DEAR DOCTOR K:
My friend’s son recently committed suicide. What can I do to support her during this awful time?
More than 30,000 Americans die by suicide each year, leaving behind devastated family and friends. That’s about one out of every 10,000 people in the United States.
To some extent, someone who loses a family member to suicide suffers a loss similar to that as if the person had suffered another type of unexpected or violent death, such as a heart attack, car accident or drowning.
But people who lose a family member to suicide have additional challenges. These may include shame, which is reinforced by society’s attitude about suicide. They may also struggle with guilt over whether they could have prevented the death, if only they had done something different.
One of the most important things you can do is to offer your support and compassion. Because suicide carries a stigma, some friends and family may back away, unsure what to do or say. Your simply being there will help.
Here are some more specific suggestions for supporting survivors of suicide loss:
- Normalize the grief. Encourage your friend to engage in the same rituals she would use to grieve any death. For example, she might hold a memorial service. Remind her that suicide is a tragic outcome of depression or another mental illness. In that way, it is similar to death by heart attack, which may result from cardiovascular disease.
The stigma of suicide may come from the blame that some attach to the mental illness that leads to suicide. For some people, mental illness is a character flaw, a personal weakness. They don’t see it as I and many doctors see it, as a physical illness that is caused by disordered brain chemistry. Influenced by life events, surely, but at root a physical illness like the atherosclerosis that causes a heart attack.
- Ease guilt. It may help to remind your friend that even mental health professionals cannot predict when such a death might occur — not to mention that we have very little control over someone else’s behavior. Encourage your friend to consider therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy and support groups can all help sort through the barrage of emotions that she is experiencing.
- Support openness. Encourage your friend to talk about her son. Let her know you are there to listen to any details about him, and about his death, that she is comfortable sharing.
- Plan ahead. Assist your friend in finding ways to mark (or simply get through) her son’s birthday, family holidays or other milestones.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends against using the verb “commit” when talking about suicide. That’s because this word is often used to connote criminal or sinful behavior. I’ve purposely used phrases such as “die by suicide” to avoid further stigmatizing this type of death.