Showing up after suicide

This week the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures were released about reported causes of death in 2016. And for the first time in some years, we saw a decrease in the number of deaths by suicide. It’s possible that the suicide prevention efforts are making some headway.

There is still a long way to go. Suicide still remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15-44 years and we are still looking at a figure of nearly 8 Australians per day, dying by suicide.

This tragedy means that suicide, in some way, is going to continue affecting our lives.

And if it directly affects the life of someone close to us, let’s make sure we know how to show up.

Supporting someone who is bereaved by suicide is possibly one of the most challenging things we can go as humans. But, if we can, being present and being supporting, can be invaluable to someone going through the grief process after suicide.

There are so many reactions a loved one may experience following a suicide. Grief, in general, is a pretty complex and chaotic and terrifying emotional experience. While a wide range of reactions can be anticipated, our response to grief will be as unique an expression as our personality is. The experience of grief can be impacted by other things like pre-existing mental and physical health conditions, our gender, and most importantly, the relationship with the person who has died. Experiences may include, but are not limited to:

  • Anger – towards the person who has died, towards themselves, or towards others
  • Despair – feeling unable to live without the person who has died
  • Guilt – that they couldn’t save/help the person who died
  • Questioning – ‘why’ and ‘what if?’
  • Sadness
  • Shame – feeling that they have done something wrong or because of the stigma attached to suicide
  • Defensiveness – due to the uncertainty of how people will react, fearing judgment
  • Disbelief
  • Numbness
  • Rejection – from the person who died and/or the community
  • Searching – wanting to go to the places the deceased person went or believing they have seen the person
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Fear
  • Physical reactions
  • Relief – if the person has been in pain for an extended period of time
  • Sense of acceptance – they may feel they can accept the person’s wish to due
  • Shock
  • Suicidal thoughts

Considering that someone bereaved by suicide could feel any or all of these things, we might feel unable to provide adequate support. Or we might struggle to understand the depth of the distress. We might find it difficult to know what to say and feel awkward, uncomfortable and concerned about saying the wrong thing. Let’s stop worrying about ourselves and just show up for them.

What has been learned from people bereaved by suicide is they really need compassion, empathy, acknowledgment of what has happened and validation of how they are feeling.

To do this, we really only need to do three things:

  1. Show up
  2. Ask
  3. Listen

It really is this simple. Firstly, let’s ignore all of those thoughts and feelings which might stop us from being present with the person – ‘I don’t want to make it worse for them’, ‘They don’t need me’, ‘There is nothing I can do anyway’. All BS. Ignore these thoughts and do what you know will be tough and challenging but the most important – show up.

And then we ask them to talk. If they want. We might ask how they are feeling today. Or if they’d like to chat. Or if they’d just like to hang out. Whatever. An open question would be good here. Don’t avoid the subject of suicide.

And then we shut up. And we listen. Listen to understand the experience. With patience and compassion and no judgment. By allowing a loved one to express their grief, we are helping. We can’t take away the pain, but we’re enabling part of the process. This is probably the most important bit of the process. For those of us who are more prone to talking than listening, reverse this impulse – try and listen 80% of the time and talk only 20% of the time. Because we are listening, rather than talking it will also mean that we might be less-inclined to do some of the less helpful things (e.g., provide advice, try and compare this to the time our dog nearly died, fill moments with clichés and simplistic explanations for one of the most complex issues).

And once we’ve done that, we’ll do it again. And again. And again …

If we do these three things – repeatedly – we have the opportunity to provide the person who is bereaved the following:

  • To be really listened to, heard and understood
  • To receive non-judgmental support
  • An opportunity to tell their story over and over again
  • A safe and supportive environment
  • The capacity to express their grief in their own way

People bereaved by suicide can feel really alone and isolated. The silence that surrounds the issue of suicide can complicate the experience. Because of the social stigma surrounding suicide, it is common for people feel the pain of the loss, yet may not believe they are allowed to express it. By being present, asking the questions, listening and learning, we can provide the comfort of companionship on the most tragic path of sorrow.



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