When a friend takes their life, personal loss can be enormous. You may be living away from your family home, at university, or living and working with friends or alone. You may be in the same place as your friend (such as at University), or you might be away from them and other friends. The responsibiities of everyday life don’t stop… and it can feel overwhelming.
Alternatively, you may be reading as the friend of someone who has been bereaved by suicide, looking for ways to offer support.
The first days and weeks
Immediately after you hear of your friend’s passing, you may be unsure of what to do and how to help, or feel connected to others. You may feel that some of the questions below are similar to ones you have, and this is completely normal. Or – you might not… there is no one way to react. Some common thoughts and questions are:
How can I help?
Should I tell other (mutual) friends about what has happened? If so… what do I say? How do I tell them something so devastating? What words do you use?
Should I get in touch with my friend’s family? Will they want to be left alone, or to hear from friends? What do I say?
Why do I feel so helpless and ‘lost’?What will happen now? Who do I speak to?
Connecting with your friend’s family
You may be close to the family of your friend, or you might not know them too well. If you know the family well, it might be helpful to support a member (and tell people you are doing this). Everyone has different ways of coping, it can be tough to try to support friends, each other, yourself, and family.
It may seem daunting or overwhelming to reach out to other people who knew your friend, and to their family. You might feel like you are ‘interfering’; this is a normal feeling but it isn’t necessarily true.
It can be difficult to know what’s the right thing to do. Many families have said that they were moved by friends writing notes and letters to them, sharing their experiences and love of their friend, and offering support. You may want to consider writing something similar.
It is always better to talk to each other about what has happened, and about your friend. If you don’t know what to say, you could try, “I am not sure what to say… I just wanted to say hello and I can’t believe what has happened… I valued [friend’s name] friendship so much” or something similar that you feel comfortable sharing.
If you are breaking the news to someone else, it might be helpful to consider how you would wish someone to tell you… and think about what you might like to share. It is best to talk face to face if possible, but by phone is OK. Make sure you have plenty of time to talk, and so does the person you are telling. They may have questions, and they may react in a way you don’t expect. It is also important to remember that you – and they – may be feeling unable to cope with a lot of information at the moment. Make sure you are somewhere you feel safe, and stick to need-to-know and just the most important information.
You may find it better not to discuss details about how your friend has died (such as the method of suicide), but be prepared for a question about this. Sometimes – in their shock – people may ask ‘how did they kill themselves?’ This is a normal reaction, and you may be more comfortable saying, “I’m not sure” or “I’m not ready to talk about how just now”
You may find it helpful to consider phrases like:
‘I have something to tell you that’s hard to take in… are you somewhere you can talk?’
‘I’m not sure how to tell you… [your friend’s name] has passed away. They (may) have taken their life’
You may have a long list of people to call, and it can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. Look after yourself, and see if you have another friend who may be able to share calling others.
Putting a post up on Facebook or other social media can be helpful, make sure to check with the person’s family and close friends first.
How you may be feeling
Everybody’s experience of suicide is different, and the way you may be feeling could be different from those around you. This is completely normal; we have tried to include some of the emotions felt by others here, but it doesn’t mean any feeling is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
You may not really be able to understand or explain how you are feeling; sometimes it just feels like a ball of pain. You may also feel like there is a disconnect between your ‘living’ and ‘home’ lives – or between friends who knew the person who passed away, and those who don’t.
It is important to talk to people about how you are feeling – if you can – and to talk about your friend. Sometimes it can feel too much face to face, but a WhatsApp group of people who know the person to share stories and memories, or photos, can be a way to connect to other people who also love your friend. Feeling isolated is totally normal, so we talk about this a bit more below.
It may feel like there is a separation between your friend’s family, and friends in different parts of the country. Your instinct might be to ‘come home’ or to the place most of your friends are. This is natural; as is feeling ‘rudderless’ or a feeling of aimlessness. This can be particularly difficult after the funeral, as people are perceived to ‘go back’ to their lives.
Of course, social media can be a really useful way of keeping in touch, especially if you can share pictures and stories with other people who know your friend. Having someone in your corner can be really helpful, and remember that you might not really know how you are feeling. It can just feel like a ball of negative energy.
A set of friends who didn’t directly know your friend may be a good source of external support, as they are more distant from the situation, and so may have the strength to support you. There may also be someone if you are at University who isn’t as close to the friend, who may be able to help you with the practical considerations.
Social media and Journalism
You may find your friend taking their own life is reported in the media or on social media. You may also be asked to speak to the media directly. This can be a difficult experience, on top of how you are already feeling, and what you’re coping with. Below, we have included some tips which we hope are helpful:
Try to ignore and avoid unfavourable or dramatic media coverage. You know your friend, and nearly everyone online reporting or commenting doesn’t… you knew the ‘real’ person.
Don’t read comments or the comments sections.
Sometimes, pictures from social media sites of your friend are picked up and used by the media. It can be helpful to have some other photos of you and your friends together, to remind you of the ‘real’ times, and remind you of your friend as accurately as you’d like to.
If you are approached by the media, carefully consider your options before you reply. You may also wish to talk to the family first
Don’t let anyone push you into an answer, a comment, or a reaction. It may be tempting to ‘stick up’ for your friend, or to reply to a request from media outlets ‘at the time’. However, it is always better to give yourself time to think about what you would like to say (if anything) and whether you would like to reply.
It can be helpful to agree someone will act as a ‘spokesperson’ with your friend’s family and other friends, and simply refer back to them if anyone approaches you.
Universities: exams, extenuating circumstances, support
If you are bereaved while studying at University, you may find you have to make some big decisions in a short space of time. Universities can sometimes feel like you don’t have a single point of contact, which might be overwhelming. Some things you may think about:
● If you have exams or coursework due soon, you may be thinking about whether to ask for a delay, extension, or apply for extenuating circumstances. Sometimes, to do this, you may be asked to ‘prove’ your situation, which can feel inhumane. There may also be paperwork to complete.
● You may have to attend compulsory lectures or laboratory sessions, and have to apply for exemptions.
● Depending on your chosen subject, you may also find the content of some courses are difficult to study.
Where you can, it might be helpful to ask a friend you trust to help you apply for exemptions or extensions, to arrange meetings with tutors or study directors on your behalf, and to come with you to meetings. Remember, although you may have ‘official’ points of contact at the University, you do not need to only speak to these people; if you have a connection with a different member of staff (perhaps a course lecturer or dissertation supervisor), you can speak to them, and ask them to help you. They are all there to help. You may also consider the wellbeing service, your GP, the chaplaincy. It may feel overwhelming to do this on your own, so again perhaps ask a friend if they are able to help.