10 ways to help someone affected by suicide (and 11 not to)

Within the last four years, two people I knew have taken their own lives. The kindness and thoughtfulness that has come my way both times has been wonderful: from close friends to people I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years, and people on the other side of the world I know through work and have never met in person. I count myself lucky to have seen such sympathetic and compassionate responses from so many. Sadly, despite the brilliant work of mental health campaigners and increased public understanding in recent years, stigmatising attitudes to mental health, suicide in particular, are still very common, and can cause great distress to those affected. I’ve read and heard of people bereaved by suicide facing huge ignorance from others, and – occasionally – been on the receiving end of it from people I thought would know better.

Based on my and others’ experiences, I’ve put together this list of the types of responses which have been most helpful, and those which – while probably well-meant – have been less. You might be reading this because someone you know has recently been affected by a suicide and you’re not sure how to respond. Or because you’ve been affected yourself and want to see if it reflects your own story. If you have relevant experiences and would like to add your own, please do comment. You’re more than welcome.

I fully recognise that no-one’s perfect, including me. I hope the take-home message is that simple compassion – both for the person who has died and anyone they meant something to – is the best thing you can offer at any time…

10 Ways to be Helpful… 

  • Saying you don’t know what to say Some people think this is the wrong thing to say, but it’s fine. For someone in shock, the feeling’s probably mutual. It means you understand the magnitude. And it’s better than “I know how you feel” if you don’t.
  • Getting in touch straight away Even if just to say the above. A sympathetic card or message can be incredibly touching, even  – or perhaps especially – from someone you don’t often hear from.
  • Understanding some basics about depression  An estimated 90% of people who take their lives suffer from depression. Depression is an illness, and still widely misunderstood.  It can sometimes be a reaction to something in a person’s environment, like trauma or deprivation (Reactive depression). Sometimes, it’s linked to another condition, like anxiety, chronic pain, epilepsy or a learning difference (Secondary depression). And sometimes it has no obvious “reason” at all. (Clinical depression)Depression affects those of all backgrounds, and, although some lifestyle factors can help people manage it more easily, love, faith, exercise, hobbies and money aren’t a cure. Asking “Why was he depressed?” makes as much sense as“Why did he have cancer?” “He had a great job and a loving family, how could he get conjunctivitis!?” or “Why’s she bothered about being raped – she’s loaded!” Depression can distort a person’s view of their situation in a similar way an eating disorder distorts a person’s view of their body. Someone with depression can believe their life is hopeless even though they are very fortunate, just as someone with anorexia can be emaciated and believe they’re overweight. You don’t have to be a great expert on mental health, but this simple knowledge will go a long way.
  • Simple, specific gestures Helping with daily admin, chores or responsibilities, cooking for someone, buying them something to eat, or even just a cup of tea are bound to be very much appreciated.
  • Letting them know feeling needy is allowed Even people who normally manage quite well in their own company can be quite clingy after a sudden, violent death. They need to know this is normal and OK. Be prepared for someone to want to talk/speculate/ask questions, particularly if you’re breaking the news or passing on any details. Wanting to talk isn’t also always necessarily about wanting answers, or thinking it’ll lead to some great big truth. Often it’s just comforting. I found chatting informally to a group of my friend’s mutual friends more helpful than an organised support group of strangers. Others may feel differently. Abrupt swings between wanting to be with others and be alone are also common.
  • Recognising everyone grieves differently In particular, one of the biggest distinctions in today’s world – which can lead to conflict and misunderstandings – is in how people deal with grief online. Those who’ve used the internet at home since they were young are often more relaxed about sharing personal thoughts via email/blogs/social media, while those who mainly use these professionally, and are used to tightly-controlled working environments may be warier. The only time you should – carefully – intervene in someone’s response is if their behaviour is seriously harmful to them or others, e.g they blame themselves, blurt out harmful secrets/threats/allegations, impinge on other people’s privacy, or won’t acknowledge what’s happened at all.
  • Encouraging them to take it slowly Sometimes grief or shock makes people’s mind race. They may be overwhelmed by practicalities, such as coping with paperwork or arranging the funeral. Or, they may create distractions for themselves to lessen the pain and end up being swamped. Encourage them to slow down and not take on too much at once.
  • Recognising that a suicide hits people in certain situations particularly hard As well as the very obvious (partners and first-degree relatives), this includes anyone else affected who is living in difficult circumstances, e.g far away from close friends or family, single, unhappy or insecure at work, on a low income, new to a job or area, or who’s been bereaved before, especially in a similar way. Equally, don’t think someone more fortunate or settled can’t be sad either. Being well-off doesn’t compensate for grief – or mental illness.
  • Recognising grief is a process Sadness and sensitivity aren’t confined to the aftermath of a suicide but can reappear at any time, particularly around anniversaries and after news reports of death. Bereavement might also affect someone’s responses to death in future – for example, they may be more affected by scenes of violence and mourning after a news event than want to discuss politics or “the bigger picture.” And never think it’s “too late” to talk about someone’s loss. They won’t have forgotten it. Indeed, some people find it easier and preferable to talk after a certain amount of time has passed.
  • If you can, donating to or volunteering for a mental health charity There are some suggestions on the About and Helpful Places pages of this site, or there may be an online fundraising page in memory of the person who died. Fundraising pages are a great way to donate to charity, as the money goes straight to the charity, saving them time and money. Most let you donate anonymously.

