September 24, 2017
From Ann Kirkwood, Youth Suicide Intervention Coordinator, Oregon Health Authority
For families and friends of individuals who die by suicide, grief and trauma are expected as they grapple with the unanswered questions surrounding a tragic death.
- Why did my loved one kill themselves?
- Why didn’t I see the signs?
- What should I have done differently?
Answers to these questions will never be completely known. This leaves the “bereavement survivor” left with nagging self-blame and questions that can last a lifetime. Survivors who witness the suicide or its aftermath are victims of additional trauma.
Those left behind may experience shock, anger, guilt, despair, confusion, and feelings of rejection. These are normal reactions to his heart-wrenching event.
At the same time, individuals who attempt suicide but do not die are often traumatized by the experience.
- They may be frightened by their thoughts and actions and afraid they will return sometime in the future.
- They may avoid certain locations or circumstances that remind them of the dark period.
- They may avoid individuals who they somehow link to the episode.
For both “bereavement survivors” and “attempt survivors,” the risk of a future suicide is elevated. This lived experience brings with it trauma reactions and abiding grief. They may experience complex trauma and post-traumatic symptoms. They may experience nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal, and loss of interest in usual activities.
Working through the questions and the trauma and getting support can lead to recovery and new hope for the future. For many, recovery may mean eventually getting involved in suicide prevention as an advocate or a peer.
How do I talk to someone who’s lost a friend or loved one to suicide or who has attempted suicide?
Suicide risk is high for anyone who has attempted suicide or lost a loved one to suicide. Risk is highest in the year following the death, but many people kill themselves many years later. Tips for responding to a friend who has attempted suicide or grieves the loss of someone who died:
- Treat the death like any other. Send cards, flowers, attend the memorial, bring a casserole, and reach out as you normally would to include the individual in social events. Don’t just stop because they say “no” at first.
- Don’t worry about “what am I going to say?” Just sitting quietly with the person is comforting. Tell them that you care about them.
- Listen to their story. Don’t try to “fix” them.
- Don’t demand they “snap out of it” in a period of time that makes sense to you. People grieve in different ways and over different times.
- Avoid debating the value of life, minimizing their problems, or giving advice. Don’t speak in platitudes—listen instead.
The Dougy Center in Portland is a worldwide leader in grief support. Support groups for adults, teens and children are offered. Tip sheets to help adults talk to suicide about traumatic deaths are available.
Support groups for loss survivors are available in many Oregon communities. Some of those groups are identified at Suicide Bereavement Support Inc. Also inquire locally to see if there is a grief support group nearby.
Information to support individuals with lived experience is available from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Lines for Life is a crisis hotline that can provide support to people who have experienced the death of a friend or loved one or to people who have attempted suicide: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)