Why suicide is hard
If you know someone who has lost a loved one to a non-suicide death, we often know what to say. You might want to say, “I’m so sorry”, “I’m here for you if there’s anything you need” or ask questions about the person who’s died. Somehow, when the person who died may have taken their own life, these words aren’t as easy to express, they may not feel like the ‘right’ thing to say, or they may not feel enough. This is a very common, and very normal, reaction.
It might be helpful to think about…
Losing someone to suicide has long been believed to be one of the most difficult and lonely experiences a person can have. You may find the person you are supporting isn’t eating properly, doesn’t want to face the day or get out of bed, is struggling to cope each day, and may even be feeling suicidal themselves. They may be experiencing a tsunami of emotion, or they may appear to be completely fine, or numb, to their loss. Know that these are all common reactions in such difficult circumstances. We have put together a page on information on how someone might be feeling. Everyone grieves differently, there is no ‘should’ or ‘normal’. Sometimes, people may even react in a way that seems hurtful or uncaring. It can be helpful to remember they may just be expressing the way they feel in the only way they can.
It is likely the person you are supporting feels a great deal of guilt. Life can be so complicated – they may feel they can’t share parts of their connection to the person who has died, such as events, conversations, or how they felt about them. Try not to take this personally; they may come to you when they are ready, or they may find it easier to express these words to someone they don’t know, such as a service or organisation.
Offering someone support
Getting in touch
It can seem difficult to get in touch with someone, but it is always better to reach out and say something, than nothing. Don’t assume the person is getting support elsewhere, or that you have to be a close friend to reach out. It might be best to think about how to get in touch, a text message or email can be a good starting point. If you are in contact more frequently, it may be they are not getting back to you as they would usually. This is normal, they may be exhausted, overwhelmed, or just not know what to say. It’s unlikely to be personal, perhaps it would help to arrange a time to chat with them, if it’s helpful to them, and keep letting them know you’re there for them, without it becoming overwhelming.
Acknowledge the person’s loss
It is better to say something than nothing, even if you are not sure what to say. You could even say, “I heard about xxx. I’m so sorry, I’m not sure what to say. But I am here for you“
Offer an extra pair of hands
There is a lot to do, especially in the first few months. It may be that the person you are supporting is feeling less able to cope with everyday life, and now they have additional things to think about. Offering practical support may be very heplful; it could be doing a shop, helping them to sort out the person’s estate and belongings, childcare, taking them to appointments – let the person you are supporting know that you are there, and it is OK to ask you for help.
Listen, and be with the person
When you are impacted by a suicide, there can be so much noise around you, not making much sense, but also an intense and sharp silence. It can help to just sit, and listen. We have put some tips together below about talking to the person you are supporting
Let them know you’ll always be there for them, if this is the case
Certain times of the year, such as birthdays, public holidays and anniversaries are often difficult for someone who has been bereaved. Making a note in your diary can help you remember to reach out to them at these times. Be realistic what you can offer, so that you don’t have to let them down later on.
Show sensitivity when discussing the death with others
Mutual friends may not be aware of the death, so think about how best to break the news, and agree on what to share, and who with – particularly when sharing news online. Be particularly sensitive towards people who have experienced mental health problems or been bereaved before, especially by suicide, and remember you may not know that this applies to someone.
It can seem daunting to talk to them, you might have no idea what to say, feel on edge, and worry about offending them and making it worse. A traumatic, difficult thing has happened, it’s unlikely you will make it worse. We have included some tips below, which we hope are helpful.
Try not to direct the conversation, be as open and non-judgemental as possible, and just let them talk, or not talk. Perhaps arrange to have a cup of tea with the person, and just ask them how they are feeling. Try not to offer solutions, even if they seem obvious. When offering consolation it is best not to presume that there are small comforts, such as “At least you weren’t the one who found them…”
Helpful phrases and tips
It can be helpful to ask open questions, and to let the person you’re supporting lead the conversation.
If it seems appropriate, you can ask about the person’s life, not just focus on their death. For example, ‘can you remember that time they…?’ or ‘can you think of any of your favourite things about them?’ “can you remember a time they really made you laugh?”
It can be helpful to tie your questions back to their words. For example, “you mentioned you had people wear colours at the funeral. Did it help you to remember xxx?” or “it sounds like you have been through so much. I’m here for you. How are you coping with ….. ?”
Try not to ask for details about how the person died, such as the method of suicide they used. Also, try not to push them about why the person may have died.
Try not tp mention religion and placating phases such as “they are with God now” or “It will get better” or “they are in a better place”, unless you are certain the person would be comforted by this.
Try to keep the conversation focussed on the person you are supporting, and resist comparing their experiences to other deaths (that weren’t suicide) you may have experienced. If you feel sharing a related experience might be helpful, you could say something like, “I know it may not help, but in case it does, when I experiened xxxx, I felt/found/ yyy” and then allow the person to continue talking as they wish.
It can be difficult to not have an opinion, especially if you were close to the person involved. Try not to speak negatively of the person who died, or their actions. People affected by suicide often experience complicated and conflicting feelings about the person who died, and the feelings may change over time, making it hard to support them later on if they feel you have a set, negative opinion.
When referring to suicide, use expressions such as “died by suicide” or “took his own life.” The common phrase “committed suicide” dates back to when suicide was a crime and may be upsetting. Politely challenge people who complain about the disruption caused by public suicides. Try not to support media portrayals, fictional or real, that promote or glamorise suicide.
When someone dies, there is so much to do. You can have a look at what to expect in our ‘what might happen next‘ pages.
It might also be important to know how to register the death, and tell the govenemnet, benefits, HMRC, etc. The Tell Us Once Service can help you to do this. When there are questions around beneficiaries, housing, etc. it might be helpful to speak to Citizens’ Advice. You might find helpful financial information at Turn2Us.