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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
“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.