When There are No Goodbyes

Each of the reported 31,000 completed suicides in our country every year leaves behind an estimated six to eight "survivors" or suicide grievers. Each year adds 180,000 to 250,000 men, women and children who suffer intensely when someone they cared for ends his or her life.1

Because suicide is sudden and often violent, the loss is traumatic and grief prolonged. People who witness the suicide or find the body suffer even greater emotional turmoil. They may need specialized care for post-traumatic stress.

Society's stigma of suicide only complicates survivors' grief. Suicide grievers often withdraw and suppress their own anger and perceived guilt over the death. Many sink into depression and are at high risk of becoming suicidal themselves. People do not just "get over" a suicide. Every suicide griever needs immediate support especially by caring family and friends.

  • Surround those who are grieving with love and understanding. Be present as much as possible. Ask the person for permission to help stabilize his or her life. Prepare meals, answer phones, chauffer kids, run errands, sit and visit. Be available, but also respect the survivor's privacy. Discourage attempts at secrecy. Encourage survivors to plan funeral arrangements as they would with any other death.
  • Let the bereaved person talk. Listening to your loved one express grief, anger, pain and guilt in his or her own way is crucial. Encourage the grieving to talk about what happened in as much detail and as often as the person wishes. Words may be jumbled and harsh at times, but let the talk flow freely. Withhold your advice and answers to why the suicide happened. Do not toss out trite platitudes ("She's out of her pain." "I know how you feel." "Time heals all wounds."). Pep talks and hackneyed consolation convince the mourner that you do not understand or care to listen.
  • Keep communication lines open. Because grieving a suicide is an extended process, your loved one needs you to stay involved. Initiate phone calls and visits. If you are unsure of what to say, start with, "I've been thinking about you, how are you today?" Or "I know this is a difficult time for you, I'd like to hear how you are doing."
  • Extend appropriate physical contact. Use an arm around the shoulder or a hug to show love and support. When words fail, a simple clasp of the hand can touch someone deeply. Avoid chattering away to cheer up a person. Instead learn to be comfortable with shared silence.
  • Expect the quest for answers. Death by suicide always leaves a myriad of questions even if the deceased left a note. The demand for answers can begin immediately after the loss and is part of the ongoing grief process. A caregiver should not feel responsible for tackling the mourner's search for resolutions but can confront damaging misconceptions in a reassuring manner. Suicide survivors may also need the help of a professional to heal and adjust over time to the tragic loss.
  • Encourage the search for faith. No matter a person's spiritual journey, faith is often a defining anchor is the aftermath of suicide. Many survivors are angry with God for the death and question God's power to help. This is a common response but often one that generates a variety of spiritual questions that need answering. Looking for answers in the Bible and experiencing the love and hope that God offers can extend the comfort mourners seek. Additionally, a church leader can often help relieve spiritual concerns regarding the deceased. Assistance from the supportive members of a local church can also ease the sorrow.
  • Suggest a grief support group. Meeting with others who have endured a similar loss can ease the intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. Many cities offer support groups specifically for suicide survivors. When others share their experiences with death through suicide, a survivor's own feelings are validated and he or she begins to feel "normal." Ongoing healing occurs as suicide survivors connect with others who are walking a parallel path of recovery.
  • Encourage social interaction. It's normal to withdraw in grief, but staying connected with close family members and friends is critical for suicide grievers. Mourners often do not feel like accepting invitations to social occasions, but you can encourage a start with something simple like a casual dessert, movie or concert. Public outings provide a momentary mental respite from the death and foster healing through communication, laughter and leisure.
  • Expect future "rough spots." Grief work is not accomplished on a fixed schedule. Your friend may have a series of upbeat weeks and suddenly spin into intense sorrow. Be patient and remember that grief is unique to each individual. No two people grieve in the exact same way or time frame.

Suicide deaths leave loved ones susceptible to feeling judged and shamed. Your continual presence and your support can ease the pain and reassure the mourners that suicide is a terrible tragedy that can happen in any family.

1 http://members.tripod.com/~LifeGard/index.html. "Suicide Loss FAQs," Tony Salvatore, 2004.

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