Each year, more than 41,000 individuals die by suicide, leaving behind their friends and family members to navigate the tragedy of loss (National Alliance on Mental Illness). For these survivors, healthy grieving may be more difficult emotionally because of the stigma surrounding suicide.
In an effort to shed light on this topic and help families heal after loss by suicide, we talked with Melissa Budzynski, LMSW from Gilda’s Club. Gilda’s Club’s Grief Support Program provides a place for children and adults to share and learn with others who have experienced the death of a friend or family member. This program is for all types of death, not just from cancer for which they are so well known.
What You Should Know:
Suicide usually elicits feelings of shame and / or guilt, helplessness, and anger. Anger may be directed at the deceased, self, social networks of the deceased, institutional systems or the community as a whole.
Often there is sorrow over the life of the deceased, not just their death.
Additional problems for the bereaved may be:
- Felt responsibility / guilt
- Debt & financial hardship
- Social shunning and isolation by the community – Often suicide loss survivors will struggle with the “narrative” about the death for this very reason. Do they tell people how the deceased died?
- Social ambiguity about how to relate to the bereaved
What to Do:
For the Bereaved:
Discovering your resources is a step in the right direction to feeling powerful in your grief, rather than helpless. Those who are able to recognize what tools and resources they have to cope are often able to navigate the tasks of grief in a healthier manner. Identifying who your support network is, finding helpful grief materials, attending a support group and seeking professional help are all resources that will empower you in your grief.
Gilda’s Club also encourages you to tell your story. Tell it as many times as needed. Talk at your own pace. It is important to find a place where you can tell your story and have it be heard. David Kessler appropriately writes, “Grief demands an audience.”
For Support Network*:
- LISTEN: This is the single most important thing you can do for them. Actively listen, without judgment, criticism or prejudice. Don’t try to fix them. Just witness and validate. Be prepared to be an audience.
- Side note: If hearing this grief story or hearing it repeatedly is causing you anxiety or pain, know your own limits on how long and how many times you can hear the story. Be honest with the individual and let them know how you feel.
- OVERCOME PRECONCEPTIONS: You may have personal preconceptions about suicide and the suicide victim. Educating yourself and being mindful to keep your preconceptions to yourself are helpful. This is a difficult topic, and your ability to listen will allow the survivor to feel compassion rather than judgment.
- Tip: Avoid using the phrase “commit suicide” – this unnecessarily places stigma. Compassionate friends suggest using “died by”
- ASK the survivor if and how you can help. If they are not ready to share their story, finding practical ways to help may be what they need right now until they are willing to share.
- LET them talk at their own pace; they will share with you when (and what) they are ready to share.
- BE PATIENT.
- USE THE LOVED ONE’S NAME: Instead of “he” or “she,” humanize the decedent by saying their name. It is comforting to the bereaved.
- KNOW YOUR LIMITS: You cannot lead someone through their grief. Because the journey is personal and unique to the individual, do not tell them how they should act, what they should feel, or that they should feel better “by now.”
- AVOID STATEMENTS LIKE: “I know how you feel,” you can only empathize with how they feel.
- GIVE RESOURCES: This doesn’t mean financial support necessarily. It means help them find the tools they need to grieve and feel empowered in their journey. Support groups or network, pamphlets and professional help are all examples of resources that are available to the bereaved.
*Excerpts from American Association of Suicidology
Here are some helpful slides from Gilda’s Club: