Instead of giving-up on your life or (woe betide) taking your own life; give your life to someone who cares...
Suicide is a topic rarely discussed in polite society, or in the church, for that matter. While it is a subject whispered behind cupped hands or alluded to in the form of a prayer request, "we need to pray for that family because of the circumstances of his death," suicide is rarely confronted openly.
One of the greatest deterrents to meeting suicide head-on is the centuries-old proliferation of myths and misunderstandings about the subject. Doesn't mentioning suicide to a depressed individual plant the idea in his mind and encourage him to attempt? Isn't a suicide death a sure ticket to hell? Don't surviving family members feel better if no one mentions the manner in which their loved one died? The answer to all these questions is "no."
Survivors of suicide desperately need the opportunity to talk openly about the complex emotions they are experiencing. Suicide literally explodes into a person's life like an earthquake registering off the Richter scale. Life changes in an instant for suicide survivors. One moment, they are blissfully traveling down the road of life, and the next, an event happens that opens the earth in a yawning chasm before them. As with the survivors of an actual earthquake, suicide families are in shock, simply existing in the wake of the destruction.
As if the death of a loved one were not enough to handle, suicide survivors must deal with the shame of the social stigma attached to suicide. In general, people do not know how to react to or comfort suicide families. Suicide is akin to a sort of social leprosy. Families are seen as unclean because of the act of the victim. A shadow is cast across the entire family as if something must be wrong with them all. Surely other family members will fall prey to this horrible means of death as well by sheer association. And then, there is the thought that perhaps the whole suicide idea might be "catching." If you associate with the family, are you putting yourself and your family at risk of developing a suicidal mindset? A far-fetched and unrealistic idea? Yes. An uncommon thought pattern for those on the outside looking in? No.
As with any death, people often feel talking about it will upset the family so they avoid the subject. What they don't understand is the survivors need very much to talk about what has happened. Healing will never take place if the gaping wound of suicide pain is covered over without being allowed to heal from the inside out.
Suppose an earthquake seriously damages the foundation of a home, yet the house appears otherwise intact. There are obvious cracks, but instead of making the necessary inspection and repairs, the owner opts for stuccoing over the damaged foundation. From the exterior, the repairs seem complete. However, one day an aftershock trembles the already insecure foundation and the whole house comes crashing down.
Waiting to address the damage done by suicide only postpones the inevitable. Talking about what has happened is a vital part of the healing process. Huge chunks of unreconciled pain lay scattered in the path of recovery for suicide survivors. While picking through the rubble, the ordinary things of life must go on. Amid the chaos of second-guessing and "what if's," survivors must deal with the mundane issues of the funeral, finances, paperwork, probate, and insurance claims.
Many Christians do not know how to respond to suicide, and in their ignorance, often do more harm than good. Often, Christians feel compelled to pass judgment on the circumstances of the death and speculate about whether the victim is in heaven or hell. This is never appropriate. God is the only Righteous Judge and the status of the soul of the deceased is in His hands. Church leaders especially need to leave judgment to God. Many a survivor has turned his back on the church and God following a judgmental statement by an overly pious pastor. When people don't know what to say, but feel they are expected to say something, their comments can be hurtful.
Friends can be the most helpful to the survivors by being available and listening. Don't feel you have to inform or justify. Asking probing questions is neither appropriate nor necessary. Because suicide is an awkward, uncomfortable subject, people are tempted to avoid the truth. Hiding from the truth only makes grief recovery more difficult. Simply be there to listen and comfort with your presence. In listening, you should be prepared to hear and accept a wide range of emotions. You may be uncomfortable with the intensity of expression of these emotions. However, it is important for survivors to express themselves without being silenced. Don't try to calm survivors down or cut short their expression of emotion. The freedom to work through anger and grief in an individual way will hasten the healing process.
Realize the most difficult period for the family is probably still weeks away. During the initial period of shock, the survivors are not feeling many of the emotions they will feel later. You may meet the greatest need six to eight weeks following the death and again as the one-year anniversary of the suicide approaches. Survivors need to know that you care and they need to discuss their feelings and frustrations. Your support and encouragement can make a huge difference.
Trying to help someone deal with a death is awkward and difficult and suicide is a million times worse. People who have lost a loved one not due to death itself, but something as painful and awful as suicide, don't just have grief weighing on their shoulders - they are experiencing anger, guilt, confusion, shock, horror and trauma that goes beyond the "normal" after emotions of a death. They may not have known that their loved one was unhappy; they may be angry for being left behind; they may feel guilty and hate themselves for not being able to prevent it. The victims of suicide are not just limited to the person who committed it - suicide leaves a life long mark on all those around it.
