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 post is about what I call “the death bubble” bursting and making a mess. Oh, what a mess a traumatic death can be! And 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 of them 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 authorities in the area the person resided in still place 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.
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 playdates, 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, 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. 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 feelings 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 discussed his ideas about why some people decide that suicide is an option.
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 (National Alliance on Mental Illness) 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 above is complex. 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 everyone, 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.