If you are considering suicide, seek help immediately. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also a Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.
Two Sundays ago I had the privilege of speaking at a forum in a congregation that had just experienced the loss of a member by suicide. While mental health struggles are always common in the US, with COVID we are seeing a rise in depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use, and insomnia. Over the coming weeks, I will be addressing mental health concerns as we all strive to maintain our mental, physical, and spiritual health in these trying times. In the past I've posted on what to do if you or someone you know is considering suicide. Today, I'm sharing some tips for what to do in the aftermath of a completed suicide.
It can be hard to know how to help someone whose life has been impacted by suicide. Knowing what to say, and what not to say, is important. Specifically:
- Avoid clichés about God’s plan, or God’s need for another angel in heaven
- Do NOT ask for the specifics about the death
- Do not assume the person who completed suicide, or the survivor(s), were/are angry
- Do not assume the survivor(s) are guilty
- Avoid saying, “God never gives us more than we can handle” to the grieving survivors
- Avoid saying “I know how you feel”. Really none of us ever really knows exactly how another feels. We can experience similar losses, but the impact and experience is never exactly the same. Instead you can consider saying, “I don’t know what to say, I have no idea what you’re going through, but I care about you and I want to be here for you.”
- Avoid saying, “I can’t imagine”. This can make the survivor feel even more isolated.
- Avoid saying, “Let me know if I can help”. It is hard for people to ask for help in even the best of circumstances, and following a suicide it is even harder. Instead do something specific for the survivors, like shop for groceries, bring dinner, etc.
- Be cautious when saying “I’ll be praying for you.” If this is truly your commitment, is heartfelt and you are going to follow through then it is a welcome message that can be comforting. But if insincere, or used as filler when you don’t really know what to say, it can feel dismissive.
- Do not assume your theology about suicide is the same as the survivors.
There are also tangible things that you can do following a suicide. Specifically, you can:
- Organize a team in the person’s name to walk in the next AFSP walk in San Diego (Out of the Darkness Walks—Overnight and Day) https://www.theovernight.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=cms.page&id=1359&eventID=518
- Consider starting a scholarship fund for education in lieu of flowers if the person had children—assist the survivors by setting this up at a local bank for the family or as a GoFundMe page.
- Read about suicide loss (AFPS site has a list of resources: https://afsp.org/books-for-loss-survivors )
- Assist those touched by the suicide to connect with other suicide survivors (AFSP has a Healing Conversations program and bereavement support groups. You can offer to accompany them to an event or sit with them if it is online so that they don’t feel so alone. https://afsp.org/healing-conversations )
- Encourage counseling/seeking mental health help.
- Just be there (walking, watching a movie, etc)
- Be patient. Months after the event are often the most difficult. Continue to check in, let them know you are thinking of them, that you’re there for them, and that you want to list.
- Remind survivors of the importance of self-care—rest, eating well, excercise
I close with a prayer written by The Rev. Talitha Arnold for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:
God of all mercy, from whose love nothing can separate us, we pray this day for all persons dealing with mental illness and those who love and care for them. Especially this day, we pray for all whose lives have been touched by suicide, for those who have died by suicide and those who have attempted it. We pray for those who, because of mental health challenges such as depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder, live with thoughts of suicide. We pray for those who live in despair and without hope because of poverty or discrimination. We pray for families and friends, colleagues and co-workers, who have been touched by the suicide of a loved one. We pray for counselors and therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, for pastors, rabbis, priests, and imams, and for all who seek to help. And we pray, too, that you might give us the courage and wisdom to be there for others in distress, to offer your love and our care, to help break the silence and change the conversation about suicide, to be your listening ear, your hands, and your heart for others. Amen.
The above lists of suggestions come from a variety of sources, including those from the insightful members of a congregation that suffered the loss of one of their community by suicide, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, and my own experience following the death of my spouse. This article was originally written for and published by The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.