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Please Do! Suicide and Trauma

Please Do! Suicide & Trauma

When someone takes their own life, what do you say to those left behind who must rebuild, pick up the pieces and move forward?  

If natural death is difficult for people to deal with, traumatic death and death by suicide are far more complex.  This is about what I call “the death bubble” bursting and making a mess. Oh, what a mess a traumatic death can be! An d a death by suicide is far more complex than any other type of death.  Why? Maybe it has to do with the unthinkable and that the person taking their own life, in a sense, is “playing God”, or choosing to control a process that society says, and believes, should come at a natural end of life sequence.  To so many it is “taboo”. 

Maybe this taboo is what makes others pull back and not say anything to those affected by the death. In so many ways, those who are faced with a death caused by trauma or suicide, need different support than others.  I’ll try to say some helpful things here.

This grief is on steroids 

The grief that surrounds suicide is intense and feels like a volcano erupting. The catch here is that it erupts in stages, each violent.  It quakes, it steams, and at some point in time, it will explode, and then all that lava slowly runs down the sides burning everything it touches. Everything about the event and its aftermath will alter how most people who survive those they love, will alter their world view.  This subject matter can be addressed in another post. For now the reader can choose to accept that the above stated fact, is fact. 

As I’ve stated in other posts “grief does not have stages” It never has.  Grief, at its best, is messy and grief that surrounds suicide is best likened to a catastrophic eruption in slow motion.  

During the first days, people might have to deal with a biohazard team cleaning up a very unpleasant mess.  There might be a loss of possessions. These possessions could be meaningful to family and friends. The biohazard team takes it all away.  If the area the person resided in still places crime tape at the scene of a suicide there is that added burden on loved ones.  

There may or may not be a viewing.  There may or may not even be a funeral or memorial service.  The closure that these events offer to those who mourn can be shadowed by the difficulty of these events.   

During the first few years, those who mourn are forced to come to terms with their own lives, deal with the contents of a note, or the lack of a note, ask the “why”, say over and over “I should have”, process guilt, come to terms with the death on a spiritual (not religious) level, as well as process any religious beliefs around suicide and possibly confront them. Simply stated, many survivors of a loved one’s suicide face an existential crisis.  Supporting such a crisis is challenging.  

What can you do?  

Everything I stated about death still applies here.  There is more: and here it is:

The first 24 hours: 

If the death has occurred in the family home, please, if possible, provide another place for the survivors to sleep. Try to keep everyone together. Ideally, a hotel should not be on the list of places to gather together. 

If sleeping somewhere else will not work, the next best thing is to move in with them for the first two nights, make sure the family is fed, cared for, and assured that for right now, they aren’t required to show up for life.  They are going to need to deal with arrangements for the service if there is to be such an event. They will need help on so many levels.  

If there are young children involved, and if schools are in session, ask the children what they would prefer to do and arrange for it.  YOU be the one to make school calls. Empathetic staff will understand the gravity of the situation and support the children in their needs. 

Assistance with meals and errands can be helpful.  With meals consider the fact that clean up needs to be kept to a minimum.  

The Death Bubble 

If you’ve been through a death you know what I’m talking about; that place where the world stops for you and the focus isn’t about getting it done and for however long it takes, you are in this place, or state, of surreal being.  The world has stopped. Then the memorial or funeral happens and society tells you that you have to get back to the races. You step outside, see the cars and people whizzing by, and you think, “I have to get back on this grand people-mover that is whizzing by me a million miles an hour!  How? So you jump for it, and maybe you make it, but most likely you fall off again and wonder, “Why? What is wrong with me?” Then you stop and you think, “I forced myself to move, and I tried to leave the bubble, but I’m still really in the bubble, and HELP!” With suicide, it is as if you jump into the people-mover, but you are hanging in the air and you miss the people-mover and you get all banged up.  Re-entry into the bustling world happens at a slower pace.  

When someone finally reaches a place of resolution and forward movement, it is because the hard work of grief has been journeyed, and while all might not be as it once was, a new normal is emerging.  

I tell you all of this so that you, the reader, who have not been in this place, can be aware of how to help in the beginning, the middle, and the continuing future.  You get through it, but you don’t get over it. For those of us who have faced this in our personal lives, there will be differences in our process, but the understanding is there.  

