The Sound of Silence- Helping Others After Suicide Loss by Carol Borrelli

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So many people long to help others in the aftermath of a suicide loss. Yet, so many feel baffled and inadequate in supporting others. You see, we are afraid to say the wrong thing. We are afraid to ruin their day, by the slim chance that they are actually having a decent one.  Here are some suggestions on what you might say or do, as well as some suggestions on what to avoid.

First of all, break the silence. There is nothing worse to the suicide survivor than the “sound of silence”. It is not the things that people say that generally ruin our day. It is what is left unsaid, and the deafening silence left by people who are afraid to speak. Imagine losing one of the most important people in your life, under one of the worst possible circumstances, and everyone is walking around as if absolutely nothing has happened, because they are afraid to speak. THAT is maddening. I remember in the days and weeks after my brother Joey died, how many people said absolutely nothing at all. Not a simple condolence. No acknowledgement whatsoever. I wanted to scream. In the words of the Rolling Stones, I saw a red door and I wanted it painted black. That entire song reminds me of those days, watching people walk by and interact with me as if things were still the same (“it’s not easy facing ’em when your whole world is black, no more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue, I could not foresee this thing happening to you”).

Ultimately  the point is, SAY SOMETHING, ANYTHING! It is better to say the wrong thing, than to say nothing at all. At least if you say the wrong thing, you have tried. And that means a lot to us!  And please, I beg of you, if we break up the silence ourselves by bringing up our loved one, don’t immediately change the subject because you are uncomfortable. Please don’t pretend that you didn’t hear what we just said. Yes, this actually happens. Like, all the time. I know it can be uncomfortable, I get it. But imagine how uncomfortable it is for us to live it. Please take the time to listen, to encourage, and please look us in the eye. Changing the subject and/or not making eye contact makes us feel like emotional lepers.

Having established that saying the wrong thing is better than saying nothing at all, here are some things to avoid when talking to a survivor of suicide loss, just so things go smoother and there are no hurt feelings:

  1. Please avoid asking about delicate issues regarding our loved one’s  method of suicide. Just don’t go there, please. It is too painful to rehash.
  2. Please do not make comments about their final destination, unless they are positive ones. Everyone is welcome to their own spiritual beliefs, that is what makes the world go round. But we are already worried about our loved one, beyond what you can ever know. If you have beliefs about suicide victims immediately going to a terrible place, please discuss it with someone other than a suicide survivor, or keep it to yourself. We are not the proper audience for those philosophical discussions.
  3. Please (and this should be a no-brainer but believe it or not it happens), don’t suggest any blame on the part of the survivor. I have people in my world who insisted on blaming anyone and everyone who ever came in contact with my brother, including myself. They are in my prayers, but they are otherwise not in my life any longer.

Guess what- that’s it! Just three things to avoid: prying, preaching, and blaming. And chances are, you would not dream of doing that. So you see, you really have a lot of leeway.

And if all else fails, there is always this…. “I’m so sorry about _____, I have been sooooo concerned about you. Is there anything I can do?”. Chances are, they will start talking, and just need you to listen. Which is the best thing you can do for a survivor. Make eye contact, and listen. If you cry, that’s okay. If you feel uncomfortable, that is okay. If you don’t know what to say, that is okay. Try saying “I don’t know what to say”. That is perfectly fine. All you  need to do is just simply break the silence and, from there, listen. That is worth a million bucks.

Finally, if you have a happy or funny memory about our loved one to share, please do so. You will break the silence in the most beautiful way. You will not ruin our day, you quite possibly will make our entire year! We long to hear our loved one’s name. We long to hear memories about them. We long, so please help us express those longings that we so desperately need to let out.

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Speaking of letting out those emotions and thoughts and feelings, here is a poem that I wrote on my brother’s birthday this year:

I sang a song for you today, the exact words I can’t recall

The tune was sad and off kilter, and the emotion was chilling and raw

As I went to hit the high note, I choked back the tears that would fall

So I decided to wish it with a whisper

Happy birthday, my brother, my all

I looked into your eyes so blue

And saw the smile that I once knew

You pointed to the sky and flew up high

And you said, remember the way….

Cause I’ll see you again, sooner than you know

And remember that I am okay.

Higher and higher and higher you flew

‘Til you were sadly out of sight

But your memory stays with me through the dusk, through the dawn,

Through the morning, through the day, through the night

So I’ll sing and sing and sing your song with all my strength and might

High and strong and soft and long

As the darkness gives way to the light.

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“The Sound of Silence- Helping Others After Suicide Loss originally appeared on Girlfriend’s Guide to Good Mental Health. If you would like to read more by Carol, you can check out her blog here. 

8 Responses

  1. Anne Moss Rogers
    | Reply

    So true. That deafening silence after my son’s suicide inspired me to write a newspaper article honoring him. I was so angry that no one spoke his name. When a loved one dies by suicide we don’t erase them from our family tree! I’d give anything to be somewhere where people were telling charles stories. It’s not like I am going to have new ones.

  2. Carol Borrelli
    | Reply

    Anne,
    I am so sorry for your pain, and sorry that you experienced the “silencing”. I am so glad that you found such a beautiful outlet to share your love of your son, and increase awareness for suicide prevention though. You are truly an inspiration. Keep telling your stories so beautifully. Proud to know you!

  3. Dianna
    | Reply

    You’re right… It is so good to hear our loved one’s name. And I was so hungry to hear good stories about her; I still am. I love when I “meet” people (online, phone, in person) whose name I knew from her life but nothing else. I ask them to tell me stories about her. I guess since there will be no “new” memories made, I thrive on the ones that are old but “new-to-me”.

  4. Carol Borrelli
    | Reply

    Thanks so much Dianna. I am so sorry for your loss. Thanks so much for your supportive comments. Loved hearing about the stories. Prayers that we will find even more opportunities for some really good ones!

  5. Paula
    | Reply

    Condolences to you on the loss of your brother. It is amazing how people tract to these things. This topic and mental health needs to be discussed and hopefully prevented. When it is not prevented we need to be there for one another. It is a terrible loss the same yet unlike that of one from illness. The pain is incredibly immense. I just lost a cousin 6 days ago and this was sent to me by a friend today. Thank you for this. I wish I could post this all over the place.

    • Paula
      | Reply

      *react not tract

  6. Carol Borrelli
    | Reply

    Oh Paul I am so sorry about your cousin. Prayers for you and your family. You are right, prevention is key and we must come together. Thank you for your kind words. Hugs.

  7. Carol Borrelli
    | Reply

    Sorry meant Paula

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