Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness (c)2014 Nancy Virden
A few days ago I received an email asking for my advice on how to help a friend who recently lost a loved one to suicide. This is my reply:
1) Your friend and all of her family are in experiencing a wide flux of strong emotions. Anger and guilt are likely at the top along with grief. I suspect you may already have heard your friend express confusion and guilt over what she feels she may have done to prevent her loved one’s suicide.
2) You cannot stop your friend or anyone else from feeling so strongly. You cannot protect them from their feelings. It is important that you not feel obliged to try to make anyone feel better. In general, people tend to feel more validated and understood when no one tries to cheer them up.
3) This pain will never go away. Your friend and her family will react as they have to during the memorial service, then the hardest part begins. You will be needed as a supportive friend long-term. Suicide is not like any other death. There is no reason for it that people can grasp and understand. There is no closure. Not only is it shocking, it is preventable. That is why people left behind feel false guilt.
After a suicide, the question always remains, “Why?” Years from now your friend will wonder why her family member did not stay around, and if she could have done anything to stop it.
4) In the immediate (tomorrow, the next few days) your role as friend may take various forms. You may help with the memorial service in some way, you may be a shoulder to cry on … do what comes naturally. All you have to do is be kind. Listen, hug, listen some more. Spend time with her.
5) Here are some specific dos and don’ts I am sure you want to know. Do not say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” Do say, “What do you need right now?” Do not invalidate her feelings (Ah, you don’t have to feel so sad). Do encourage her to tell you how she feels and let her know you hear her (I’m sorry you feel guilty, that has to hurt a lot.)
Don’t assume she wants to be alone if she does not call you. Do spend time with her, call and reach out to her. Do not offer advice. Do sit with her and offer to look at her favorite scriptures or go for a walk- whatever she wants.
As years pass. don’t give in to the temptation to tell her not to feel bad. Do just listen and embrace her as-is. Do not assume you are all she needs. Do help her find additional support.
6) It’s important for you to know that the world tends to shun the families of those who die by suicide. People do not know what to say and so they stay away. Your presence is the best gift you can offer.
7) There are multiple suicide survivors support groups, advocacy groups, and organizations. When she is ready, perhaps help her find these. She will find she is not at all alone in her feelings and thoughts.
I heard you went with your friend to pick out a casket. That is one of the most loving and supportive things you could have done.
NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.
If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.
*picture from qualitystockphotos