Please Do! 

1. Look with your eyes.  Act with those eyes and be proactive about bringing in meals, coming to clean the house, take the children for play dates, or whatever else is needed.  In other words don’t ASK when, TELL your family, or friends, when you will show up! Then show up.  

2. Listen to, and provide a place for, someone to talk if, and when, they want to do so. 

3. This is about them, and not you.  If someone is behaving in a self-centered manner they are doing so because the pain they are facing is raw.  Gentleness is needed. 

4. Keep in mind that no two suicides are alike.  Once again, make no assumptions that what your friend, or family member, is now dealing with is anything like what you dealt with.  Ask what the experience is like for them. 

5. Never ask about how the suicide happened.  It isn’t any of your business. If the person wants you to know they’ll share it. The fact is that you might not really want to hear the details that would be shared.  This is not violence on a screen, this is real.  

6. What was in the note?  Once again this is private.  Some people leave a note, and others don’t.  Some notes give detailed reasons, and others don’t.  To share a personal example, my husband worked on several versions of a note which I have.  In the end, the note I found was only for me and it was short and signed in a way only I understood.  The note doesn’t get shared with others for that reason.  

7. Please stay near your friend and family member. Now, more than anything, they will need you to be present.  They won’t need “fixing”, just lots of love and support.  

8. Please support them and remind them that while they may have the urge to make major life decisions, “now” might not be a good time to do so, and if a major life change has to happen before the first year is completed, be present to support it.  

Why is #8 important?  If you are in a place of dealing with trauma, the chances of making a good decision in your life is slim.  Staying in a routine can help to calm the eruption that is occurring during the first part of the process. When a volcanic eruption happens, you are in “fight or flight” and survival modes.  This means that cognitive functions might not be functioning as they need to in the realm of competent life choices. Offer to be a sounding board and sit with them to help them flesh out the “why” of the process.  

9. While there are no set stages to this process, there might be some feeling that are common to suicide.  Some of the most common feelings and emotions that arise are anger, guilt, shock, hurt,”if only I’d known”, and being stunned into inaction by what has happened.  This is normal. You don’t fix it; you listen to the survivor. In understanding this, you might also be better placed to listen as someone works through #8.  

10. Could this suicide have been stopped?  This might seem strange, or out of place, on a tips list.  It isn’t. I’ll share some things I learned from living with a man who was bipolar, and who’s ideas about why some people decide that suicide is an option, we’re discussed. 

People in emotional crisis need resources that work.  They need psychiatric, and other mental health people, to be fully present and fully willing to serve as holding containers for their pain.  The family and friends that surround them, need to be open to serious listening. For instance, I had to go to some very dark places with my husband.  It was going into these places that enabled me to understand the magnitude of the pain he was in. He had a workable cocktail and a great psychiatrist, and psychologist, who were extremely supportive.  It wasn’t enough. For this post it doesn’t need to be explained.  

One of the things he shared is that when the urge comes, it could be just that: an urge.  I would remove what he asked me to remove from the house and get him calmed down. Those three seconds of non-access to tools made all the difference for years.  He knew that I understood.  

I’m glad that places like NAMI and Suicide Prevention are around.  They do good work. I’m especially glad that they are present for children, adolescents, and those in early adulthood.  When the brain isn’t fully developed, understanding the consequences can be challenging, at best.  

I’ve said it often: no one should have to find the note or the body.  

The answer to the question above is complex.  The answer is no, not all suicides can be prevented.  There are several reasons why this is so. I’ll list them in no particular order. 

  • Lack of accessible resources
  • Lack of support, or ability to get to the resources
  • Undiagnosed mental issues that could have been treated had the person sought help
  • Family structures that are too rigid and do not tolerate outside assistance
  • Religious beliefs that prohibit mental health consumerism 
  • Lack of understanding by others of what the person is really dealing with 
  • The person masking the severity of the symptoms
  • Secrets that are thought to be so terrible that they can’t be shared with another person
  • Intense mental health issues that are so painful and untreatable that the only way out for that person is to end it
  • Uncontrollable impulsivity
  • Isolation that has gone on for decades

I’ve listed just a few of the reasons the person who completes their suicide chooses this route.  

