I never knew what it was like to have to respond to someone who lost a loved one to suicide. After my sister died though, I found myself thrust into a life I didn’t plan or want. And as nearly twenty years have passed, I find myself asked how to respond to someone who has just learned of a suicide loss. This comes most often through Facebook from high school friends who have learned of my work. I am grateful that I can share with people how to help because there is nothing worse than not knowing what to do or say – and therefore saying nothing.
The most basic line we can say to someone is “I’m sorry.” That, if nothing else, acknowledges the loss. However, I also remind people that someone will be surrounded by a multitude of people through the funeral and when they will need the support most is after the services are over and everyone has gone home.
At that time, most people will want to talk (not everyone, but most). The shock will be wearing off, and they will have many questions about their loved one. These aren’t questions you can answer but you can sit with them and just be there with them in their pain. It’s difficult for us to be with anyone in pain because we want everyone to be happy and hopeful, but if we truly want to be present with someone, we must be there in that hurt with them.
You might feel like there is nothing you can do but by listening you are helping them to process their feelings and story. Grief is a process; it’s a journey. And it’s not one that will be over in a day or two. Continue to be there for them, even a year or two later. Just because our lives go on doesn’t mean we forget what we’ve been through and the loved ones we've lost. I've always appreciated people who've told me stories about my sister even years after her death. While there would be no new memories, at least I could count on learning about ones that were new to me.
Finally, know that people won’t respond when you ask, “Is there anything I can do?” They are grieving and can’t think clearly. Offer to bring food over or help do the laundry, clean up the house. Maybe even do the grocery shopping. There are many basic tasks that get lost in the grief process and having someone take care of them allows the grieving person to focus on the loss. And by focusing on the loss, they will see that though they move forward, they do not leave their loved one behind. Their loved one remains a part of their life.
Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., is an international author and speaker about finding hope after loss and change. She is the author of several books including Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief and Ginger's Gift: Hope and Healing Through Dog Companionship. Her first book, based on the suicide of her younger sister Denise, Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Si..., inspired siblings around the world in their survival after a loved one’s suicide. She is the President of the American Association of Suicidology and lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Read more about Michelle at www.michellelinngust.com.
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