If your desire is to support a fellow human in grief, you must create a “safe place” for people to embrace their feelings of profound loss… It is the open heart that allows you to be truly present to another human being’s intimate pain.
-Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers
Because of my work with Survivors of Suicide here in Kalamazoo, I was recently asked to contribute to a report on teen suicide. I was surprised and grateful for the opportunity – we tend to hear a lot about suicide awareness and prevention in the media, but the aspect of grief and loss following a suicide death is often overlooked. How can we – as friends, family, and community members – offer support to people who are grieving this type of loss?
The support that most survivors need is not really so different from what any grieving person needs – in short: non-judgmental listening and respect for their individual experience of grief. What sets suicide death apart is the stigma that we often attach to it.
My work as a grief counselor is necessary because we live in a grief avoidant society. We will all encounter death in our lives – our friends will die, our family members will die, and we, ourselves, will die. Notice how that statement sits with you. If you’re like most people, you want to get as far away from it as possible. Likewise, when one of our loved ones is suffering in grief, we want them to get as far away from it as possible. We don’t want them to hurt, and so we say things like, “he’s in a better place now”, “time heals all wounds”, “it’s time to move on”. Or worse, we avoid the topic altogether, working to distract our loved one from their pain.
With suicide loss, this avoidance is amplified. While we are slowly making progress in awareness and understanding of mental health issues, unfortunately, our society still places a stigma on mental illness and suicide. Our collective shame around this topic keeps us from talking about it – when talking about it is often what is most helpful.
The kindest gift we can give survivors is to listen without judgment. Don’t give advice. Don’t interject with your own history of loss. Don’t distract with platitudes. Listen. Let the mourner teach you about what grief is like for her. Allow her to cry, get angry, express feelings of guilt – don’t take those away from her. Bear witness. Hold space.
In order to heal and integrate loss, we must turn toward our grief.
Feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame, and relief are all normal reactions to losing a loved one to suicide. We hurt because we love – and sometimes we hurt for a long time. Again, trust the mourner’s innate ways of moving through grief. We each have our own timelines. Experiencing grief is part of our life’s journey. Tears and rage are part of that process of reconciling the loss of someone we hold dear.
Beyond listening and holding non-judgmental space for the mourner’s experience, we can also support healthy coping behaviors and encourage remembrance of the person who has died. Bereavement affects us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Helping to provide healthy meals and encouraging extra rest are ways that we can nourish those who are hurting. Remembering the deceased is also important, especially at this time. Say their name. Express your own sorrow for the loss. “I really miss John, too. I remember the camping trips we used to take when we were kids,” or, “Mary was such a good storyteller. Do you remember when she had us laughing so hard about…?” Sharing memories and talking about the person who has died are the ways that we establish our relationships with them in death – no longer a physical relationship, but one of memory.
If you, yourself, are grieving a loss, turn toward the people in your life who can support your mourning process – and allow yourself some space from those who can’t. While people are generally well-meaning, encouraging you to move on or minimizing your feelings of grief are ways that they are coping, not ways of helping you. Find friends or family who can hold space, or seek out a counselor or support group where your process is honored.
If you are a Survivor of Suicide and are seeking support, there are resources available. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has a wealth of information online. In the Kalamazoo area, Gryphon Place hosts both open drop-in and closed session support groups. You may also consider contacting a grief counselor for individual support.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741. In Kalamazoo, Allegan, Van Buren, Berrien and Cass counties, you can also call 269-381-HELP (381-4357) to reach a local volunteer.