today, an estimated 10-20% of bereaved persons have reactions to loss that are so severe, they would warrant counseling and possibly medication. Seeing a therapist is one way to deal with complicated bereavement.
COMFORTING THE FAMILY OF A SUICIDE VICTIM
1. Sympathy is not empathy.
Sympathy and empathy are different concepts. Unless you’ve personally survived the suicide of a family member, you do not know what the victim’s family is going through, and thus cannot empathize.
Helpful Tip: According to grief expert Professor Jenni Brennan, it is better to say something like “I can only imagine how you feel,” which conveys sympathy, instead of “I know how you feel,” which is an expression of empathy.
2. Don’t minimize the loss.
Avoid remarks that minimize the loss. Phrases to avoid include clichés such as “everything happens for a reason” and “be strong.” While these words come from a place of good intention, attempting to show the ‘bright side’ to a person experiencing profound loss may create guilt and resentment. There will be plenty of time for optimism in the future beyond this time of grieving.
Helpful Tip: According to Psychology Today, when words fail to convey your condolences, your silent presence will do just as well. Be present with the family.
3. Curiosity is not comfort.
According to Harvard Health , certain questions should be avoided. Asking the family, “Why did they do this?” or “How did it happen?” is likely to trigger more pain, confusion, and guilt surrounding the loss. It is possible that even the victim’s family doesn’t have the answer to your questions. Respect that the family may choose to only disclose certain information about their loved one. It is natural to be curious but more important to be considerate.
Helpful Tip: Ask questions that bring comfort in answering. Ask the family, “can I help you with errands?” This gives you the opportunity to offer real comfort by assisting with practical matters, such as cooking, cleaning, or grocery shopping for the family. You may also help by organizing a sympathy meal.
4. Promote forgiveness.
Acknowledge and understand, to the best of your ability, that the victim may have resorted to suicide to escape terrible pain for which they could find no solution.
The family is already experiencing terrible guilt or may, to an extent, blame their loved one for leaving them. They may feel victimized, angry, and abandoned. Grief is complex, and suicide presents a unique set of complicated emotions for the family.
Helpful Tip: According to Professor Brennan, it is preferable to say something positive about the victim. You might want to acknowledge the victim’s kindness, good humor, or selfless deeds. These statements help promote forgiveness.
The stigma associated with suicide creates additional challenges for the bereaved and the people who try to comfort them. Be gentle with yourself. Reach out to your loved ones. Remember that we all have the power to do something.
By Rachana Gadi,
OGR Social Media & Research Intern