When we received the call that my nephew committed suicide we were thankfully only three hours from my sister and were able to be with her within a few hours. The next week was incredibly difficult but I am proud of how we came together as a family to support her. There are so many moments that can make things worse or just a little bit better. I don’t think we got them all right, but while it was fresh in my mind I wanted to share what helped. I am not a therapist but these are a few things that I found to be true in our particular situation. God forbid you ever find yourself in this situation, but if you do I hope it is helpful. Note: I asked my sister to review this post to make sure I got it write and she agreed. I post this with her permission.
The very first thing I did when I got the news was call my friend Kelly. She lost her nephew a few years ago and I knew what she had been through. When I called I simply said tell me what to do to not screw this up. Her reply was simple but incredibly helpful. “Say as little as possible. Do as much as possible”. Those words stayed with me through the week and the best that I could I tried to live them. When I am upset or nervous I tend to chatter, so I had to keep a tight grip on myself. It is very easy to allow nerves to push you into saying something really stupid so the less said the better. I will add one caveat to this. DO NOT say “I don’t know what to say”. Think about what you want to say in advance. If you just don’t know you can always say I am so sorry for your loss. In my case I had a long three hour car ride to think about what I would say. When I saw her I just said, “I’m Here” and I held her. Everything else felt false so I kept it simple.
- DO NOT ask how they killed themselves. People want to know. I get that, and before this experience that was my first question as well. But ultimately it doesn’t matter because the person is dead. The only thing that does matter is who found the person and in what state. There is trauma associated with finding a dead body that goes above and beyond normal grief. Understand that the person is in shock and dealing with that trauma FIRST. Asking them how it happened makes them relive that trauma. If they want/need to tell you the story listen and be as supportive as possible. Keep your judgement to yourself. If they wish to keep the details private respect that. If they do share with you be very careful about who you share those details with.
- DO NOT assign blame. There is plenty of shame, guilt, and anger in these situations that you do not need to add to them. If the person you are comforting feels angry by all means accept that, but DO NOT heap your own feelings on top of theirs. This is tough because there are endless questions of Why. Some of those questions may never be answered. #EndTheStigma.
- Remember it’s not about you. Tell yourself that over and over again. It’s about the people closest to the person and everyone needs to put their grief away for a little while and take care of that family. There is a concept called The Ring Theory that I kept thinking of. Based on your proximity to the person who has died you comfort inward and dump emotion out. My sister, her husband, and their kids were at the epicenter. Everyone else was on the outside. I tried to take care of everyone in the center and had to let everyone on the outside of my ring go.
4. Feel how you need to feel but try to not hurt anyone. I am a big believer in the fact that people grieve in different ways. That being said it’s important that people don’t take those feelings and hurt others with them. Being kind to one another in grief is one of the best things we can do. If kindness is not possible then removing yourself from the situation is the better choice.
5. Be present as needed. This is a tricky one. You want to be present to do things for the people you love but they also need space. It’s a delicate balance and asking doesn’t always provide the right answer. Even in a horrible situation, people have manners and they don’t want to ask for what they need because it would be rude. Try to be as intuitive as possible. Remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint and you can only take care of others if you take care of yourself. At the first hint that people need left alone try and accommodate that. If you are present and nothing is actively needed just sit quietly and wait for an opportunity to present itself. Constantly asking what can I do to help is often not helpful.
6. Pay attention to the small things. When people have undergone trauma and grief it is very difficult for them to think clearly. There are a myriad of details that need taken care of in these situations. If you are not tasked with taking care of them make sure the person has water and if possible food. It’s unlikely they will eat much but it is very important they stay hydrated and helping them remember to drink water is a small thing but very important. Walk the dog, feed the fish, make sure there is food for people to eat. These are all small things that may get forgotten that still need to be done.
7. When bringing food think about the long term. It is incredibly nice when people bring food, but it can quickly become overwhelming. Non perishable items like snacks and bottled water are nice and any meal item that can be frozen for later is excellent. If the person has a favorite restaurant item think of bringing that to tempt them to eat and keep in mind any dietary restrictions. Eating healthy doesn’t go out the window even in a situation like this and its good to have some healthy alternatives. The best thing we received all week was one of those fruit bouquets. I always thought they were a little silly, but it was a healthy snack that everyone could pick at which was wonderful to have.
8. Think about the children. If there are small ones in the house babysitting, bringing them a special toy, or taking them out to play is one of the best things you can do. With older kids I recommend giving them some gas/fast food money so they don’t need to worry about having some money if they want to get away for awhile. The teenagers will likely miss quite a bit of work and won’t necessarily have a ton of money in savings to make up for that. They will need/want to be with their friends as much as possible. Try not to take that personally. Offer rides if they don’t drive and be supportive of their need for space and time to process. NEVER put your expectations of behavior on them. If they want to wear their favorite pair of jeans to the funeral let them. Allow them to pay tribute in their own way. They are dealing with the same emotions that we as adults can barely handle. Give them space.
9. If you see an opportunity, pay for things. The person will reflexively try to pay for everything which both pulls focus from what is important and could result in a ton of unexpected bills. Paying for a meal or any unexpected expenses is both kind and something you can give to that person. If they resist simply say, “Please let me do this”. If they still resist by all means let them pay, but whatever small thing you can do…do it. Life Insurance may or may not pay out in these cases so it is unclear what funds will be available to help cover the cost. Be sensitive to that.
10. Lead with Love. Try and put your anger away. It is normal, but needs to be dealt with away from the family. Put as much love as you can into every moment. Say it frequently. And talk about how you love the person who committed suicide. Share a sweet and silly moment you had with them. Talk about them as a person you loved and not a tragedy or statistic. Stand up for them as a casualty of mental illness. This can be hard. I kept thinking if he had died of cancer I wouldn’t feel this way and it helped. Mental illness is an illness. If we believe that we should believe there is no fault in a person succumbing to the disease.