And 11 Ways Not to Be…

  • Assuming too much Respond according to how someone actually feels, not how you think they should feel.
  • Blanking someone A work acquaintance once told me that when her husband died, some people literally crossed the street to get away from her. It’s understandable to hang back a bit if you find it difficult to express yourself or aren’t in a situation where it’s easy to talk. But grief is an irrational, sensitive time and rumblings of: “Is X being off with me?” can creep in. Do let them know they’re in your thoughts and that you’ll be around in the future.
  • Being judgemental/unkind about the person who’s died, especially someone you never knew Keep your negative opinions and/or assumptions to yourself. Comments like “That’s so selfish!”  “What did s/he have to be depressed about?” “I’ve got no sympathy for people who do that! can be very hurtful – even to those who are angry and incredulous about it themselves. People who kill themselves will almost certainly have hidden complexities and your impression of them and their lives is almost certainly based on limited information. They were a real person, who mattered to someone who is real to you; not a TV character or a distant celebrity whose life is yours to pick apart and comment on.  You don’t have to butter someone up, or pretend that because they died they were heroic (which few people are, and suicide isn’t) or flawless (which no-one is), but running them down in front of people they mattered to is not on. Sometimes people do this out of frustration, or well-meaningly to try to ease someone’s grief. Whatever your intent, it’ll only make them feel worse. Quite simply, if you have nothing nice to say about someone, don’t say anything. On a similar note, try and resist publicly moaning that a railway suicide has inconvenienced your day. Being depressed, or bereaved by suicide, is loads more inconvenient than a delayed train. Trust me; I’ve experienced all three.
  • Saying anything that could make a grieving person feel ashamed, guilty or to blame To avoid implying blame inadvertently, it’s best not to delve too deeply into people’s arguments or disagreements with the person who died, or try and talk someone out of something with: “Imagine what X would say…”  (People’s capacity for misplaced anger can be quite astonishing: I’ve even heard of someone being blamed for her boyfriend’s suicide by his ex-wife who left him…)
  • Nit-picking People in grief or shock probably aren’t at their most articulate and may say things that are raw and disjointed. Splitting hairs over their word-choices, trying to give perspective: “Well at least you’re not in a war zone…” or being dismissive: “She had good points? Yeah, I bet Myra Hindley did too!” are not helpful. Perspective doesn’t take the pain away, and respect for the dead and grieving isn’t intellectually beneath you. You’re not in a student debating chamber; you don’t need to score points.
  • Wild, spontaneous gestures, or emotional blackmail In a Richard Curtis film, travelling hundreds of miles across the country and turning up at someone’s door uninvited is charming, cute and makes someone want to marry you. In real life, it tends to have the opposite effect. Don’t see this as an opportunity to get into/back into somebody’s pants, or convert them to your religion or politics. Similarly, don’t pressure someone into big life decisions too soon. They’re probably barely up to deciding on a pizza topping, let alone a round-the-world trip, house move or career change.
  • Making too many promises you can’t keep The slightest change of plan can be quite a stress at a time like this. Obviously some problems are unforeseeable and any reasonable person will understand, but before you suggest any kind of outing or gesture, try and make sure it’s viable and can be easily rearranged if you have to. This is also why very simple gestures are often better than big whacky ones (see above).
  • “You meet so many damaged people. You should find some happier friends!” There can be a fair comment in this. Some people do seem to surround themselves with vulnerable people to distract them from their own pain, or out of guilt for their own advantages, which is not always healthy or helpful. But it’s not a useful discussion to have at this point. Although I’ve written about mental health, the great majority of the depression sufferers I know are people I didn’t meet through mental health writing, but through other work, at university, through “regular” blogging, and the same way anyone meets anyone. People with depression don’t walk around with neon flashing badges, and you couldn’t prevent yourself from meeting them if you tried. Would you tell someone not to make friends with people in the military, frequent flyers or fans of extreme sport in case they die?
  • Making grief into a contest or confrontation “Some of us don’t have time to be upset.” “I knew X longer than anyone/I’ve been through worse than anyone else…” “I didn’t get like this when X died and he was Y” and so on. Offloading onto a grieving person everything you don’t like about them, and everything they’ve ever said or done to annoy you, is also a bad idea.
  • Immediately asking someone whose opposite-sex friend has died whether they were together, ever fancied each other, etc etc When someone tells you a friend has died, accept their description “friend”. Don’t make them feel obliged to tell you whether they were romantically involved, explain why they weren’t, or relive any past involvement. Unless they tell you, it’s not your business. And they’re more likely to open up about this sort of thing if you give them time than steam in with questions. Oh, and drop the careful euphemisms. “Were you two…close?” “Did you have an intimate relationship?” Oh, please. We know what you mean. You may as well just say: “Did you used to shag?” and be done with it…
  • Telling someone not to speculate Look; someone has died very suddenly and violently. Let those who are left behind speculate if they damn well want to, thank you very much. Now, of course, there is healthy speculation and there is unhealthy speculation. Unhealthy speculation is blaming yourself, saying that if only you hadn’t worked late that day and been home an hour earlier none of this would have happened, etc etc. Or bandying around harmful allegations and accusations in public. Like suggesting that someone took his own life because his parents were mean to him, his brothers were richer than him, his wife didn’t understand him, or he was secretly infatuated with an old classmate. And doing nothing else but speculate is obviously unsustainable, emotionally and financially. Those are the sorts of things you should – compassionately – intervene in. But a certain amount of going over and wondering about things (especially if you weren’t their next of kin and had even fewer of whatever few details there are to know), is normal and natural. Telling someone who’s lost a loved one or friend to suicide: “It’s no good speculating” is like telling someone to ignore having a nail file pushed into their eye socket. It’s just not realistic. It will make the person want to sneak into your room at night and stick an upturned plug right by your bed so you step on it. A much more constructive approach (based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques) is to help them reign in the speculation so that it doesn’t get in the way of too much else. A good way to do this is by encouraging them to timetable it, giving themselves permission to mull over stuff at set times of the day/week/month/whatever interval works for them. But DO NOT just ban or discourage speculation altogether.

