Speaking from Experience: Tips from a Suicide Survivor

As a long-term survivor, if this letter helps even one person who genuinely wishes to comfort someone on the loss of a loved one to suicide, it will have been worth my time to write it.  Each situation is different, and the following applies only to my personal experience.

Refrain from judging, offering an explanation, or saying something insensitive.  If you realize your mistake, apologize, forgive yourself, and move forward.  The Bible tells us that the power of life and death is in the tongue, so, think before you speak.  My comfort came from those who said that they did NOT understand, but who were a quiet, calming presence, especially from the initial shock on the day of the death, to the post-funeral days, weeks, and months ahead.

Don’t assume that food is the answer.  I was raised in a waste-conscious home, so, as the abundance of food increased from well-meaning folks and most of us barely ate because we were running on adrenaline, trying to figure out what to do with leftovers caused more stress.  I would suggest checking with the family to see if there’s something they need or want, or, inviting them to dinner in the future.           

Once the funeral is over and the survivors remain to “pick up the pieces” is when your friendship is needed the most.  There will be many emotional ups and downs, and it is a relief when friends remain consistent in how they interact with the survivor.  Sharing stories about the survivor’s loved one often leads to laughter and healing, and it is imperative that the survivor hears about what is happening in the life of her friends.  It gives hope and is a reminder that life doesn’t exist in one small vacuum.   

If you tell the survivor you are willing to listen if she needs to talk about the circumstances, be sure you mean it, as you may discover unexpected details of the suicide that you may not be prepared to hear.  

Not everyone who loses a loved one to suicide requires professional help.  Our likeminded Christian relatives and friends were the greatest support system and remain so to this day.  I never joined a support group because I couldn’t say for certain that I would want to talk about it on the fourth Tuesday of the month, for example.  Also, I do not have children, so, even as a survivor, I would never attempt to console a person on the loss of his/her child. 

I once heard a “professional” make a general statement that a suicide survivor shouldn’t tell her story in a way that makes it seem like it “happened yesterday”.  I was correct when I suspected that the person was not a survivor, as she did not comprehend the unexpected wave of emotion that may be triggered by a memory or by someone who reminds the survivor of her loved one, regardless of how much time has passed.  (This is not to be confused with PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)  We need to stop the stigma and realize that it takes courage for others to share their stories, especially with an audience!

One of the nicest things anyone did for us was when our Niagara County Coroner/Funeral Director sent a crocheted snowflake ornament with an “In Loving Memory” tag that read, “Individuals, like snowflakes, have distinct characteristics…no two are the same”.  It currently hangs in my bedroom.

Our family was blessed with an outpouring of love and support that continued throughout the years.  Not everyone who is faced with the devastation of suicide is this fortunate.  Reach out, cast fear aside, be yourself, and love unconditionally those who need you to make a difference!  Someone is waiting.

by Ann Weaver.

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