How to support a survivor of loss
Many of us have experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide. Many more of us have a friend or loved one who has lost a loved one to suicide. Within our human nature, we want to help ease their pain. It’s hard to find the words or to know what to do.
Different people grieve in different ways. It’s important to allow them to grieve as long as they need to. There is no “appropriate amount of time,” for anyone. The loss of their loved one will always hurt. Avoid saying or even thinking, “it’s been long enough,” or “it’s about time he/she/they got over it.” Allow your friend or loved one the opportunity to grieve in their own way.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) isn’t only for those considering suicide. Anyone can call if they’re concerned for a friend, have experienced loss, if they’re thinking about killing themselves, or even you while supporting your friend. We at Headquarters are also available 24/7. The great thing about the Lifeline is that if we at HQ are unavailable for that particular call, an NSPL call “rolls” to another crisis center resulting in a very high answer rate. Click here to find out more about the NSPL and how KSPHQ uses the Lifeline to help thousands across the state of Kansas
1. “I’m sorry for your loss.” It might feel like an empty phrase that they’ve heard a thousand times already, but if you mean it, it can be comforting.
2. Ask them if they need anything. They might reply that they’re fine, but be creative and specific. Offer to:
- pick their kids up from school
- go to the grocery store or run other errands
- fill their freezer up with dinners
- do a load of laundry for them
- help them write thank-you notes (or at least address the envelopes if they want to write them themselves)
- drive them somewhere. It might seem silly and simple, but grief can be debilitating. It might just be unsafe for them to drive.
3. Offer to spend the night with them–especially if they’ve lost a spouse or a child who lived at home. They might not want to be alone at night. They might not even want to sleep in their own home yet. If that’s the case, make up the guest room or sofa and offer to let them spend a few nights with you.
4. Remind them that it wasn’t their fault. It truly isn’t. There is never one reason why someone suicides. Suicide is seldom about ending one’s life. It’s about ending their pain.
5. Use the word “suicide.” It’s not an unsafe word. By using the word “suicide,” you are establishing yourself as a safe space to talk about emotions, grief, and possibly their own thoughts of suicide.
6. Let them remember their loved one. Just ask, “will you tell me about him/her/them?” It’s probably going to be emotional, but just listen, let them remember their loved one.
7. Accept that you might not be the person they want to talk to. That’s fine–but still be there for them. Make sure they have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 800-273-8255 (TALK) or the number for Headquarters, 785-841-2345. Help them find a counselor or support group, and offer to go with them or drive them. The KSPRC website has a list of support groups in communities across the state. There are also resources and support groups online if there isn’t a nearby support group in their area or if they don’t like or feel like they fit in with a particular support group. Online resources are listed at the bottom of the page.
8. Check-in frequently in the following weeks and months, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Often, there’s a rush of support after the death of their loved one. After the funeral, after the extended family leaves town, it can feel the opposite; like a support vacuum. Let them know you’re still there, you still want to support them, and that you care for them. Send flowers, send them a maid service or restaurant gift certificate, send them a note or email, give them a call, or shoot them a text.
9. Start a fundraiser or help them fund-raise for suicide prevention. I know, I know. Coming from a suicide prevention non-profit, this sounds self-serving, but I promise it’s legit. There’s nothing you or they can do to bring their loved one back, but by donating in their name, their loved one’s name or helping them raise money for suicide prevention, they can help others who might be struggling with suicidal ideation or have also experienced loss. Getting involved can take away some feelings of powerlessness and isolation.
10. Just be there. It can be hard. We as humans want to “fix” things. Sitting and listening might not come naturally to you. It’s difficult not to interject while they’re talking. But sit in silence, sit, and listen. Let them feel loved, validated, and heard.
11. Practice self-care for yourself. Caring for and supporting someone who has lost a loved one to suicide can take a toll on your own mental health. Ask others for help while supporting your loved one. Take a moment of self-care for yourself every day. You have to take care of yourself to take care of your loved one.
1. Don’t ask them how their loved one died. It doesn’t matter. Asking this can imply that you care more about how their loved one died than how they lived.
2. Don’t ask them why their loved one killed themselves. There is never one reason for suicide and asking them such a question could imply that they somehow failed as a parent/spouse/sibling/friend.
3. Don’t tell them how they should be feeling. Phrases like, “it’ll get better,” “You need to pull yourself together,” or “it’ll be fine,” aren’t helpful. In fact, phrases like this can make someone feel guilty for grieving and isolate them further.
4. Don’t tell them what to do. “You need to take a shower, you need to call the funeral home, you need to go back to work, you need to eat, you need to sleep,” etc… trying to force them out of their grief cycle can interrupt the way they need to grieve. In some cases, it might become necessary for their own health and safety, but instead of telling them what to do, offer to drive them to the funeral home, drive them to work, pick up or take them to dinner, or spend the night with them. Many of us, as humans, seldom respond well to being told what to do.
5. Don’t use the word “commit.” Commit has a criminal undertone to it: “Committed murder,” or “committed robbery.” Their loved one died by suicide. Their loved one was ending their pain, not committing a crime. Using the word “commit” can feel alienating and hurtful to someone who has lost a loved one.
If you’ve experienced loss:
- Visit the Kansas Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s Survivors of Loss page to find a support group in Kansas.
- The Alliance of Hope Community Forum The Alliance of Hope was created by survivors for survivors. As a 501(c)3 charitable nonprofit, we provide online healing support and other services for people who are coping with devastating loss to suicide.
- Parents of Suicides (POS) – Friends and Families of Suicides (FFOS)
- AFSP’s Website allows you to search your area to find support groups.
- Save.Org also has a searchable database for support groups
- The Dougy Center provides support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults and their families grieving a death can share their experiences.
- It’s no secret that we’re big fans of The Mighty. One of our favorite posts is this one, The Misunderstood Grief of a Person Who’s Spouse Dies By Suicide. ***This article could be triggering, it’s emotional, but it’s also amazing.