Supporting friends and family

Holding peoples hands at a table

Supporting friends and family

Providing support to those bereaved by suicide is key to helping them to cope and recover – survivors often express a strong sense of isolation and feeling alone at a time when they are hurting and vulnerable.

You may not have been affected by the death yourself or you may be both grieving yourself and having to support others at the same time. It is important to look after yourself so that you can support others.

Sometimes the bereaved find it difficult to accept help, they may push you away and become more isolated as a result. Be persistent, thoughtful and patient – as the months pass they will need more and more support, not less and less.

Old couple hugging out of focus on a sofa, with cups in foreground
Talking about suicide

It is always difficult to know what to say to support people who are grieving and this seems to be especially difficult when talking about suicide. The bereaved themselves may not be comfortable talking about it. It is a subject which still carries a considerable amount of stigma.

Don’t avoid making contact because you don’t know what to say or because you are worried about upsetting them; they have already been through a terrible experience and avoiding them now only adds to their hurt. Remember that communicating isn’t just about words – making eye contact, offering a handshake or a hug can convey far more support than well rehearsed words. Once you open up the opportunity, you may find you do not need to do much talking – simply listening to the bereaved person and giving them the space to talk is exactly what is needed. Here are some ways that can make it easier to talk with people about what has happened:

  • Allow the person to be in the moment and experience what they are going through – don’t try to distract them away from thinking about the person who has died or focus on the future. Even though is it painful, they need to experience it.
  • Be reassuring and supportive – let their words be your guide. They have the right to feel the way that they do.
  • Don’t try to explain or rationalise what has happened. We sometimes do this as a way to try and lessen the sense of distress but the bereaved need to be supported as they work out their own answers.
  • Focus on the loss of the person rather than how they died. When the moments are right, share positive memories – this can be very comforting
  • Avoid the term “committed suicide” as this has the connotation of a criminal act – “took their life” or “died by suicide” are better phrases.
  • Be prepared – they may be experiencing a bewildering array of powerful emotions all at once. They may need to repeat themselves or go through patterns of feelings several times in order to make sense of them. They may contradict themselves or act out of character, avoid making judgements about how they are behaving or what they are saying.

Sometime people make remarks, perhaps well intended but which can be very upsetting – for example “at least you have other children”, “you’ll meet someone else”, “I know how you are feeling” or “you need to move on”.

Ways you can support

In addition to talking with and listening to the bereaved person, there are other ways that you can show your support:

  • Ask what you can do to help. It may help to make specific offers – focus on what obviously needs to be done such as babysitting, making a meal, shopping, cleaning, making phone calls etc. Routine tasks may be neglected by those who are grieving. As time progresses there may be other activities you can support them with particularly if they may be having trouble thinking clearly in e.g. arranging the funeral, reviewing finances etc.
  • Attend the funeral and any other occasion such as a memorial service. Your presence will make a difference.
  • Ask if they would like your support during the investigation and inquest process – this is often one of the biggest concerns for those bereaved by suicide.
  • Keep any promises that you make – disappointment can destroy the best of intentions.
  • Remember that the grieving and recovery process is long and complex – don’t stop with offers of support once the funeral is over. Even the odd phone call can go a long way to make people feel that they still matter.
  • Support them in taking things at their own pace – there will be plenty of other people around them who may be urging them to “get back to normal”.
  • Remember key dates such as anniversaries and holidays – get in contact and ask if they would like to do something or if they would like some company on these days.
  • Be aware of some of the support services that are available to them. Never force them or sign them up for something without their permission but if the time is right and you think it is appropriate you can make them aware of the possibilities.
  • Be aware of prolonged symptoms of grief or depression and encourage them to seek help from their GP if you are concerned.
  • Be aware of your own energy, emotions and health – supporting someone else can be tiring or challenging – particularly if you are grieving yourself. Ensure that you find appropriate support for yourself – we can only help others if we look after ourselves.