English French Spanish

Helping a Survivor Heal

Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, "There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved." Unfortunately, many survivors of suicide suffer alone and in silence. The silence that surrounds them often complicates the healing that comes from being encouraged to mourn.

Because of the social stigma surrounding suicide, survivors feel the pain of the loss, yet may not know how, or where, or if, they should express it. Yet, the only way to heal is to mourn. Just like other bereaved persons grieving the loss of someone loved, suicide survivors need to talk, to cry, sometimes to scream, in order to heal.

As a result of fear and misunderstanding, survivors of suicide deaths are often left with a feeling of abandonment at a time when they desperately need unconditional support and understanding. Without a doubt, suicide survivors suffer in a variety of ways: one, because they need to mourn the loss of someone who has died; two, because they have experienced a sudden, typically unexpected traumatic death; and three, because they are often shunned by a society unwilling to enter into the pain of their grief.

How Can You Help?

A friend or family member has experienced the death of someone loved from suicide. You want to help, but you are not sure how to go about it. This page will guide you in ways to turn your cares and concerns into positive action.

Accept The Intensity Of The Grief

Grief following a suicide is always complex. Survivors don't "get over it." Instead, with support and understanding they can come to reconcile themselves to its reality. Don't be surprised by the intensity of their feelings. Sometimes, when they least suspect it, they may be overwhelmed by feelings of grief. Accept that survivors may be struggling with explosive emotions, guilt, fear and shame, well beyond the limits experienced in other types of deaths. Be patient, compassionate and understanding.

Listen With Your Heart

Assisting suicide survivors means you must break down the terribly costly silence. Helping begins with your ability to be an active listener. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judgment are critical helping tools. Willingness to listen is the best way to offer help to someone who needs to talk.

Thoughts and feelings inside the survivor may be frightening and difficult to acknowledge. Don't worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on the words that are being shared with you.

Your friend may relate the same story about the death over and over again. Listen attentively each time. Realize this repetition is part of your friend's healing process. Simply listen and understand. And, remember, you don't have to have the answer.

Avoid Simplistic Explanations and Clichés

Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a suicide survivor. Clichés are trite comments often intended to diminish the loss by providing simple solutions to difficult realities. Comments like, "You are holding up so well," "Time will heal all wounds," "Think of what you still have to be thankful for" or "You have to be strong for others" are not constructive. Instead, they hurt and make a friend's journey through grief more difficult.

Be certain to avoid passing judgment or providing simplistic explanations of the suicide. Don't make the mistake of saying the person who suicided was "out of his or her mind." Informing a survivor that someone they loved was "crazy or insane" typically only complicates the situation. Suicide survivors need help in coming to their own search for understanding of what has happened. In the end, their personal search for meaning and understanding of the death is what is really important.

Be Compassionate

Give your friend permission to express his or her feelings without fear of criticism. Learn from your friend. Don't instruct or set explanations about how he or she should respond. Never say "I know just how you feel." You don't. Think about your helping role as someone who "walks with," not "behind" or "in front of" the one who is bereaved.

Familiarize yourself with the wide spectrum of emotions that many survivors of suicide experience. Allow your friend to experience all the hurt, sorrow and pain that he or she is feeling at the time. And recognize tears are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain associated with the loss.

Respect The Need To Grieve

Often ignored in their grief are the parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses and children of persons who have suicided. Why? Because of the nature of the death, it is sometimes kept a secret. If the death cannot be talked about openly, the wounds of grief will go unhealed.

As a caring friend, you may be the only one willing to be with the survivors. Your physical presence and permissive listening create a foundation for the healing process. Allow the survivors to talk, but don't push them. Sometimes you may get a cue to back off and wait. If you get a signal that this is what is needed, let them know you are ready to listen if, and when, they want to share their thoughts and feelings.

Understand The Uniqueness Of Suicide Grief

Keep in mind that the grief of suicide survivors is unique. No one will respond to the death of someone loved in exactly the same way. While it may be possible to talk about similar phases shared by survivors, everyone is different and shaped by experiences in his or her life.

Because the grief experience is unique, be patient. The process of grief takes a long time, so allow your friend to process the grief at his or her own pace. Don't criticize what is inappropriate behavior. Remember the death of someone to suicide is a shattering experience. As a result of this death, your friend's life is under reconstruction.

Be Aware Of Holidays And Anniversaries

Survivors of suicide may have a difficult time during special occasions like holidays and anniversaries. These events emphasize the absence of the person who has died. Respect the pain as a natural expression of the grief process. Learn from it. And, most importantly, never try to take the hurt away.

Use the name of the person who has died when talking to survivors. Hearing the name can be comforting and it confirms that you have not forgotten this important person who was so much a part of their lives.

