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How To Support A Friend Or Family Member Who Has Lost Someone To Suicide

Written by Helen Coffey, mental health advocate and volunteer with NAMI Oklahoma

When a loved one has died by suicide, special events like birthdays and holidays, can be an especially difficult time. It’s hard to know what to say or how to be around a friend or family member who is suffering from loss. These special events can bring an added layer of emotion and nostalgia when social and family activities underscore a missing loved one. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has developed some guidelines to help you show love to those who are suffering because a loved one died by suicide.

- What to say: Most people get nervous and flustered thinking about what to say to someone grieving a death. Struggling to find the right words to ease their pain is the wrong approach. It’s unlikely that any words said to someone facing the death of a loved one will make them feel better. That’s not an attainable goal. There are however many things that could make them feel worse. Avoid phrases like, “it’s going to be ok; they are in a better place, their pain is over” or “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” Instead simply say “I am here for you.” Then let the grieving person respond. Chances are they will either have a lot they want to say, and need someone to listen, or they won’t want to talk at all. In that case give them the freedom to just sit in silence. They will be comforted simply by your presence.

- Don’t put your assumptions on their grief: Everyone is different, and everyone grieves loss in a different way. Some people go back to work right away, put away memories and avoid talking about their grief. Others struggle to resume even basic tasks like taking a shower and leaving the house. Support your friend or family member by letting them grieve in their own way free from the judgement of how others would react in their place. If they are sad, angry, or even smiling and laughing, let them experience grief in a way that is right for them. Never, ever tell a grieving person how they should feel.

- Don’t expect the holidays to be like they were before: For the person grieving the loss of a loved one the holidays will never be the same again. If they are struggling with the thought of attending a social or family gathering suggest they stop by for just 30 minutes instead of the usual several hours. If they just can’t make it tell them, you understand and you’re looking forward to seeing them at the event next year. The most important thing you should not do is expect them to return to “normal.” When you lose a loved one you have to find a new normal.

- Remember the person who died by suicide: There are some people who will find it too painful to talk about a loved one especially if their death was recent. Most people though want to know that you are still thinking about their loved one. You can write a card and share a happy memory or set up a picture of their loved one with a lit candle nearby. Organize a gift drive or service event for friends and family to participate in, in remembrance. The most important thing you can do for someone suffering the loss of a person who died by suicide is to keep the memory of their loved one alive.

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