CONTENT WARNING: This article includes descriptions of suicide that may disturb some readers
If comforting a sad friend is hard, supporting someone who has lost a loved one to suicide is especially difficult and awkward. Often times, the grieving person is not just depressed — they may also be feeling a mix of guilt, confusion, anger, or shame; worse, he may even have suicidal thoughts themselves.
In such cases, the key to helping your friend through this difficult loss is to offer a listening ear. Sit with your friend and listen to the story and feelings in a nonjudgmental way, without trying to problem-solve.
1. Address the elephant in the room.
Example: “I heard __ died by suicide; how are you?” is one way to start the conversation. Using the word “suicide” can be scary, but when you show your friend that that you are able to talk more openly about what happened, it eases the stigma and encourages him to open up.
2. Express your concern and don’t hide your feelings.
Even if you do not have all the answers, show your friend that you are aware that the death has affected him, and that you are there when he needs help. Example: “I’m sorry to hear that this happened. I’m not sure what to say, but I am here when you need me. Tell me what I can do.”
3. Be an active listener.
Often finding the right words is less important than letting your friend express himself. While you should never try to force your friend to open up when he is not ready, being able to have this conversation when he is ready is important.
Some strategies to be an active listener include:
- Let your friend know that whatever he is feeling is OK — it’s okay to cry, become angry, or break down in front of you. Your friend should feel free to express feelings knowing that you are willing to listen without judgment, argument, or criticism.
- Communicate non-verbally. If your friend is not yet ready to talk or you don’t know what to say, you can still show your support through eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
- If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience, if you think it would help. However, don’t give unsolicited advice, claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to his or her.
DON’T say the following:
1. “I know how you feel.”
We can never know how another person may feel. It’s more helpful to ask your friend how he feels.
2.“There’s so much to be thankful for.”
Part of grieving is being able to experience the feelings of sadness and loss.
3.“He is in a better place now.”
Your friend may or may not share your religious beliefs. It’s best to keep your personal spiritual beliefs to yourself unless asked.
Watch Out for the Following Warning Signs:
If you notice any of the following warning signs after the initial loss, especially if they continue for more than two months, or if you feel that your friend is in danger of committing suicide himself, encourage him to seek counseling or connect him to suicide survivor support group resources.
- Extreme focus on the death
- Talking about the need to escape the pain
- Persistent bitterness, anger, or guilt
- Difficulty making it to class and declining grades
- A lack of concern for his/her personal welfare
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Increase in alcohol or drug use
- Inability to enjoy life
- Withdrawal from others
- Constant feelings of hopelessness
- Talking about dying or attempting suicide
To avoid seeming invasive, state your feelings instead of outrightly telling your friend what to do: “I am worried that you aren’t sleeping. There are resources online that can help you.”
Remember that grief after losing someone to suicide can feel like a rollercoaster, full of intense ups and downs and everything in-between. People will never fully “get over” their loss, but over time, with your support, they can begin to heal.
We can all help prevent suicide. If you or a loved one is in distress, MindNation psychologists are available 24/7 for teletherapy sessions. Book a session now thru bit.ly/mn-chat.