By Victor M. Parachin
When Kristen Clifford’s husband—Steven Clifford, a police officer—wasn’t responding to her text messages, she became alarmed and drove home where she found notes, his police identification, and his driver’s license.
“Everything laid out very neatly, methodically,” she recalled.
Frightened, she rushed down the hallway to their bedroom and discovered the door closed and another note stating: “I did it. Do not enter. Call 911.” Her 35-year-old husband had ended his life by suicide.
National Suicide Prevention Week begins today. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 48,183 Americans ended their lives by suicide in 2021, a figure that has increased by about 35 percent since 2000. Some statistics cited by the Center:
• Suicide deaths are more than twice the number of homicides.
• Among people ages 15 to 34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
• The most common method used across all groups was firearms.
Internationally, the World Health Organization estimates that each year approximately 1 million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000, or one death every 40 seconds. It’s been estimated that every suicide death leaves behind six or more “suicide survivors”—family members and friends who are left grieving and struggling to understand.
Here are seven ways to help those grieving a suicide death.
1. BE THERE. Show up and let them know you care. Although the stigma attached to suicide is softening, survivors continue to feel blemished and isolated. That’s why it’s important to make your presence felt as soon as you learn a family member or friend has experienced a suicide death.
If you are geographically distant, call, text or send an email of support. If you are local, then simply be there—at the home, at the funeral service.
Kim Ruocco’s husband, a Marine Corps pilot, came back with post-traumatic stress disorder after a deployment in Iraq. After struggling with anxiety and depression, he died by suicide. During that difficult time, Ruocco says, “the people who were most helpful to me could be in my presence and tolerate my pain and didn’t have to say anything,” she recalls. “There are not right words really, but it was comforting to have someone who can be with you with that much pain.”
2. LISTEN. Plan to listen far more than you speak. Any questions you ask should be for purposes of clarification and not be intrusive or invasive.
Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of Suicide: Prevention, Intervention, Postvention, stated: “Bereaved people need to express their emotions. They can be encouraged to talk when others say, What are you feeling? . . . Tell me what is happening with you. . . . It must be very hard on you. Friends should focus on where they are. Accept their moods, whether they reflect fear or rage or panic. Friends are not there to judge but to listen.”
3. KNOW WHAT TO SAY AND WHAT NOT TO SAY. Keep in mind that suicide grievers are struggling with confusion and a wide variety of conflicting emotions such as anger, guilt, regret, shock, denial, and emptiness. Avoid adding to their pain by offering trite cliches and meaningless platitudes, no matter how well intentioned they may be.
Here are some things not to say:
“I know how you feel.”
“This too shall pass.”
“You will find a way to cope.”
“It’s time to move on.”
“At least he is no longer in pain.”
“Don’t cry. She wouldn’t want that.”
Here are some comments which suicide grievers find helpful:
“I am sorry.”
“Just know that I care.”
“We all need help at times like this; I’m here for you.”
“I don’t know how you feel, but I want to help in any way I can.”
“I am here for you. I have an open heart and time to listen.”
“I will stand with you through this time.”
When reaching out to a suicide griever, choose your words carefully so that they help the griever heal rather than hurting them. Tracy Roberts, a writer who lost her sister to suicide, cited an example of hurtful words in her essay “Suicide Etiquette.” She wrote:
After Amy killed herself, someone said, by way of comforting me, “Suicide is the coward’s way out.” Besides being an inane truism, this pronouncement indicted the sister I was mourning. How was that supposed to console?
Gayle Brandeis, author of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, shared this insight:
While it can be tricky to know what to say to a suicide loss survivor, it is much better to reach out than to hold back out of fear of saying the wrong thing. A simple note, a simple gesture, can make a huge difference. “It was not your fault” is something many suicide loss survivors need to hear over and over and over again, as is “You are not alone.”
4. UNDERSTAND THAT SUICIDE GRIEF IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER GRIEVING. While there are many common elements of grief after a loved one has died, suicide grieving has additional and different components that add complexity to the grief process. These are the four main challenges.
• The suddenness of the death. Suicide is often unexpected; it leaves no space to say goodbye or to resolve any lingering issues.
• The anguishing question of “why?” Survivors exhibit a frantic need to know why the suicide happened. A desperate and relentless search for clues can occur before there is recognition that one may never know why or fully understand the act.
• There can be acute guilt which is self-assigned. Family members and friends typically experience intense guilt driven by “if only” thoughts—if only I had noticed; if only I hadn’t said that; if only I had said that; if only I had been home, etc. Supporters can try to gently guide grievers to recognize that they are not responsible for the person’s decision to end their life.
• The social stigma attached to suicide. Evidence of this is the fact that, until recently, a suicide act was considered a crime in many countries or a spiritual “unforgivable sin.” Also, the phrase “commit suicide” is a legally pejorative one similar to “commit murder” or “commit a crime.” Suicide survivors deal with a long history of stereotyping, mistrust, judgment, blaming and avoidance.
5. RECOMMEND A SUICIDE SURVIVOR SUPPORT GROUP. Research indicates that survivors find suicide support groups to be powerful and therapeutic, according to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch newsletter.
In a small pilot study that surveyed 63 adult suicide survivors about their needs and the resources they found helpful, 94 percent of those who had participated in a suicide grief support group found it moderately or very helpful, compared with only 27 percent of those who had attended a general grief group. The same study found that every survivor who had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with another suicide survivor found it beneficial.
You can help a survivor by searching for and recommending a suicide support group in your area. Provide the information to the griever, encourage them to participate, and offer to attend a few sessions with them.
6. REMEMBER SURVIVORS ON SPECIAL DAYS. Special days can trigger intense grief throughout the year: December holidays, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, as well as birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. These days constitute some of the roughest terrain for survivors to travel through. Remember to reach out on these days. Even a simple text, email, or mailed card can go a long way to lifting some of the anxiety and stress survivors feel on special days.
On the anniversary of a suicide, consider lighting a candle and sending an email to the survivor for whom the loss is most painful. Write something like this: “I know today may be a hard day for you, so I am lighting a candle of hope, remembrance, and support for you.”
7. PRORATE YOUR SUPPORT. Be there for the long haul, for the entire journey through grief. Rabbi Grollman says: “The survivor-victims often need to talk about their loved one for months and years—not for just a few days following the funeral. Healing is a long, long process. Friends need to continue to call and visit. Survivor-victims desperately need continuing love, support and concern.”
By extending support, sympathy, and understanding to those who grieve, you will help suicide grievers know that it is possible to experience living while grieving. You, as a compassionate friend, will be a lifeline for suicide survivors providing them stability and strength for their challenge.
Victor M. Parachin is an ordained minister and the author of a dozen books including The Lord Is My Shepherd: A Psalm for the Grieving.