Q. What can you say or do when there’s a suicide in someone’s family? My cousin’s 21-year-old son killed himself, and she and her husband are inconsolable. What can I possibly say to them in such a devastating situation? I feel powerless to help them.
A. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the 15-24 age group in this country with only injuries and homicides claiming more lives, and suicide on college campuses is more common than most people realize. Everyone thinks college students are having a wonderful time, yet there is a dark side for some. In addition, when young people become depressed, they’re reluctant to seek help. Realize that there is little you can say or do that will make a difference to grieving parents in such a catastrophe. They’re in shock, and they may experience tremendous guilt. They may blame themselves for not recognizing the danger or not taking steps to prevent the tragedy. At the same time, parents also feel angry at the child for doing such a thing.
Realize that this death is different from the death of someone who has lived his or her life. What greater pain can there be than having your child die before you do? Yet bereaved parents do need support and there are ways to provide it. One option is to voice what you’re actually thinking — “I don’t know what to say to you at this terrible time.” Or “I can’t imagine what you are going through. This is every parent’s nightmare.” Such statements validate the enormity of the loss and what has happened.
You can focus on positive memories of the child and speak of his special qualities, as in “He had such a generous heart and he loved children. What a great teacher he would have been.” Recalling special moments or experiences is healing for you, as well as the parents. You can mention, “I remember Bobby’s birthday party in the backyard in kindergarten. It was bedlam, but everyone had such a good time. You threw wonderful kids’ parties.”
Above all, be sure to listen quietly to the parents without interrupting. They need to talk about what has happened. Remember that this is about them and their loss. If you focus on that, you’ll be able to forget about your own discomfort. You’ll be truly helpful simply by being present and caring.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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