Suicide Survivors Need This Kind of Help from Their Loved Ones
by Matt Whetton
While we were all quarantining ourselves to prevent the spread of Covid-19, other tragedies were occurring as an outcome— depression and suicide.
According to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adult suicide rates in the United States have grown. Since 1999, suicide rates have increased by more than 30%. What the statistic does not quantify are those left behind after the loss. Loved ones are left grieving and struggling to understand.
The grieving process is difficult. Losing a loved one to suicide is especially traumatic. Those trying to cope with this kind of loss often need much more support than others. Many survivors may be reluctant to talk. And when others learn the circumstances of the death, they may not know how to help or what to do. A simple, meaningful gesture such as giving flowers grown in your own home garden or stopping by for a brief visit are delicate and appropriate reactions. But here are some important things to keep in mind if you do want to reach out and help.
Thoughts of despair
A suicide survivor may have recurring thoughts of death. Replaying the events over and over or the loved one’s last moments are common. Sometimes these thoughts won’t stop coming. Some suicide survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is an anxiety disorder that can become chronic if not treated. The trauma is involuntarily re-lived in visual images that can create anxiety and depression. This may cause them to avoid anything that could act as a trigger of the memory.
Mental illness still has many stigmas in our society. Survivors sometimes keep the suicide a secret from others including relatives. This can lead to isolation and shame that may last for many years. In some cases, relatives blame each other or themselves for not seeing the signs and preventing the act.
A person who dies by suicide may have had a severe mental illness or intolerable circumstances. It may seem like a personal assault or rejection of the survivors. The feelings of anger, rejection, and abandonment are especially intense and difficult for survivors to sort out after the act. There are so many questions that can arise after a suicide. The common question, that often goes unanswered, is why. Following a suicide, these questions may be extremely self-punishing. Many survivors tend to overestimate their own role as well as their ability to have affected the outcome.
Suicide survivors often seek out individual counseling through suicide support groups. There are many general grief support groups, but those focused on suicide tend to be more valuable. Internet support groups are a great resource. Survivors who may feel depressed or judged by the suicide attempt are more likely to gain help from Internet support services. These groups can be very beneficial. Other survivors have unique insights that can help through the grieving process.
Help is there
Suicide survivors are more likely to seek out the help of a mental health professional. Skilled therapists with experience working with grief after suicide offer the greatest support. They help to make sense of suicide and better understand any psychiatric problems that may have existed. Therapists can help if there is PTSD. Helping to explore issues are areas that seem unfinished in their relationship with the deceased. And they can offer support and understanding throughout the unique grieving process.
A friend’s role
For friends or family members, knowing what to say or how to help someone after a death is always difficult. Don’t let the fear of saying the wrong thing deter you from attempting to help. Just like in other grieving situations, showing up is a big help. You can express your concern, offer help with practical tasks around the house. One of the biggest things is to listen to whatever they want to tell you. Here are some things to consider:
Families may feel stigmatized and cut off from the outside world following a suicide. Disregard your doubts, reach out and make contact. Survivors are forgiving of awkward behaviors as long as compassion is genuine.
Don’t be a therapist
Well-meant assurances are often not helpful. Instead, just be present and open to listen. They typically have professionals that are trained to help. You are not required to be their doctor, or to prescribe medicine, or diagnose their condition. You don’t have to solve their problems or know the right things to say. Just be a friend.
Follow their lead
As a supporter, you can follow their lead when moving into sensitive areas. “Would you like to talk about it?” Even if they don’t want to talk right then and there, they will appreciate that you asked and were open. Just follow their lead.
Help around the house
One thing that friends and family can do to help with day-to-day things. Run errands, give rides to appointments, or babysit are ways that you can help. Ask to help with chores around the house. Be prepared for the survivor to ask you to sit down with them. Ask directly and sincerely, “What else can I do to help?”
Survivors struggle to cope and move on after the suicide of a loved one. They will seek out the support of professionals and groups to provide direction. They also need a friend and loved one to listen and be present. It’s difficult and may feel awkward, but it is helpful for them to know there are people available to help where needed. At the end of the day, just be there for them.
About the Author
Matt is a recent graduate from BYU in Provo, UT. Matt enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and biking when he isn’t working or spending time learning to cook. During this quarantine Matt has dedicated himself to strengthening his journalism skills, and bolstering his writing portfolio.