Posted by: riverchilde | October 6, 2012

Suicide response: What can I DO?

A friend recently approached me via Facebook with many apologies, but a deep need. A close friend of hers had experienced a suicide in her nuclear family, and my friend asked what she could do to help in the chaotic hours and days immediately after the death. Here are some of my suggestions. They aren’t polished or organized or thought-out, but simply a recitation of the grace and mercy we had experienced after Alex’s death:

1. Show up. Repeatedly. Offer to accompany her or help her with whatever arrangements she needs to make if she doesn’t have someone to do that with her. Make sure that someone is with her at all times. Depending on how the loved one took his life, she may not want to be in her home. Make sure she has a safe place to stay. Mornings can be very disorienting. It helped us to know that people were coming over in the morning because it forced us to start moving when we got up. Repeatedly being present taught us who we could turn to at any time, as opposed to those who came once or twice and then stayed away. Keep offering. You’re not a bother, it’s just that sometimes there’s too much help at one time and not enough at another. But don’t act offended or feel bad if your offer is turned down. Each person has to do what is right for her at this time, and she deserves the right to choose who she accepts help from. She doesn’t need more guilt.

2. Bring bottled water and finger food that can be eaten cold at any time of the day. We lived off chicken wraps from Costco for a couple of weeks. Crying and grief requires enormous amounts of water, for some reason, and somehow it’s easier to grab a bottle of water than to go to the cupboard and get a glass and fill it with water and drink it. Too many steps, I think. You forget what you’re doing on the way to the cupboard. Hold off on bringing “meals”–there’s no time or inclination for eating those. Warming up food is sometimes too much work. Provide a restaurant gift card for meals down the road. Offer freezer space for the food that shows up that she can’t eat and can be frozen for later. Remember that other family members are in shock too, and offer them food to take home as well.

3. Know that she is in shock right now and really not processing the loss except like you would if your arm was cut off. There’s stuff that has to be done immediately, and grief that needs an immediate release, but everything is covered in a fog.

4. If you are a close friend or neighbor, take note of what common tasks might need doing and just do it. Don’t even ask. Just wash the dishes while you are there. Mow the lawn. Rake the leaves. Bring in the mail. Give the bathroom a quick cleaning. Ask about laundry–particularly whether you can do a load of underwear (or show up with brand-new underwear for everyone). Make sure there’s milk, eggs, bread, etc. in the house. Ask for a list of what foods they are craving and provide them. When I mentioned that I was out of vitamins, a friend picked some up for me on her way home. One morning I was craving oranges–and when I said so, a neighbor went and got hers and brought them to me. Another friend went to Roundy’s and got the specific kind of pop I drink. Tell your friend that your refrigerator and cupboard are hers–if she needs it, she only needs to call and you will bring it over. When I needed milk, I didn’t care if it came from someone’s opened jug or from a brand-new carton.

5. Be willing to do anything, and let her know that she can call you for anything, no matter how small or large. Set aside your own time and agenda and if you can’t do something, help her find someone who can.

6. Listen, listen, listen. And reserve any kind of judgment or even comments. Thank her for sharing her thoughts with you and tell her you are honored to be able to listen to her. Let her know that nothing she says will shock you or make you think badly of her.

7. Tell her that there is no playbook for this situation. She must do what feels right for her and she mustn’t let anyone tell her otherwise. This was the single most important things that someone did for me.

8. Reassure her that she couldn’t have prevented this and that this wasn’t her fault. She’s going to reviewing every minute that led up to this tragedy. Be willing to listen to it–over and over again. Again, tell her that you are honored that she is sharing her thoughts with you.

9. As time passes, keep checking in. Invite her to do stuff—go to dinner, a movie, specific stuff. Energy levels fluctuate, and sometimes it’s hard just to get up in the morning. Don’t be put off if she says no. Keep offering. Lots of people will be present in the first month or so. After that, the offers fall off. Grief lasts months, and I think the fourth month is worse than the first month. Just keep being available–fully available.

10. If you can’t do something honestly or authentically (ie. you’re busy and just can’t spare the time) then don’t do it. But this is what she needs the most of right now–people’s time. You cannot imagine what a gift it is to her to know that you have set aside whatever is going on in your life (and she’s probably aware that everyone is very busy) just to be present for her.

11. Ask who needs to be contacted apart from family and friends. I had a friend who called all my son’s doctors, dentist, orthodontist, employers, etc. along with my doctor, dentist, hairstylist and therapist. Ditto for any of those folks for all the others who live with them. Be prepared to share as much information with these professionals about what happened as she is willing to have shared. These folks will be in shock too, and you will be ministering to them by answering their questions. Plus, your friend will not have to personally say those things unless she wants to.  Having to say over and over again, “My _________ died…” is unimaginable. It will be a huge relief knowing that the next time she has to see these people, they will have the back story and she won’t have to talk about it if she doesn’t want to.

12. Make sure any kids in the family are being taken care of. Arrange for them to be with other kids and supervised by adults. They can feel lost in a sea of adults, and may need to just be with other kids. My daughters’ friends ministered to her in ways that no adults could have. Someone brought in pizzas and snacks and pop for all of them, and quite a few slept overnight at our house. Offer to be the adult that supervises a sleepover at their house if that seems appropriate.

13. Listen for inner urgings and when you feel one, follow through on that urge. A friend showed up early one morning with what just happened to be Eric’s favorite kind donut. Another family brought over small turkey-on-a-bun sandwiches immediately after the wake, which were perfect for feeding our extended family the next day. People contacted me via Facebook because they feel the urge to reach out that way, and often their timing was exactly right.

14. Don’t act shocked by anything the family says or does. This is a crazy time, and the family simply needs support, not a critique of their behavior. I think I have now said this about three different ways, but it is REALLY, REALLY important.

15. Here are more suggestions from another blogger who lost a child unexpectedly: .

My two favorite of her suggestions are Pray (that’s the only thing that kept us upright in the days immediately following Alex’s death) and Follow promptings (the Holy Spirit was very much present to us and those around us, and listening to Her urgings made so much a lot easier. But that’s another blog for another day.)



  1. thank you, thank you, thank you

  2. […] dislike using negative language to create guidelines, it seemed appropriate after my last post on what you can do after a suicide that I provide a list of things that you should avoid doing because they might actually be hurtful […]

  3. I am humbled. Humbled that you called me a friend.

    I am ashamed. Ashamed that I wasnt one of the people brave enough to just stop by your house to give you a hug. Ashamed that I have yet to share the pictures of Alex that I have. Ashamed that I felt it was enough to stop in at the Alex’s reviewal when it was convenient for ME. Ashamed that I didn’t want to get too close because I was scared. Scared of your pain and scared that it could have been my family.

    I am grateful. Grateful for your friends that brought you oranges, your favorite donut, hugged you day in and day out. Grateful for your words. Grateful for your advice that you didn’t even think twice about giving just because I asked. Grateful for your strength. Grateful for your willingness to share your experience and your grief so I could help my friend.

    • No need for shame, although I understand those feelings. After going through this experience I look back on my own behavior and asked forgiveness what I did not give and what I did not understand. But then I did not have it to give because I didn’t understand. Now I do, and now you do, and so we do now give it.

  4. I’m trying, Lord knows I am trying.
    Thank you again for the guidance.

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