Although that is a painful position to be in, another one is trying to help somebody who has lost their loved one in this horrible way. Every person's emotions and reactions are different, which is exactly what makes it so hard to comfort them. Should you talk it through with them, or try to take it off their mind? Should you reassure them, or try to avoid the subject? Should you let them cry, or try to make them heal? Helping someone who has lost someone through suicide is not only awkward and difficult like natural death, but also confusing, and at times, painful. However, it is not impossible. Here are the basic ways to support someone trying to cope with the suicide of a friend, family member or generally a loved one.
1) Keep quiet. If you are with someone who is grieving and don't know what to say, then don't say anything. Don't feel obliged to speak, as you may very well accomplish exactly the opposite of what you intend by saying something stupid. Sitting there in silence may feel very awkward to you, but some of the greatest help you can offer is simply to sit next to your friend, put your arm around their shoulders and let them cry in silence. Your presence next to that person says the one thing that is most needed in those moments and says it more eloquently than you ever could in words. It says, "I love you and you are not alone!"
2) Allow the bereaved to say anything...or nothing at all. At various points in the process, your friend will likely want to scream at someone. Who that "someone" will be changes from moment to moment. They may want to yell at God for not keeping the suicide from happening, at the deceased loved one for not calling for help, at anyone and everyone who had ever failed the deceased, including themselves. They may want to say things that are absolutely crazy. In those moments, it is essential for them to have friends and family who will allow them to say these things without judgement advice or correction. If the person who is grieving says something hurtful or incorrect or just plain stupid, don't use it as an opportunity to show off your counselling skills. A simple statement such as this will be much more helpful: "I love you. I know you are hurting beyond what I could ever understand; but know that I'm here for you any time you need me, for as long as you need me. And, I truly believe you are going to get through this." The person probably knows that what they are saying is irrational (and is likely feeling guilty about it), so unconditional acceptance and love in those moments is powerful.
3) Keep your phone on. A person who has lost someone to suicide will very likely find that their sleep has been stolen from them. They will wake up in the middle of the night - if they were lucky enough to fall asleep in the first place - and the loneliness and sorrow will sometimes be overwhelming. During the first few weeks, it is essential that the person has someone to call any time, day or night. They may feel awkward or say they won't do it, but they may very well find themselves needing a listening ear at three in the morning and you can graciously sit and talk to them for as long as they need you. Physical darkness can enhance the darkness someone feels inside; having someone to talk them through the night can help a grief-stricken survivor get through until the sunrise reminds them there is still hope.
4) Do things that show you are thinking rather than just reacting. When there is a death, social custom causes the bereaved to be drowned in flowers, calls of sympathy and letters in the mail. These things are essential and appreciated. However, with all the emotional trauma being dealt with, most of those things will be just a blur to the person. Months later, they probably could not tell you who specifically sent a card or flowers or called in the days immediately after the suicide. What they will remember, though, is the friend who does something that shows real thoughtfulness beyond social duty. These will be specific to each individual circumstance.
5) Remember the difficult dates. From the day of the suicide until the wake, funeral, and burial are complete (i.e. - the first week or two), the survivor will be surrounded by well-wishers. However, that crowd quickly dissipates after the "official" social processes have been completed, leaving the griever alone long before the pain has gone away. One way you can remind that person that they are not alone is by remembering the tough dates. The "month-markers" are the first that come to mind in a suicide. If the person died on the 26th of June, your friend will undoubtedly face particularly-difficult days on the 26th of July, the 26th of August, the 26th of September and so forth. The first 6 months to a year are especially rough to get through (perhaps longer for some), and a call or a note on those month marks will do more than you can imagine to communicate to the person that you truly care. Other dates that are difficult include the deceased person's birthday, any special days they shared (for example, if it's a partner or spouse that has passed away, the date of their anniversary or first date) and special holidays. The greater the joy previously associated with a date, the greater potential for sorrow or anger now.
6) Know that you don't have to be a superhero. By realizing that you don't have to fix everything, you can be the "first responder" who helps your friend get through the most critical time in those days following the worst day of their life. Keeping these suggestions in mind will set you miles apart from many who will be kind, but not really infuse hope to a person who probably feels like there is no reason even to look to the future.
