If a mate or loved one loses someone to suicide, knowing how to support them – and just what to say – isn’t easy. It can be tempting to avoid the topic, but if someone close to you is grieving this loss, reaching out to let them know you’ve got their back is an important way to support your mate’s own mental health. To make these chats less daunting, we asked a Registered Psychologist, Nancy Sokarno, to break it down for us.
Why do we find suicide so hard to talk about?“Suicide is a very complex topic that can be incredibly difficult to talk about. Knowing what to say to someone that is grieving the loss of a loved one can be tough to navigate, but often times more so when it’s suicide, because it’s an incredibly sensitive topic.”
Is there anything we should not say?“As a starting place, it is advisable to avoid saying the phrase ‘committed suicide’ – since this language can be considered stigmatising and in many cases, resembles wrongdoing. Instead, it is better to use the phrase ‘died by suicide’, just like you might refer to someone who has died by cancer.
Always avoid judgement about the person who died or about the life they lived. Avoid saying things like, ‘They were selfish to take their life in that way,’ or referring to them as being cowardly or weak. Suicide is a very complex subject, and we cannot make any assumptions or judgements around contributing factors.
When it comes to communicating with someone who is grieving, also try to avoid using cliches like, ‘Time heals all wounds,’ or, ‘They’re in a better place now,’ as these platitudes can make a person feel isolated or alone in their grief.”
What are some helpful ways to have a conversation around suicide?
“Instead of offering platitudes, accept and acknowledge what has happened and the other person’s associated grief. Do not explain away or simplify what has happened. Be willing to simply listen and provide a shoulder for them to cry on. Know that you do not have to have answers for them or try to make everything better.
Allow – and encourage - them to talk about the person who has died if they want to. Join in sharing fond memories or stories and accept that the person who is grieving may need to express a range of intense emotions in their grief.
If you don’t know what to say, let them know that you are thinking of them and are there for emotional or practical support if they need it.”