My Brother Took His Own Life. Don’t Ask If He Left A Note. Here’s what I’ve found to be helpful — and not — when speaking to suicide survivors like myself.
Before this summer, I understood, intellectually, that suicide was on the rise. I didn’t realize, however, that it’s a worldwide epidemic that claims the lives of 800,000 people annually, including one every 12 minutes in the United States. I had no clue that every one of these deaths leaves behind an estimated six “suicide survivors,” loved ones of the deceased who have to figure out how to live with the tragic loss. And I certainly didn’t consider what people should — and should not — say after someone takes their own life.
That all changed, however, after August 21, when my older brother and only sibling Peter died by his own hand.
Since then, I’ve personally experienced what Harvard researchers foundabout suicide survivors — that during bereavement, we need more support than those grieving other types of death, but often receive less. The grief that comes with suicide is especially complex and traumatic because it’s typically sudden, sometimes violent, and we’re left reeling with questions about what happened and what we could have done differently. We’re also more likely to face stigma, shame, and isolation. It’s not surprising, really.
According to philosopher Simon Critchley, “Death and suicide are still things surrounded in silence, or just a kind of fake seriousness. It’s a profound social problem.”
One of the ways my parents and I have experienced the stigma, shame, and isolation is through callous communication — or a lack of communication altogether. In general, most people have trouble talking about death. Some even seem to believe it’s contagious — as if merely mentioning death will beckon it — so they completely ignore it. Suicide jars people to the core, which makes them even more awkward and scared about talking about it. People feel preoccupied about making mistakes or saying the wrong thing. I understand. Still, although there are no magic words to make the pain go away, words do matter, especially in times of great distress. The way we speak to the bereaved can comfort or sting.
When speaking to suicide survivors, here’s what I’ve found helpful—and not:
Don’t ask details about the death.
How did he do it? Who found him? Did he leave a note?
Upon hearing that someone has taken their own life, people experience a sense of disbelief and shock. I’ve come to understand this intimately as numerous loved ones have asked me unfathomable questions. A friend, who has a PhD and is a college professor, texted me and asked if my brother had left a note. When I told her that was an inappropriate question, she responded, “Sorry, I don’t know the etiquette.” That someone so smart could temporarily become so clueless shows the extent to which people struggle to think about suicide and survivors, and what shock can lead people to say.
It’s a smart instinct to ask questions because typically if we have more facts about a situation, we can better understand it. But that’s not the case with suicide. No amount of information makes it digestible. In fact, knowing details can cause more trauma. One of the challenges survivors face is that we repeatedly replay the death scene in our minds in an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Several acquaintances who didn’t know my brother have questioned me about his personal life, asking me where he lived and if he had a spouse or children. Perhaps their minds start racing and all they can figure out to do is take inventory of who the survivors are and where we’re located. Sometimes I wonder why they don’t start by asking his name.
My husband has advised me several times since Peter’s death not to be distracted by the how but to face the what. “Rather than focusing on how he died, try to face the fact that he’s gone. That’s what matters here,” he reminds me. Although difficult, this perspective has helped me find my footing.
Console the survivor.
I’m so sorry for your loss. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.
When I told a friend, who lost her father about five years ago, some of the invasive questions and comments my parents and I have heard, she was flabbergasted.
“Really people?” she asserted. “All you need to say is ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ And if you can manage it — and mean it — add, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do.’
Those two statements — however trite they may seem — get the job done.” Her no-uncertain-terms tone and statement summarizes what survivors need so well.
Depending on the relationship with the survivor, you can get more personal. For example, my brother-in-law left out the “y” in “your,” acknowledging Peter’s death as “our” loss, and assured me that although he could never fill Petey’s shoes, I could count on him as a brother. His generous words made me cry.
Don’t ask about the mental health of the deceased.
How long had he been depressed? Did you see any signs? Did you try to get him help?
When someone takes their own life, people want to know why it happened and incorrectly assume that they’ll find the answer by asking about the mental health of the deceased. Also, often without realizing it, folks want someone to blame and often point the finger at loved ones. Asking survivors how much they knew — and what, if anything, they did to try to prevent the tragedy — adds to the shame, stigma, and isolation they face.
Focus on the well-being of the survivor.
Have you eaten today? Have you slept? Can I bring you dinner? Can I come over to keep you company?
Grief experts Brook Noel and Patricia Blair wrote that losing someone in this way is “one of the most traumatic experiences a person can endure.” They recommend treating survivors as if they’re in the Intensive Care Unit for at least two weeks after the death. Simple tasks become very difficult — and because survivors are often in shock, they don’t ask for help. Offer the basics: bring food, babysit kids and pets, give a backrub. If you’re far away, call or send care packages.
Thanks to friends and family, numerous homemade dishes landed in my parents’ fridge. Out-of-state relatives sent a fruit basket. An acquaintance from church asked my mom, “Can I come over to sit next to you on the couch and hold your hand while you cry?” My friend who lives across the country assured me that when I call she’ll answer the phone, no matter the hour.
Even when we didn’t accept the offer, we cherished the kindness.
Don’t project your guilt, share your regrets or make it about you.
You must feel so guilty. I should have reached out to him. I could have done more.
In the wake of suicide, most people feel overrun by guilt and think of things they should have done. In part, this is the mind’s attempt to control a situation that was uncontrollable. Survivors work hard to move beyond guilt, so assuming we’re stuck there is unfair, inaccurate, and alienating. Share your regrets with your friends, therapist, or journal — not with survivors.
Offer to listen to the survivor.
If you’d like to talk, I’d love to listen.
What I’m going through is often too much for others to bear, so it’s an amazing gift when folks offer to listen to me and let me cry about the loss. Afterwards, I’m often better able to remember sweet moments and I appreciate the opportunity to share those too.
Don’t pretend everything is normal or that nothing happened.
Some people have chosen not to acknowledge my brother’s death at all. When I returned to work after a month off for bereavement, a few people greeted me as if I had not been gone. When people ignore Peter’s death, my family sometimes assumes it’s because they’re uncomfortable with how he died. It may be an unfair assumption, but we can’t helping making it after the stigma we’ve experienced.
Share positive memories of the deceased.
When I think of your brother, I always see his big smile. I remember this one time…
People have shared memories about Peter in person and in writing — some that go as far back as preschool. Hearing about the impact that he had on others’ lives is unbelievably comforting.
When someone dies by way of suicide, their death often overshadows their life. The responsibility to remember them for the light they brought to the world, rather than for how they left it, shouldn’t just rest on survivors’ shoulders. We should all keep the deceased alive through sharing stories about them.
This essay was originally published by Bright Magazine.