I’d like to make a plea to the Western world.  Please do take the time to know your family and embrace them for who they are. Please recognize that while we can’t save anyone, we can support and help those within our reach.  A smile, a hug, sincere concern, and understanding go a long way to stopping the flood that causes so many to cross over and reach for whatever they have that will end it forever.  Please Do!  

Please Do! Death


As I was out walking today, I got to thinking about how many times I’ve been asked “What do I say? What do I do for someone who is experiencing grief?”  Those are great questions and as the words hit the screen I found this post one of the hardest I’ve ever written. Why? Read on and I’ll try to lay it all down for you. 

So, here goes! I’ll write from the first person perspective and you can consider my words as if they were also coming from others.  The catch? It isn’t so easy because pain is universally messy and anyone who says or thinks otherwise needs to rethink that view. However, I’m not trying to make this any more challenging than it is. 

Consider grief and loss as a complex process. 

We aren’t limited in our grief to the death of someone. A move, a change in schools, a friendship that goes bad, a failed relationship, an act of God that destroys everything you owned, a shift in belief, growing up and moving on: it is all part of the cycle of grief and loss. For this post we’ll journey with death.  

Please consider your feelings as you think of others who face the unthinkable in their lives.  Please credit them for facing what they are dealing with in their own way just as you do the same. Please consider their minds, hearts, souls, their physical needs, and the relationship you have with this person. 

You never know what will happen to you to set you on the path into grief and loss.  You never know how your life may suddenly transition along paths you thought you would never be walking.  

We as humans tend to think of ourselves as indestructible until we are well into adulthood and we still avoid the thoughts that it–whatever “it” may be–can, and will, at some point, happen to us.  When it does happen, we are caught ill-prepared. Few people think about the “what will I do if” scenario seriously. True, you might let your mind wander, but most people don’t really go there because we don’t want to think in those terms until it blows up in our face.  

I’ll admit that I was rare.  I was forced to think about it at age 14 and again at 16 when my younger sister underwent heart surgery.  I thought about her possible death and when it actually happened shortly after my high school graduation, I still wasn’t prepared for what actually happened.  But, having thought about it earlier, helped. Living through it was another thing entirely.  

Some handy things to know: 

The catch is that what might work for one person may not be the right thing for another person, so, with that in mind, I’m going to lay down some general guidelines, and a few specific things you can say, and do, for people in emotional pain after a death. 

The first rule is that we all miss those we care about.  To say that we will never think about them is an untruth.  We get through the process but we don’t, if we’re honest, ever get over it completely. No matter what you believe about death and an afterlife, we miss those we care about being with us! Yes, at some point in time we move forward, but that movement is a process.  It is normal and OK to miss and hold onto the memories. Someone just got removed from our life and whether it has been a life-long relationship, or a shorter one, that person is irreplaceable. This is why the “at least you can” comments, or the “God must have needed an angel” hurt so much.  Regardless, these people can’t be retrieved.  

Who we are is formed by our relationships.  Our memories, the love, the pain, what we’ve gained, or lost, by having them.  Death happens and we can’t replace that person. I won’t delve into the negative side of a loss.  I know; it exists.  

The next rule is: there are no other rules, because everyone’s grief and pain and journey look different.  So, the first big “to do” is to remember that there is no such thing as “fixing” someone’s grief. There is nothing wrong with anyone who is grieving that a good cry and lots of caring won’t help.  

Another thing you need to understand, is that humans can react like injured animals to grief, loss, and pain.  We might feel the need to defend our territory aggressively. Like an injured cat, or dog, it might be important to secure the wound/person in safety, and let them know you are aware of the loss they have experienced.  They still might snap and react. Stay calm, keep a cool head, and give them a wee bit of space. Don’t abandon them: tell them you are still with them.  