A final point, specifically for the bereaved (and believe me, I know it’s easier said, but I’ll say it anyway…): Feeling that someone isn’t being as available or sympathetic as you’d like is horrible – but there’s no point in putting your life on hold hoping for them to be, or trying to badger or wish them into being. If you’re in this situation, step back and find support from a trained professional. Good luck.

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3 comments

  1. Firstly, sorry for your loss.

    Thank you for taking the time to write such an emotive and informative article on an arguably taboo subject matter. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout.

    I particularly agree with the 3rd point regarding having a better understanding of depression. I think the comparison you make between why was he depressed? to why did he have cancer? is powerful and thought provoking.

    There are so many misconceptions surrounding mental ill health anyway but there is also a lot of judgments. A lot of the time this can be out of fear and/or ignorance. Other times people don’t poor mental health is as life-changing as poor physical health. Yet, ‘caring for the mind is as important and crucial as caring for the body, in fact one cannot be healthy without the other.’

    Thanks again

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comment, Suzanne, I’m really touched. The cancer analogy is one I’ve heard a few times and it makes so much sense to me; cancer being something that can have both an obvious environmental cause or none whatsoever. Thank you again, and take care.

      Like

      1. You are most welcome Maxine.

        One of the sad things is that many people believe that the person attempting to or successfully completing suicide is selfish. Arguably, the person contemplating ending their life believes that everyone/the world would be better off without them. They want everyone to have a happier life without them. Sometimes, they just want the horrific nightmares/flashbacks/thoughts etc to stop. Sometimes, they don’t feel that they have a purpose. It has nothing to do with not loving and adoring your friends and family. The issue is not loving/valuing yourself.

        We need to get better at talking about mental ill health in general in order to help address stereotypical misconceptions. We need to listen to understand, but speak out more.

        Thanks again Maxine for helping to increase awareness of such an important topic.

        Like

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