How to Help When You Don’t Know What to Say: Supporting Family and Friends Who Have Lost a Loved One to Suicide

Grief is a universally difficult experience. However, some forms of grief come with particular circumstances that make it painful, messy, and challenging to resolve. These forms of grief are called “complex grief.” One form of complex grief is the grief of losing a loved one to suicide. People who lose a family member or friend to suicide can feel distressed, guilty, ashamed, and angry. They also feel isolated in their grief, afraid others will judge them for not stopping the suicide somehow or for not being able to stop the person from wanting to die in the first place. They are also bewildered; most people who die by suicide don’t leave a note; their loved ones won’t ever know precisely what they were thinking, even as they try to piece together the choices they made in their last moments.

Perhaps you have a friend or family member who recently lost someone to suicide. It can be hard to know what to say to comfort them! In this article, I recommend strategies to offer comfort in a seemingly comfortless time.

Listen

Although this one sounds simple, it’s someCmes the hardest to remember. Survivors of suicide loss need you to use your ears more than your mouth! The Each Mind Matters Resource Center explains, “Be willing to listen as they talk about their loved one and the difficult and oVen confusing emoCons they are experiencing. You do not need to offer answers, just be willing to listen with compassion”.

Spend less time thinking of what to say in response to their experience and instead focus on listening and asking questions about their experience to gain accurate empathyCarl Rogers explains that practicing accurate empathy is listening to pick up a person’s true feelings and thoughts and then reflecting back to the person what you think you heard to ensure you got it right (Rogers, 1961). Whatever questions you ask should increase your understanding of the person’s experience. It is also important that you avoid any blaming language. If you need to ask anything, ask about one of their best memories of the person who died, or ask, “How were they special to you?”

Avoid Giving Explanations and Advice

Don’t try to guess why the person died by suicide or attribute any cause at all. It is unhelpful to try to make any assumptions about the person’s suicide. Sometimes, people try to say well-meaning things to loss survivors because they don’t know what to say (Understanding The Reactions of Others ). They might say things like:

  • “You’ll get over it.”
  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “Don’t worry.”
  • “Count your blessings.”
  • “Life goes on.”

What words like this imply, however, is that everyone else has moved on and wants them to move on, too. But that’s not how complex grief works. It takes a long process, and even after people have healed, things never return to normal.

Ask How You Can Help

You might not know how they feel or what they need to hear. Instead of making something up or trying to relate their grief to a different kind of pain in your own life, ask how you can help. Try saying, “I want to help in any way I can. Is there anything I can do?” or, “How can I help?” EMM Resource Center states you should “express your condolences and offer support the way you would to anyone who has lost someone close to them” (Help and Support After Suicide). Remember that, ultimately, the way the person died matters less than the fact that they died.

Connect Them with Free Resources

You may not know how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide, but many people do. The internet has enabled suicide loss survivors to join together and find support groups in their area or online. One resource you can share with someone who has lost a loved one to suicide is Friends for Survival, a national outreach program for survivors of suicide death.

This program was founded by people who lost dear family members to suicide, and they are uniquely equipped to help others through this painful process. They offer an excellent, downloadable free brochure called When Someone You Love Dies by Suicide. Even if you don’t know what to say to help, you can print this brochure and give it to your grieving friend or encourage them to call Friends for Survival at (800) 646-7322. Another great resource that describes the grief process after the suicide of a loved one is the Help and Support After Suicide Brochure from the EMM Resource Center.

Resources for Surviving Suicide Loss

Friends for Survival

Beyond Surviving: Suggestions for Survivors

Understanding the Reactions of Others

When Someone You Love Dies by Suicide

Help and Support After Suicide

References

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin. Each Mind Matters. Resource: Survivors of Suicide Loss Brochure. California’s Mental Health Movement

Resource Center. https://emmresourcecenter.org/resources/survivors-suicide-loss-brochure Friends for Survival. Offering help after a suicide death. https://friendsforsurvival.org

Friends for Survival. Understanding the reactions of others.  https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/5115faab-9edd-4b94-ba16-aab931749836/downloads/Understanding%20the%20Reactions%20of%20Others.pdf?ver=1706371938441

Friends for Survival. When someone you love dies by suicide. https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/5115faab-9edd-4b94-ba16- aab931749836/downloads/When%20Someone%20You%20Love.pdf?ver=1706371938382

Friends for Survival. Beyond surviving: suggestions for survivors. https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/5115faab-9edd-4b94-ba16-aab931749836/downloads/Beyond%20Surviving%20by%20Iris%20Bolton.pdf?ver=17063719383 37

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