Doing things for the person that will really stand out is a very individual process. Examples:
Make sure your friend is eating well. You may notice that your friend has lost their appetite, because, as one can imagine, the situation has caused the person to stop caring about their body. Try to make sure that they're getting enough nutrition - even if it means having to supply them with meal replacement drinks for a while.
Offer to attend special events with your friend, especially those that they used to attend with the deceased. For example, say your friend and his spouse (the deceased) would go to the cinema every Tuesday night. Offer to go with them the first time they would have gone without the spouse.
Put together a CD of music specifically chosen for lyrics that offer hope without claiming to have all the answers. Things like that require creativity and thought, but they will never be forgotten.
Computer programs can be great helps in remembering the difficult dates. If you use Microsoft Outlook or some such program for your appointments, you can set up a reminder for just about anything, including those days you need to remember to call a friend. Set up those reminders on the month-mark days or other significant days in your appointment program or date book and stop by for a visit or give your friend a call on those days; it's a simple thing that speaks volumes.
Instead of ordering flowers or sending a card, do something personal such as taking any of the following to the house. Not only will it take some burden off the family, but ease the expenses and help others during the awful time: a cooler with ice, plastic cutlery, paper plates, a pie or cake, casserole, beverages, a collection of tea bags (calming teas without caffeine) or something handmade. Anything that you would like returned should have your name attached to it.
Be very cautious about offering advice, particularly during the early weeks. Surviving the loss of a loved one to suicide is a very long process that will take months and years, not days and weeks. In the initial weeks of trauma, the survivor's ability to receive advice or criticism will be severely diminished. If you feel compelled to offer advice, probably the best advice you can give is very gently to encourage the person to talk to a professional therapist or religious advisor who has had training and experience helping those in similar circumstances. But even then, don't force it! Always be positive and encouraging, never critical.
Don't assume that you know what "recovery" will look like. Realize that your friend will never be the same person you knew before. They have been permanently changed by this tragedy. This is not necessarily an entirely-bad thing, but they may very well approach life with a bit more sombreness or deal with "blue" moods more than they did before.
Patterns of grieving may be quite different from one culture to the next. If the bereaved person is of a different culture than your own, behavior and emotions that may seem unusual or exaggerated to you may be a normal and expected reaction for them.
Don't assume a "proper" time frame for grieving. Each person's grief process is unique. Most suicide survivors will tell you that it takes anything up to 1-2 years for any sense of routine or "normalcy" to return to a life. Determine from the start that you will be there for your friend as often as they need you, for as long as they need you; and remind them of that fact often!
The person may lash out at you, more than once. They may feel that you "just can't understand", "don't get it", or simply are too angry and scared to be rational and clear at this moment in time, as previously stated. Remember that they are not in a frame of mind where you should take their words to heart. If they want space and time alone, then be sure to respect that. But if they seem resentful, bitter, angry or even hateful towards you, don't take it as you normally would. After all, these are not normal circumstances.
Don't hesitate to recommend that your friend seek the professional assistance of a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist -- particularly if there are symptoms which are not characteristic of a "normal" grief reaction. These include:
1) Guilt about things other than actions taken or not taken by the survivor at the time the death.
2) Thoughts of suicide.
3) Morbid preoccupaton with worthlessness.
4) Prolonged and marked inability to get on with one's daily activities.
5) Hallucinatory experiences other than thinking that one hears the voice of, or transiently sees the image of, the deceased person.
How Can You Help?
Be bold in reaching out to survivors of suicide. Don't be afraid to discuss the subject of suicide with survivors, but temper your comments. Grieving survivors need to be acknowledged, not ignored.
Let the person know you care. As the well-known saying goes, "People don't care what you know until they know that you care." Sharing your concern for survivors helps them know they are not alone in there pain.
Be a good listener. Allow a survivor to talk about what he is feeling. It is important for you to listen closely to anything the person says. Much talking on your part will not be very effective because the person is in a state of mind that will not allow him to listen or absorb all you are saying. Do everything you can to let the person know you are there for them and willing to listen without judging or challenging.
Encourage counseling or support group attendance. Make some calls for the person to help locate a counselor, clergy, or a Survivors of Suicide support group Offer to drive your friend to and from the appointment or meeting.
Be practical. What can you do for the person right now? Can you provide childcare, meals, or transportation? Be specific about what you are willing to do.
And remember to let them know...