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Helping After a Suicide

Many people are anxious about expressing their condolences following a suicide of a friend or family member. Being with a close survivor is perhaps the most eloquent statement of care and concern. Bring your best self to that visist—neither prejudiced by taboos nor judgmental of the manner of death. Your conversation should be natural, genuine, and sincere. Accept periods of silence.  A squeeze of the hand or a meaningful embrace expresses your concern.

Survivors must deal with the reality of the manner of death. Even well-intentioned, unsubstantiated explanations could create further confusion and isolation.  Instead of telling people how to cope, you can gently encourage survivors to release emotions of pain and anguish.  You might say:  “Do you want to tell me how you’re feeling?  Just know that if and when you feel like talking, I’m here to listen.”

The loss of a loved one to suicide is an excruciating life-changing event.  A survivor may have shifting moods, being uncommunicative and standoffish on one occasion and talkative and needful at another.

Beware of clich├ęs that family members of a loved one who has died by suicide often find bewildering and counterproductive.  These often include statements like:  “He must have been crazy to do such a thing” or “It must have been accidental.  He probably didn’t mean to kill himself.”

Know that actions may be more important than your words. You may consider:
• Dropping over with food, or inviting the family to your house for dinner.
• Assisting with childcare if applicable or taking an adult family member for coffee.
• Helping with household chores.         
• Sharing information about suicide support groups.
• Continuing to demonstrate your care in small ways.

Developed from Journeys with Grief: A Collection of Articles about Love, Life and Loss, edited by Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., MDiv., copyright Hospice Foundation of America, 2012.