I know, now you might be saying “snap?”  (Any label might fit this behavior, but I’ll use “snapping” here)   I don’t think I want to deal with a snapping person. Why should I have to deal with snappy behavior?  You need to deal with it because at the core of pain, depression and uncontrollable reactions camp out like an ugly monster.  This monster is in attack mode until it understands that it can let down the defenses it has erected. Many times this is when people turn and leave, abandoning their family member, or friend.  Knowing why a person is reacting violently by displaying intense emotions toward you, is helpful. Hopefully they are also letting you see them in this state because they trust you enough to let you in to their space. Reserve judgement because you don’t know enough to have an opinion yet.  When they calm down, ask gentle questions. They’ve just let you into a dark and scary place and sympathy is needed here. Remember that empathy can allow reflection in a gentle manner. What both of you have just witnessed was powerful. You may both be sitting with strong emotions. Your reactions, both verbally and non-verbally, can be crucial here.     

Keep in mind that they might be triggered by something that they don’t understand yet.  Helping them by listening as they talk it out, will bring both of you closer to an understanding.  Remember, this is one of the things that friendship is all about. Remember, you aren’t there to fix anyone.  You are there to support and listen.   

Setting healthy boundaries is also helpful.  For instance: “I think that this is pretty scary for you and I can tell that you are showing it by snapping at me. But, please don’t snap at me.  I’m willing to sit here with you. I know you need someone to sit and hear the ______ that you are feeling and when you snap it causes me to want to back off.”  I actually had a friend remind me of this after I told him not to interrupt me. It was, for our relationship, the right thing to say and I was relieved that he could keep a cool head when my emotions and pain were tumbling out in ways that I would have rather not hurt him with.  At the time, things were raw, but I recognized that I did need what he offered me.  

Boundaries, set in a gentle manner, tell the person being heard that you will be patient with them, but are also needing to protect yourself so that the urge to leave when the hard stuff hits the fan, is safe for both of you.  

This next part is tricky.  In setting boundaries you may have to go to some places and hear some stuff you don’t want to hear.  If someone has to let a string of words fly that you don’t like to hear, sit with it. Sometimes the use of multi-letter words is shorthand for the stuff that, in the moment, the person can’t verbalize.  It buys some time to be able to return to the thought and rephrase it. Sometimes it is all someone has. Don’t set too rigid a boundary in this. Be tolerant.  

During the first days, or weeks, people are in hyper-sensitive mode.  Everything is a trigger. Relationships and boundaries get tested in new and horrible ways. This test can go on for weeks or months.  I’m not excusing awful behavior. I’m saying that you can gently set some healthy boundaries so you don’t feel like running away. You can do this by acknowledging the pain you may both be feeling.  The two of you are feeling it differently and there is no correct way to manage pain. It just is.   

For some people, the depression around their grief and pain hits them hard, and for others, it is a gentle, on-coming cloud.  They may, or may not, see it or feel it coming on. They might get defensive about it. Part of the defensive behavior is that they might not fully understand what they are dealing with.  This might be a huge first for them. Don’t try to fix it. Sit with it. Our feelings and thoughts with grief are’t always worked out quietly and gently. Trying to fix something disrupts the natural process of things.  

There are some helpful things to know in this process.   

Please tell me: 

Tell me you respect me for getting up every day and facing the nightmare I’m living. 

Tell me that you don’t understand, but that you want to understand, and mean it. Tell me this even if you’ve been through something similar.  I’ll tell you what it feels like for me. Most likely it will not feel, or be the same version of grief, loss or pain. 

Tell me that you will listen to my stories no matter how many times I need to talk about whatever it is I’m dealing with, and follow through with this promise.  I’ll move forward in my own way and in my own time. Don’t expect to see me on a schedule, because it doesn’t work that way.  

If it is OK with you, tell me I can call you when I’m in a bad place and then be there for me when I do get courageous and risk calling you. I’m not going to be in a good place, so you will need to drop what you are doing and create a safe place for me to let it all out. 

Tell me I can fall apart if I need to, and mean it.  

Tell me you will sit with me until….  This might mean different things to different people.  This sitting business is hard.  

Get curious

Sometimes what ails the soul needs exploring and understanding.  So ask if you can question me about what it is I’m struggling with.  Your healthy curiosity will cheer me on. I may, or may not, be desirous to share my experience with you.  Ask open-ended questions that require a sentence, paragraph or even a page to answer; be patient. Grief, loss, and pain aren’t contagious, so feel free to learn about what I’m willing to share.  The things I’m not willing to share might change over time, so be open to a changing landscape.  

