How to Help Someone Who Lost a Loved One?

February 2, 2018

There is a common estimate that every suicide leaves six survivors who are the people most affected by the death. Not to be confused with survivors of suicide attempts who have taken action to end their own lives, suicide survivors or suicide loss survivors are friends or family members of the person who died by suicide. According to the latest calculations, six is too low an estimate; 115 people are thought to be exposed each time a suicide occurs.

Suicide loss survivors themselves are at increased risk for future mental health conditions and suicide. One study found that people who knew someone who died by suicide in the previous year were 1.6 times more likely to have suicidal ideation, 2.9 times more likely to make a suicide plan, and 3.7 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who did not know someone who died by suicide.

Family members may be genetically predisposed to suicide, while friends and peers may be influenced by the behavior of the person who died by suicide – or be haunted by the “emotional devastation left behind after suicide,” says Dr. John R. Jordan, a clinical psychologist in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and author of several books and articles on bereavement after suicide.

To address this increased risk, experts in the suicide field practice an approach called post-suicide prevention.” [Clinical psychologist] Edwin Shneidman coined the term to mean what we do after a suicide has occurred to help those who have lost a survivor and to help them reduce their risk of suicide,” says Jordan.

Prevention strategies can include professional measures, like therapy sessions or meetings with support groups. But help can also come from family and friends. If you know someone who is a survivor of a recent suicide loss, here are expert recommendations on how you can help.

“Even though that is changing, suicide is still a very stigmatizing death,” says Jordan.” Losing someone to suicide can be tremendously isolating. Many people either don’t know anyone or don’t know they know someone” who is close to someone who has died by suicide, he says. Help break down these walls of isolation by being there for your friend or family member.

Kim Ruocco’s husband died by suicide in 2005. He was a Marine Corps pilot returning from what she described as a “pretty difficult deployment” to Iraq, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Their sons were 8 and 10 years old at the time.

Ruocco, who has a master’s degree in social work and is now the vice president of suicide prevention and prevention for the Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors, said she takes comfort from people simply being around her.” The people who were most helpful to me could be there for me, tolerate my pain, and not have to say anything.” She said.” There really aren’t the right words, but it’s really comforting to have someone who can go through that much pain with you.”

Transferring Responsibility
Grief is never easy, but grief after suicide can be especially complicated, says Dr. Mara Pheister, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who has conducted research on suicide prevention and post-suicide prevention.” There’s a sense that it’s a little different than the grief typically involved in losing someone. There can be a lot of guilt, a lot of what ifs,” she said.

Because survivors of suicide loss may already be blaming themselves for not doing something different, like, “How could you not have known?” Or “Why didn’t you stop him?” Such comments are particularly unhelpful, Dr. Pheister said.” It’s not something that needs to be said.”

Other survivors may be struggling to overcome a sense of blame around what turned out to be their final interaction or conversation with the deceased, Ruocco added. She says, “Help them understand that suicide is a multifactorial event that comes together on a kind of ‘perfect storm’ of a day.” And encourage them to try to let go of that sense of guilt.

Let them decide how many details to share.
While talking about suicide can be uncomfortable and scary, avoiding the topic altogether can make suicide survivors feel like you’re pretending nothing happened. Don’t be shy about talking about suicide – but don’t pry for details either. Listen to how survivors talk about it, and take tips from them.” If they want to talk about it, be there for them,” says Dr. Pheister.” It depends on what the person themselves feels like bringing up and what they can talk about.”

That includes how you talk about the person’s death, Ruocco said.” The words everyone wants to use when relating to the death of a loved one are different,” she said.” Listen carefully to how survivors talk about the death and use those words.”

When in doubt, ask for guidance. Say something like, “I can only try to imagine what this would be like for you . Would it be helpful for you to talk to me, or would you rather not talk about it?” Jordan said. Regardless of how they respond, treat the person with compassion, just as you would treat anyone who is grieving the death of a loved one, he said.


Celebrate this person’s life
Put aside your curiosity about how this person died and instead share stories of how they lived. Interesting stories about her husband or memories she may not have heard before are most gratifying, Ruocco says.

“Use the names of their loved ones, remember who they were before they struggled with any of their issues, and acknowledge that death doesn’t define them,” says Ruocco.” It’s very helpful to talk about the life they lived.”

Reassure survivors that what they are feeling is normal.
In addition to the guilt survivors may feel, Dr. Pheister said, there may be grief, self-doubt, anger, helplessness and a variety of other completely normal reactions.” Depending on how much the person [who died by suicide] is struggling, the survivor may [also] feel relief, which then induces more guilt,” she says. You can help them by reinforcing that these and many other emotions are within the range of normal reactions to suicide loss. For example, help them “recognize that relief is a natural response to stress elimination,” says Dr. Pheister.

Dr. Pheister says talking about how a person is feeling – and that it’s OK to feel that way – may help avoid some self-judgment and self-doubt.

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Help them come to terms with their grief
Survivors usually expect to grieve for a set amount of time and then get over it, Ruocco says, which isn’t always the case.” Grief and loss become part of who you are; people grieve their entire lives,” she says.

Over time, the grief can certainly become less painful – but it may still linger, she said. She advises survivors to think about it in some more positive light.” Grief is love. You grieve because you’ve loved someone. Think of it as a connection to a loved one.”