Supporting Survivors of Suicide (SPARQ.org)
Suicide takes the lives of about 34,000 people in the U.S. each year (CDC, 2007). Each of these deaths reverberates through our homes, workplaces, schools, religious organizations, and the other social networks. Those experiencing the suicide of a family member, friend, or colleague are referred to as “survivors.” This article talks about supporting survivors of suicide.
With suicide, survivors face not only the loss of someone close to them, but also the difficult feelings connected to the way the person died. Surviving a suicide can involve a range of feelings like shock, sadness, numbness, depression, guilt, anger, confusion, and relief. Some survivors may find they can’t sleep or eat, or they may lack energy. Many survivors struggle to understand the reasons for the suicide, asking themselves “Why?” over and over again. They may replay their loved ones’ last days, searching for answers. Survivors may also fear negative reactions from others, causing them to feel ashamed or isolated. They may find it challenging to talk with friends or acquaintances about the death.
What helps survivors to heal from suicide loss? Many survivors find it helpful to consider that events and circumstances leading up to a suicide are complicated, often involving a combination of painful suffering, hopelessness, and mental illness. In fact, most people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their death.
It helps survivors to know that they are not alone in their loss. Getting support from other survivors can help build understanding and reduce isolation. Some survivors have found or created resources that support their healing. These pages feature many of those resources.
Taking Care of Yourself
Extra attention to self care is important, especially in the days and weeks immediately following the loss of a friend or loved one to suicide. Survivors have suggested the following ways to care for yourself if you have lost someone to suicide:
- Try to focus on what you need to do to heal, rather than replaying actions or events from the past.
- Understand that intense feelings of grief, anger, rejection, guilt, and regret are normal, as are confusion and forgetfulness.
- Keep in mind that family and friends may experience a feeling of relief when someone who may have been difficult for them dies by suicide. But relief may also be followed by guilt.
- Explain the situation to other people in the manner most comfortable to you. Many survivors find it best to simply acknowledge that the death was a suicide.
- In the days and weeks following a suicide loss, delay major decisions that can wait.
- Remember that people grieve in different ways. There is no one “right” way to mourn the death of a loved one.
- Spend time outdoors, listening to music, playing with a pet, or in other ways that bring comfort.
- Recognize that you will heal in time.
It can be helpful to find someone to talk with as you struggle with the loss. You might choose to talk with a friend, relative, religious or spiritual advisor, or mental health professional.
Survivor support groups can also be helpful. These groups offer an opportunity to share your feelings and experiences with others who have lost someone to suicide. Interacting with other survivors who are further along with grieving can bring hope. Information on locating survivor support groups in your area is included under the Resources (If
Seeking Professional Support
Some survivors seek the support of a mental health professional to facilitate their bereavement. If your loved one died while under the care of a mental health professional you may find it difficult to accept that counseling can help you. But it often can, especially if you locate a mental health professional who is knowledgeable about bereavement after suicide.
To locate mental health professionals in your area, contact your health insurance carrier, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK (8255), local crisis and information hotlines, community mental health organizations, or the Mental Health Services Locator, a national online directory of mental health services by location.
When a loved one has died by suicide, survivors of suicide loss will experience feelings that are powerful and wide-ranging. What is the best way to help a survivor? Friends and family close to survivors can offer support in different ways, whether or not they themselves have survived a suicide loss. Survivors may be hesitant reach out to friends or acquaintances because a great deal of stigma still surrounds suicide. If you are close to a survivor, this section describes different ways friends and family can help in the days, weeks, and months following a suicide.
Sometimes survivors find it particularly helpful to talk with other survivors. Survivors have formed organizations to support each other and to educate the public about suicide prevention. Many of these organizations hold regularly scheduled support groups and can provide information about local resources. Information on how to locate survivor support groups in your area is included under Resources (If necessary, add “for Survivors” to the link here since that is now the name of that section) section below.
The following suggestions will help you understand what other survivors have found comforting. Before you assume any responsibilities, it’s important to ask survivors whether they need your help. Some survivors gain strength from performing responsibilities, while others prefer to rely on friends or family. It may be reassuring to know that much of the recommended support is what you would offer a friend grieving any death. To support survivors:
- Surround them with as much love and understanding as you can.
- Give them some private time. Be there, and let them know you are available, but allow them time on their own.
- Let them talk, and show you understand. Withhold advice unless they ask for it.
- Encourage the family to make decisions together.
- Expect that they will become tired easily, and arrange rest time for them.
- Let them decide what they are ready for. Offer your ideas but let them decide themselves. It might be helpful for you to…..
- Keep a list of phone calls, visitors and people who bring food and gifts.
- Offer to make calls to people they wish to notify.
- Keep the mail organized. Keep track of bills, cards, newspaper notices, etc.
- Help with errands and routine household chores.
- Offer to help with documentation needed by the insurance company, such as a copy of the death certificate.
- Offer to help with the deceased’s belongings by doing inventory, moving items to storage, distributing among family members, or donating items.
- Give special attention to members of the family — at the funeral and in the months to come.
- Some survivors appreciate support on holidays or recognition of dates such as the deceased’s birthday.
- Allow them to express as much grief as they are willing to share.
- Allow them to talk about the special qualities of the loved one they have lost.
- Write down a story about their loved one (especially one that they might not know about) and give it to them to read when they feel ready.
- Don’t be afraid to say their loved one’s name. Don’t worry about making them sad; it hurts more when no one talks about the person they lost.
- Let them know it’s alright to ask for help and encourage them to seek specialized support if they need it.
SPARQ.org (2012) The Role Of Survivors in Preventing Suicide. Retrieved December 31, 2012 from www.sprc.org/sites/sprc.org/files/Survivors.pdf
Copyright 2012 – SPARQ
(You may reproduce this page as long as you retain SPARQ copyright information and a link to the site.)