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What to Say (and Not to Say) to Someone Grieving a Suicide

Suicide can leave the survivors with anger, confusion and guilt, and even well-intentioned words can cause pain.

By Gayle Brandeis

It can be hard to know what to say to a person in the thicket of grief; when someone is grieving a loved one’s suicide, the right words — any words, even — can feel all the more elusive and fraught. Suicide can leave survivors racked with anger, confusion and guilt, and in this state, sometimes even well-intentioned words can hurt.

I reached out to Debbie Posnien, executive director of the Suicide Prevention Network based in Minden, Nev., for advice. “Don’t say ‘I understand what you’re going through.’ Unless you truly do,” she said.

This resonated deeply. A few days after my mother took her life in 2009, my husband shuttled me and our newborn to our first postpartum/postnatal checkup. I was still reeling from the news of my mom’s suicide; she had died when the baby was 1 week old. I wasn’t sleeping; I could barely speak; it was hard to convince myself to leave the house for the checkup — every nerve in my body was on edge, braced for the next disaster.

Our midwife’s assistant led us to the cozy exam room in our midwife’s home, and offered me a glider chair. I couldn’t keep the tears at bay as I sat down; I leaked tears and milk as I slid the chair back and forth, clutching the baby to my breast for dear life. The assistant sighed and said “I know just how you feel. My ex had a heart attack last week.”

She hadn’t talked to him in years, she said. My mother had yelled at me over the phone hours before she died.

“You don’t know how I feel; you don’t know how I feel,” I started chanting in my head. By the time the midwife entered the room, I was inconsolable.

Ms. Posnien’s words helped me see what had bothered me that day — as much as I knew my midwife’s assistant was hurting, too, and trying to find connection, she didn’t truly understand what I was going through; I felt unseen in the complexity of my fresh grief.

“Don’t place value judgments on the suicide, such as ‘It was a selfish choice, a sin, an act of weakness, or a lack of faith or love or strength,’” Ms. Posnien said.

Tracy Roberts, a writer who lost her sister to suicide, explored this in her essay “Suicide Etiquette”: “After Amy killed herself,” she writes, “someone said, by way of comforting me, ‘Suicide is the coward’s way out.’ Besides being an inane truism, this pronouncement indicted the sister I was mourning. How was that supposed to console?”

I’ve had people say similar things to me, and while I appreciate that their comments were coming from a good (and devastated) place, such judgments made me feel defensive and all the more anxious and bereft.

Ms. Posnien also recommends not putting a timeline on the loss survivor’s grief. “Healing after a suicide loss is a lifelong journey,” she said. Comments like “‘This too shall pass,’ and ‘You need to move on’ can make the loss survivor feel pressured to ‘get over it.’”

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers similar adviceabout how to talk to suicide loss survivors. One tip I appreciated was “Do not assign or imply blame.”

They write: “Suicide loss survivors often place blame on themselves. Be careful not to say things or ask questions that might suggest they’re responsible for the suicide, whether directly or indirectly.”

I blamed myself for my mom’s suicide for years, wondering whether I could have done or said anything that would have led to a different outcome. It was only when an adult student in a writing course I taught left a folded note left on my desk saying, simply, “It was not your fault,” that I finally started to release my feelings of culpability.

While it can be tricky to know what to say to a suicide loss survivor, it is much better to reach out than to hold back out of fear of saying the wrong thing. A simple note, a simple gesture, can make a huge difference. “It was not your fault” is something many suicide loss survivors need to hear over and over and over again, as is “You are not alone.”

And a suicide loss survivor is not alone, even though it may feel that way when one is grieving; suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and the World Health Organization estimates that one million people take their lives worldwide each year. Often, the greatest gift you can provide to a survivor is your own presence.