By Brad Hearst
Over the last nearly four years I’ve heard just about everything when it comes to “speaking” to a suicide loss survivor. Some have been insightful while others have been complete counseling BS only perpetuating the stigma of suicide. Let me be the first to explain you can simply talk to us. Survivors of a suicide loss are not looking for your pity or even sympathy in most cases. Yes, we more than likely just suffered one of the most traumatic losses of our lives, but we just want to be treated like a normal member of society. Unfortunately, there are no rules when speaking to us because each one of our losses is different. With that being said let’s dive into a few of the most commonly stated approaches that need to be reevaluated.
While not all blogs, articles, and books I’ve read have been entirely wrong it seems that a majority inspire a sensitive approach that make survivors feel more awkward than comforted. As I stated earlier you can simply talk to us. By taking out the white gloves and altering your ordinary conversation pattern you are doing nothing more than emphasizing the fact that you are uncomfortable. Which in turn makes us more uncomfortable. Just having someone to listen without censorship, sit with us quietly as we cry or distract us from reality for a little bit is what we really need.
One statement that is drastically overused is, “avoid saying I understand.” The theory behind this is that each suicide is different so thus each loss is different. No one goes through the same grief process. As a result, it is impossible to understand that persons situation. This can be said with a lot of life scenarios. We are all raised different, come from different backgrounds and view the world through a unique set of eyes but we still find a way to relate. I agree it would be extremely difficult to understand someone’s loss 100% in full. On the other hand, it is possible to understand a good percentage of what a new survivor is going through if you are a survivor yourself.
One of the most comforting times of my grief process was meeting someone who went through a similar loss because they did understand. How did I know they understood? They said the words, “I understand” and were then able to relate their own experience to what I was going through. It is the biggest reason Survivors Joining for Hope strives to introduce survivors to one another. It gives a sense of belonging. After being impacted by suicide each survivor automatically becomes part of a larger family that none of us wanted to be a part of. Having that companion to relate to is key to feeling whole again.
There is an explicit point that is repeatedly conferred that I do agree should be evaded. It is the most common question everyone wants answered after discovering someone passed away to suicide. I’m sure if you think for just a moment you could come up with it yourself. It is asking specifics around how the person passed away. Whether you are speaking directly with the family or a distant friend it can be difficult to relive that moment and injecting the images of their loved one’s last moments can be tremendously distressing. Whether it was a recent loss or has been years that question can hand deliver someone back to day one.
Overtime that information will be divulged either directly or indirectly. There are to many avenues of communication to keep it a secret. I recently worked with a family who had just been impacted. It was a normal conversation just a few days after their loss. I didn’t ask or direct the conversation towards the form of passing but it naturally came out.
No prying or directive.
Each survivor needs to say the words out loud at some point during their grief process. It could be in the first couple days or years down the road. No matter the timeframe I’d implore you to just give them time and be patient. Knowing the specifics surrounding their loved ones passing won’t change the situation and forcing a survivor to discuss it before their ready can be crushing.
Survivors of suicide are no different than anyone else who just lost a loved one. It does not matter if they passed away of natural causes, a terminal disease or by accident we are still humans looking to be part of this world. We still must go to work, pay bills and continue fighting every day. Word censorship, the white glove approach, and avoiding recollection of understanding are all common techniques that are shared throughout our community that do nothing more than preserve the stigma of suicide. Avoiding them will help put us one step closer to crushing it.