This means that you might ask some very basic questions.  Tell me in advance that you are wanting to understand me, the pain I’m in, and you, just like me, are summoning up the courage and bravery to explore and learn.  Turn towards the unknown. As you face the pain with me I’ll still struggle but I won’t be as alone.  

Understand that when I’m alone I may still dissolve into a ball on my bed. I might shed tears that I can only cry in privacy.  This is normal and part of the healing process.  

Consider that the “first” of everything will be hard.  I don’t know how I’m going to feel, so ask if I want company on a holiday, birthday or anniversary.  If I say that I need to be alone, ask if there is anything that you can do to help ease the day. A simple phone call might do the trick. I might not be ready to do lunch, or anything in public.  Respect my wishes. On the flip side of this, keep me in the loop. I might be one of those people that need to know what’s going on in the world despite not being able to pull it together enough to get out. However, I might want to get out and then when I’m there, I find it was the wrong choice, so allow me to exit stage left gracefully.  

Sometimes someone’s struggles might require a meal 6 or 12 months after the grief has set in. (The grief might not set in for over a year)   Bad days come at different times. They are not predictable. This is also true for being able to provide self-care for oneself. While the thought might be appealing, the energy needed to actually pull off the self-care might be lacking.  Making the coffee, or tea, and cleaning up the mess is a huge help. Running the bath water for the much-needed soak, and cleaning up the mess might be necessary.

Sometimes the person can tolerate reading, or being read to, and other times, the sensory overload is way too much for them.  It is the same with music. This is not abnormal. The brain can get messed up during this process, so be gentle and sensitive.  

Fixing me and fixing “it” doesn’t work 

Fixing me or fixing it–whatever the “it” is–can’t be done, so instead, learn to sit with the ugly pain and uncertainty that the ugly pain brings to our doorsteps.  I think it is the idea and desire to fix the pain that someone is feeling that leads to all those “don’t say this articles” as those comments, no matter how well meaning, cut like sharp knives and cause deep wounds to be opened. If you want to offer reassurance, offer the reassurance that you will walk with someone through their grief and pain for however long it takes.  Saying something like, “get over it”, and other comments like it, tells the hearer of the comment that you are wanting to fix it and rush them through a process that can’t, and shouldn’t be rushed. “Fixing it” is more about your needs.. I think this is also one of the reasons why “at least” and “they are in a better place” comments are so unwanted. While it might reassure the person who says it, such things are insensitive to the loss that is on the surface.  If feels like a fix, and “I need you to exit your grief and get back to the way things were” kind of thing. Things won’t ever be the way they were. 

What do I say? 

Start with, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m really sorry that this has happened in your life.

I can’t imagine what this is like for you. I’m bringing dinner over tonight/ tomorrow.”  (hen show up, no excuses!

Make this about the grieving person.  Ask about sharing memories of the deceased.  Many times people hold back about this. Sometimes when people lose someone, they want to know about the things that others remember and reminisce.  There is a desire to share what we loved about them. “Gone” doesn’t mean it’s a taboo subject. “Gone” can mean that the need to remember is vital and it should be present in our relationships.  

Sometimes it’s actually the “doing” of something.  One of the hardest things for widows, or widowers, to do is to grocery shop.  There is something about roaming the aisles that sets the mind, the memories, and the grief flowing in ways that nothing else does.  Maybe it’s all the stuff they loved to eat, or the fact that you won’t be fixing it any more for them. Maybe it is all the stimulus going by that causes people to abandon grocery carts and head for their cars without having purchased anything.  The cupboards may remain bare. So, offering to help with the shopping might be useful. Offering support for this task might be just what is needed, but then again, it might not be easy for the person to tell you what they want and need. It might be helpful to go with them and have a list, so if they need to leave they can, and you can finish the job for them.  

Keep in mind that it is embarrassing to have laundry pile up and not take out the trash.  Offering to help with this, if you know them well, might really hit the spot. Brew up the tea, or coffee, or whatever it is they are drinking, and let them relax.  The fact is, a cleaned up space can help them relax. Actions count!  

There is so much, but I think I’ll leave the reader with this parting shot: you can’t fix it, replace it, or rush it.  Speak words of gentleness and care. If the words don’t contain your own need for fixing, replacing, or rushing of the process, you are on the right track.