Grief is a process that the bereaved must go through whenever a loved one has passed. And although no life is a greater loss than another, the manner that one dies can have a major impact on how family and friends deal with death.
People tend to handle death better if it was expected. But in unexpected cases such as a fatal car accident, freak accident or intentional incident, it can take quite a while to get passed the shock.
Just as there are appropriate words to use in every situation, especially when someone is grieving, there are inappropriate words to tell someone who has lost their loved one to a complicated death as suicide.
As someone who lost a brother to suicide during my teenage years, I have been on the receiving side of insensitive or to be blunt, ignorant “words of comfort”.
A couple of phrases that just touched the root of my nerves were:
“He is in a better place…”
“You have other brothers…”
“You will get over it…”
“You have to move on…”
I recall feeling the jagged edge cut from their words stab into the core of my soul. They crushed my spirit. They broke my heart that I thought could not be further damaged.
“Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4, NLT).
Knowledge, wisdom and understanding have to be used when talking to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. Criticism, judgment or even cruelty is not what people need to receive when they are trying to go through the process of grieving, while trying to make sense of the cause of death.
On this past World Suicide Prevention Day, I had the opportunity to connect with others who had lost loved ones to suicide. Some losses were recent and others were years and even decades ago. But the pain was the same. Not the same in the sense that it affected everyone the exact same way, but that regardless of the time of death, pretty much everyone still felt the same sting of hurt, confusion and a bit of disbelief.
It was comforting and supportive for all participants to have a safe place to admit true feelings without judgment.
Let me address some of the common phrases people use when they try to offer support to the bereaved affected by a death by suicide and why they cause more harm by noting relevant things that are needed.
- Practical Support. If you use the wrong words either intentional or unintentional, they are not received as you being supportive. Regardless of your personal beliefs about suicide or lack of understanding, you must remember that this situation is not about you. Bereaved family and friends need to receive your authentic support. If this is not from a good or healthy place, you are not the person to be a part of their support system.
- Faith Support. The theme of my book of memoirs, “Keeping My Faith While Saving My Mind” is how one’s faith does not have to be a barrier when dealing with mental health or suicide. If you are a person of faith, a Christian believer, do not try to use Bible verses out of context to explain something you do not understand. Do not try to condemn a person who has lost their life to suicide and make those left behind feel shameful about their loved one or feel bitter towards God. Trust me, family members will eventually have their own Job conversation with God. Your role as a believer is to remind them that God still cares about them and He is available to comfort them through this difficult time.
- Emotional Support. Remember that grief is a process and everyone does not maneuver through the steps the same way. Allow the bereaved the flexibility to actually grieve. Do not try to rush or dismiss their emotions. Let them be able to verbalize what they are feeling during every stage of grief. Suicide is a difficult death to understand. It is normal for family members to be in denial, to be angry, and to avoid acceptance. Telling them to just ‘move on’ is not giving them the emotional support needed.
A few words or phrases to avoid:
- “Committed suicide” deems the death as a criminal act. Again, this is not the time to add your personal or spiritual beliefs to condemn. Your goal is to offer support.
- Stay away from the general cliches used like “I know how you feel”, “God makes no mistakes” or “Time will heal. Even when there are truth to cliches, remember that it may not be the appropriate time to state them.
- Avoid judgmental statements like, “That was such a cowardly act”, “Only a weak-minded person would kill themselves” or “How could anyone just leave their family that way?”
If you have lost a loved one to suicide, what were actions or words used that gave you support?