Posted by: riverchilde | October 8, 2012

Suicide response, part 2: 10 “Do not’s”

People told us that they were afraid to approach us after Alex’s death because they were concerned they might say or do the wrong thing or the encounter might just be too painful. Do not be ashamed if this has also been your response in the face of tragedy, for shame can never be healing. It’s a common reaction, one I’ve experienced myself, and while I regret my fears of the past,  I cannot change the past but only help shape the present and future.

While I really 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 to the survivors. These guidelines are meant to apply to average people the days immediately after the suicide. Needs change as time goes on, and if you yourself have experienced the suicide of a loved one (or been suicidal yourself and successfully recovered), you have an entirely different set of tools for helping the survivors.

So again, not in any particular order (because it’s tough enough to write this stuff without having to think even more deeply about why I’m writing it), here’s my list, based on my experiences and those who went through this tragedy with us. One note: this list does not imply that I personally experienced all of these, but unfortunately my extended family was subjected to some very painful inquiries. Other of these guidelines are based on what I was so very grateful people around me did not do.

1. Do not make statements about the eternal destiny of the person who committed suicide. (Okay, yes, this one is number one for a reason.) None of us truly knows, not even the wisest or most learned of theologians. Do not ask if the person was baptized, knew Jesus, accepted Jesus as his personal savior or otherwise inquire or make statements about the state of their soul. A wordless hug is better than a thoughtless word. However if a survivor is expressing distress over this matter and if you can say this in full sincerity, here’s a reassurance you can give: “We don’t know all the details of God’s promises for eternal life through Jesus, but I know that the Bible shows us a merciful and loving God who never abandons his children, no matter how far they fall or wander. And _________ is a beloved child of God.” (I apologize that I am not familiar enough with other faiths to know about their teachings; I can only provide a Christian theological perspective.)

2. Do not use empty platitudes or try to “explain” death. This is related to the above, but on a more superficial level. References to “God’s plan (or purpose),” “being in a better place (or out of pain),” “God needing another angel,” “life goes on,” “everything having a reason,” well, you’ve heard them; if they feel empty and unhelpful, they probably are. The most healing words I heard were “There are no words” accompanied by a compassionate hug. Speaking of hugs and tones of voice, please be aware of their impact. An embrace that lasts too long or a funereal tone of voice (as in  the dreaded, mournful “how are you” ) or a too-businesslike tone and manner can be equally painful to endure. Be alert to clues that tell you the person’s mood on this particular occasion, and match your attitude to theirs.

3. Do not speculate about the person’s state of mind before the suicide or reasons for committing suicide. Be a listening ear if a survivor wants to talk about this, but try not to offer your own ideas. Okay, I have to add an exception, and I do it with trepidation, hoping that people can do this sensitively and appropriately: If you yourself experienced deep depression or were suicidal and can offer perspective on why someone would hide that from their loved ones (particularly if there was no note left behind), I think that can be helpful, but only because my own experiences with depression helped others shocked by Alex’s death understand what might have happened. As far as we–or anyone else knew–our son was not exhibiting signs of depression and presented a very lively and upbeat face to the world. But because I had experience with the “black pit,” as I call it, I knew that it was possible that he had hidden that side of himself from us.

4. Do not tell survivors that you “knew something was wrong” or examples of what now feel like “clues” about this tragedy. Again, this is my personal feeling, because I think nothing could be more hurtful than believing that everyone knew about your loved one’s mental state but you. Instead, offer up positive memories that remind everyone of the person’s essential nature, goodness and personality. This beloved person deserves to be defined by who he or she was in life, rather than by how he or she died.

5. Do not give survivors a third-degree interrogation. Such an act would be more about satisfying your own curiosity than offering comfort. The two worst words in this situation might be: “What happened?” If the survivors want to tell you what happened, they will. Keep your mouth closed and your ears open. Sorry, that sounds harsh, but curiosity-seekers and gossip-mongers need to be stopped in their tracks. Which brings us to the next item:

6. Do not gossip. If you are privy to the survivors’ inner conversations and speculations about this tragedy, keep them private unless they give you permission to share that information. I have some hesitations about writing this one, because I believe suicide should not be considered a private tragedy but a communal wake-up call, particularly when it involves youth, but each family deserves to be able to make that decision for themselves. And of course gossip is a different creature than healing conversations.

7. Do not tell stories of other suicides, at least not in the days immediately after the death. The burden of knowing that the world was too much for their loved one is heavy enough  for the survivors. Again, if you have personal experience, you have a different perspective to offer and might be a wonderful resource and support for them.

8. Do not malign or criticize the one who committed suicide, but allow survivors to vent their own anger and pain without condemnation. ‘Nuff said.

9. Do not burden the survivors with your own grief and anger or assume that you know what the person is feeling or experiencing at the moment. You may express how deep the loss is for everyone and how you yourself will miss the person, but do not use this as an opportunity to tell your own story of grief or to use the survivors as a sounding board about your own unresolved losses. Instead, share stories of recovery, hope and healing.  But do not do so to try and short-cut the survivors’ grief. Go into each encounter with an openness to meeting them where they are in their expressions of grief.

10. Do not try to stop their tears. Just be present with them through it. Be patient and unhurried. If you are uncomfortable with their tears, bow your head and silently pray for them. It will take your mind off your discomfort and help them at the same time. Prayer can be felt by the recipient at times like these. It really can.

One last comment, and I add this without a number not because I want to stop at 10 (well, okay, maybe), but because it is an important reminder, rather than a “do not” (even though it is phrased like one). Do not feel the need to make excuses for your lack of physical presence. There’s a role for everyone and a need for all kinds of help–do what fits your personality. If offering comfort in person isn’t your thing, don’t feel guilty for not doing it. Go back and look at my previous post and see what feels right for you. Taking the kids out for an ice cream can be as helpful to a grieving mom as sitting with her and listening to her pain. Gathering photos and making a collage or calling other people to collect photos is as much a gift as a shoulder to cry on is. Do what fits who you are. Just do it.


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