The 2017 Samaritans Report revealed that in the United Kingdom, suicide was the fastest killer of men between the ages 40-44 and that female suicide rates were at their highest in a decade. University College London researchers also report that those “bereaved by the sudden death of a friend or family member are 65 percent more likely to attempt suicide if their loved one died by suicide rather than natural causes.”
While these statistics are alarming, the number of lives traumatised by this form of loss should trouble us even more because many will form the next wave of people at risk for
suicide and mental illness. Dr. Alexandra Pitman of University College London and lead author of a recent study estimates that worldwide, “between 48 million and 500 million people are thought to experience suicide bereavement every year.”
We do not have a more precise number because suicide is often directly linked to a significant source of shame that stems from social and cultural stigma. It is precisely this stigma that prevents people from coming forward and sharing their story. Sadly, it is the very act of expressing grief through conversations or journalling that can have a measurably positive impact.
When I lost my mother to suicide, it was the only thing I ever wanted to talk about. Even though I was facing a traumatic loss, I did not wish to hide from the truth. In fact, I could not afford hide from the truth.
Silence was both a veil that concealed what I deeply felt and a towering wall that blocked me from my own healing process.
There is no doubt that suicide is a tough subject to engage in. However, there are three ways you can support someone who may be facing this harrowing loss so that they too, can begin a life-changing dialogue with you.
1) Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Suicide is a subject that scares people into state of sudden silence. “What do I say? What if I upset someone? How can I talk about this when I have no knowledge of or experience with this subject?”
Many have admitted to me that these are just some of the questions that plagued them when they learned of such a bereavement. While these are certainly reasonable concerns, let me reassure you that many of the bereaved will draw comfort from any attempt made to genuinely approach the subject.
People may also fear raising this because it has the potential to make everyone uncomfortable. But the truth is – for those facing a traumatic loss, being asked to talk about it can often be a form of relief in itself.
2) Don’t be afraid of awkward responses.
Another common cause for silence is fear of the response that can follow a seemingly innocent question. We might ask ourself, “What if the person breaks down into tears, or becomes visibly uncomfortable? What if the person even becomes upset with me for asking?”
The truth is, this could very well happen.
However, I would encourage you to ask yourself, “So what if it does? So what if my loved one bursts into tears? Is an expression of grief worse than the suppression of it?”
I’m not suggesting that you cause anyone upset. I am suggesting that you
allow them the opportunity express what they might already be feeling. After all, if we deeply care about the answers to our questions, then we cannot fear the answers themselves.
Anything we do with love, we should not fear the result of. Life is messy, complicated and no one has all the answers. So, we need not avoid complicated emotions just because we might not understand them, especially if our actions are motivated by our love and concern for someone. It is also for this reason that we should never leave others to work through messy, complicated and unfathomable experiences alone. If we fear our own limited ability to face this, just imagine how the bereaved might feel?
If this subject frightens you then ask yourself, “How would I comfort a child too young to tell me what was upsetting them?” The reason for asking this is to highlight that we do not need to understand the details of a situation to understand how to soothe a soul in anguish. A gentle voice, a warm embrace, and a look to remind someone that they are not alone will often bring enormous comfort in times of grave distress.
3) Learn to give space, not distance.
Giving emotional space is about a willingness to listen. It is about letting others say what they need to say and to feel what they are naturally feeling. In the process of giving space to the bereaved, we can still remain present and engaged, even if we are just silently listening.
Conversely, creating distance is about shutting people out even if it is not intended. When we avoid someone or a certain subject, we effectively create a barrier between us. Just as we can give someone emotional space sitting alongside them, we can create a distance while sitting alongside someone, too.
When we disengage in a subject like suicide, we do not offer them emotional space. Instead, we effectively shut them out.
Sadly, I have heard many stories of social isolation from those bereaved by suicide. Such stories have a pattern that include friends or colleagues who appear to deliberately avoid them. For example, people will cross the road to avoid talking to them or become intensely engaged while shopping in a grocery store so as to avoid making eye contact. Other noticeable examples include fewer phone calls, emails, or invitations to social gatherings – even informal ones. Although these might be actions meant with the best intentions so as so give someone “space,” this can also be interpreted as a wall of silence that shuts out and isolates the bereaved.
Creating distance is as much about physicality as it is about an emotional state. Creating distance ultimately isolates others and when someone is in pain, can isolation really be the best we have to offer?
Our human instinct seeks to help others.
It’s a good idea to
understand what makes us uncomfortable about suicide and why. Is it the stigma?
Is it a lack of knowledge? Is it a dread of shocking details? Is suicide
something we have thought about ourself? Or are we uncomfortable because we
know someone who took their own life and therefore, feel safer avoiding the painful memories altogether?
Whatever the reason be, I truly believe that people are inherently good and want to help. I also believe that sometimes we simply do not understand how to help. But that should never stop us from reaching out to others. Therefore, let us empower ourselves with the tools and the understanding to help others today. Let us begin first with the courage to start a difficult conversation, irrespective of how brief it might be. If we commit to taking on these types of challenges, then we ultimately commit ourselves to becoming agents of positive social change.
Know someone bereaved by suicide? For those in the United Kingdom contact S.O.B.S (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) at 0300 111 5065 9am-9pm every day or visit www.uksobs.org | In the United States visit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org | In Australia visit Lifeline www.lifeline.org.au | In New Zealand visit Skylight www.skylight.org.nz
Halani C. Foulsham is the founder of Thought Climber C.I.C. and a dedicated postvention advocate. She is also the creator of the After Journal™ – helping others to capture their own story of survival after traumatic loss. For more information please visit www.thoughtclimber.com