Be Knowledgeable Of Support Groups

Support groups are one of the best ways to help survivors of suicide. In a group, survivors can connect with other people who share the commonality of the experience. They are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories as much, and as often, as they like. You may be able to help survivors locate such a group. This practical effort on your part will be appreciated.

Respect Faith And Spirituality

If you allow them, a survivor will "teach you" about their feelings regarding faith and spirituality. If faith is part of their lives, let them express it in ways that seem appropriate. If they are mad at God, encourage them to talk about it. Remember, having anger at God speaks of having a relationship with God. Don't be a judge, be a loving friend.

Survivors may also need to explore how religion may have complicated their grief. They may have been taught that persons who take their own lives are doomed to hell. Your task is not to explain theology, but to listen and learn. Whatever the situation, your presence and desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools.

Work Together As Helpers

Friends and family who experience the death of someone to suicide must no longer suffer alone and in silence. As helpers, you need to join with other caring persons to provide support and acceptance for survivors who need to grieve in healthy ways.

To experience grief is the result of having loved. Suicide survivors must be guaranteed this necessity. While the above guidelines on this page will be helpful, it is important to recognize that helping a suicide survivor heal will not be an easy task. You may have to give more concern, time and love than you ever knew you had. But this effort will be more than worth it.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator and practicing thanatologist. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School in the Department of Family Medicine. As a leading authority in the field of thanatology, Dr. Wolfelt is known internationally for his outstanding work in the areas of adult and childhood grief. Among his publications are the books, Death and Grief; A Guide For Clergy, Helping Children Cope With Grief and Interpersonal Skills Training: A Handbook for Funeral Home Staffs. In addition, he is the editor of the "Children and Grief" department of Bereavement magazine and is a regular contributor to the journal Thanatos.

What are some of the needs of Suicide Survivors?

Let us be who we've become -- people changed by tragedy. Just try to "be there" and support whatever form our grief takes. Trying to understand is okay, but just caring is enough. Realize that you can't possibly relate to what we are experiencing. You don't have to. 

Mourning a death by suicide is a lengthy, intense and confusing process. It is also unique; each of us experiences grief in our own way.

Because suicide is a sudden, unexpected and often violent loss, the grief it causes is excruciating, prolonged, and still often stigmatized. This may cause us to withdraw socially. We may even feel responsible for our loss. Those who witness the suicide or find the body may suffer post traumatic stress.

We don't "get over" a suicide. The effects may stabilize, but the loss is forever felt. Our personal values and beliefs are shattered and we are changed emotionally.

Every suicide survivor needs immediate support at the time of the loss. Individualized or family counseling, medical care, and participation in on-going support groups can be extremely helpful.

To read a heartbreaking first-hand account of the aftermath of a loved one's suicide, click HERE.

Suicide Survivors

"There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved."
-Arnold Toynbee

A suicide survivor is an individual who has lost someone he/she cared for deeply to suicide. The victim may have been a parent, child, spouse, sibling, other relative, partner, or friend. It is estimated that every suicide leaves six to eight "survivors."

ShatteredHeart

 

More YouTube Videos:

Dedicated to Suicide Survivor's

Katie Couric's Notebook: Teen Suicide

National Survivor's of Suicide Day

Lidia's Story: Suicide Loss Survivor

Survivor's of Suicide Day

Clip from AFSP's National Survivors of Suicide Day Program (2009)

Abraham: Son's in Non-Physical

"One often calms one's grief by recounting it." ~ Pierre Corneille

It's okay to talk about "it" because that's all that's on our minds. Let any statements we make about respon-sibility, blame, or guilt just flow. It will sort itself out over time. Please mention our loved one, whether it was a child, spouse, sibling, parent or other loved one. Avoid setting any timetable for recovery as there isn't any.

Some suicide survivors find it uncomfortable to speak about the loss. With this in mind, it's wise simply to ask, "How are you feeling? Can we talk about it?" And then be willing to listen.

 

Taken in part from lifegard.tripod.com.

NAMI Newsletter

To get event, training, and advocacy updates from NAMI Utah, please sign up for our enewsletter list.

Join Our Email List

Contact Us

NAMI Utah
1600 West 2200 South, Suite #202
West Valley City, UT 84119
(801) 323-9900

Map it and get directions

To reach individual staff, please look up our staff contact page

If you have an emergency, please call 911 and ask for a CIT officer. If you are dealing with an urgent situation, please call the Behavioral Health Authority Crisis Line for your county. The Salt Lake County UNI Crisis Line is 801-587-3000. 

Suicide Prevention

If you or someone you love is in need of suicide prevention support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or visit the website for more info.

suicidepreventionlifeline.org