How to have a supportive conversation with a family member or friend of a person who has died by suicide
If you’re meeting someone bereaved by suicide, you may be feeling confused, shocked or anxious about what to say. Being aware of what may be supportive for the survivor to hear can help you have this conversation.
Just listen. Someone bereaved by suicide may want to just be heard. It’s not necessary that you know all about what they’re going through, or how to make their problem go away. Listening to them without offering advice or suggestions can convey to them that it’s okay to feel the way they’re feeling. “I can’t even imagine what you’re doing through right now, but I want you to know I’m here for you, and willing to listen.”
Be aware of your own need to understand the situation and hold it back. It’s a natural human urge to understand the experience and assign some cause or meaning to it. You can choose to explore this with someone who’s less intimately connected to the deceased. Close family and friends often have a hard time coming to terms with this themselves and need emotional support. Repeated questions or asking about details may be difficult for them to receive at a time they are grappling with the loss and trying to make sense of it themselves.
Allow them to share whatever they want to. Give them space to share whatever they want to share, even if it’s unrelated to the loss itself. Avoid pressing them for details about the story, or what happened before or after. Some people may want to tell their story again and again; some others may want to recall their memories of their loved one. Each of us has different ways of dealing with the situation.
Validate and normalize their grief. Given the stigma around suicide, they may want to know that it’s okay to feel sad, to mourn or perhaps to even feel angry with their loved one. This is a part of the grieving process, and everyone grieves differently. So just let them know that it’s okay for them to feel sad, or cry.
Try to let them know it’s not their fault. They may be feeling guilt or shame about not being able to ‘save’ their loved one. Let them know that it’s not their fault.
Remember that it’s not your job to help them heal. If you are not a mental health professional, you will probably not have the skills to help them come to terms with the situation. What you can offer them is your love, care and support. If you’re overwhelmed, reach out to a trusted friend, family member or helpline immediately.
Redirect them to professional help if necessary. If you notice that they’re overwhelmed weeks or months after the loss, you could gently suggest that they talk to helpline or a counselor.
What not to say:
“Oh no, I never thought they would kill themselves.”
“At least they’re in a better place now.”
“So what happened? Why did they do this?”
“Did you really have no idea?”
“Didn’t you try to convince them?”
“Are you sure they weren’t mentally ill?”
“Don’t worry, it’ll all be okay!”
If you’re talking to a person who’s lost someone to suicide, these comments, even when very well-intentioned, can be difficult to receive. A person who’s lost a loved one to suicide is likely to be experiencing intense emotions: shock, anger, guilt, shame and fear.
With inputs from Kamna Chibber, consultant clinical psychologist and head - mental health, department of mental health and behavioral sciences, Fortis Healthcare; and Tanuja Babre, program associate at iCall psychosocial helpline, Mumbai.