Here in America, we have close to 50,000 people a year who die by suicide. The majority of whom were struggling with a mental illness, either a diagnosed condition or acknowledged depression.
Think of this, a person has to be in a very low state of mind to actually take their own life. So whether a person is on mental health medication or not, we would be hard pressed to argue that one was in perfect mental health at the time of their suicide.
It is truly a very low place to be to have no inkling of hope for the future because that place also means that one sees no redemption or positive in their past.
So here, I want to briefly share some tips about talking to survivors of a suicide, like a family or a workforce or a church or a classroom or whatever organization you may need to address.
• Mental Health – Know that things go wrong with the brain like they do with any other organ of the body. Also know that the grief the survivors are going through are just like an unexpected death from any other disease, except suicide carries a little more cultural baggage.
• Cultural Baggage – By cultural baggage I mean that the survivors may also be dealing with a sense of shame or guilt if their own personal frame of reference includes issues regarding suicide. An example is some religious traditions that teach suicide is an automatic ticket to hell. If it’s a Bible based religion that baggage can easily be dispensed with by pointing out that Hebrews 11 lists a person who died by suicide as an example of a saint.
• What to Say – It’s always tough to know what to say. Actually, saying anything isn’t important when survivors are in grief, just being present with them is what speaks to a person in grief. Be there to listen and to hear their heart but not to adjust them or correct things. Love on them – period. Simply say, “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I am so sorry about this” or “I am so sorry about ________.”
• Speak to Emotions – If you want to or need to say more than just “sorry” remember this: speak to emotions not to facts. It’s always best to express your simple emotion and/or their simple emotion. It’s fine to express something like this, “I know this has got to be horrible to go through” or “This must be tough for you” and of course it is always good to add that you will be praying for them as they go through it, but also let them know that you will be there to listen and help and you may be able to help.
• What Not to Say – Understand that whatever you may choose to say to loved ones or coworkers or the people that survived the suicide, are things that will impact them, not you. If you say “They are in a better place now” that disregards their grief and the aftermath of the death. They are not in a better place and when you say “They are in a better place” you are only reminding them that they are not. Don’t say “I understand what you are going through” unless you have experienced the exact same thing in the exact same way and with the exact same relationship at the exact same timing of age and date. Don’t let your curiosity tempt you to ask offensive questions like, “How did it happen?” or “Did you see it happen?” or ask about other details. They don’t need another police interrogation, but they need a friend to listen.
• Thoughts of Suicide – I think it’s worth mentioning that having thoughts of suicide is normal and not the same as planning for suicide. Thinking about what would be the result of committed suicide is good way to decide against it. Thoughts regarding suicide are as normal as thoughts about the results of dying in a car accident or by a disease. Making plans for suicide or finding yourself obsessed with suicide is a sure signal to get help.
• Workforce Suicides – If are a supervisor having to address your employees after a suicide, answer the two questions that they may not be able to verbalize, “Why didn’t help?” and “What if that was me?” Let your employees know that they don’t have to beat themselves up for not being able to help. Their coworker committed suicide they didn’t murder them. It was his/her’s own choice to end whatever pain they sought to escape. Let your employees know that they are valuable as people and that you understand that not all problems can be left at the door, but express your openness to help should anyone in the future find themselves in the same situation.