Amid the pandemic, there are many who have died due to complications of COVID-19 and there are those who have died from other health conditions, including suicide. A death by suicide is complex with multiple factors and, most often, coupled with an existing mental health condition. Loved ones often feel overwhelmed with despair and a sense of hopelessness beyond their capacity to cope at a point in time. For loss survivors, profound grief, is the universal response. Our best response as a community is compassion to the suffering of the loved one who died and compassion and presence for those who are left behind. Presence is notably harder now as we abide by safety guidelines and maintain physical distance. Thus, the isolation we are all experiencing can be compounded for those who are grieving.
If you have a friend or family member who is grieving a loved one who died by suicide, please take a moment to consider ways you can make a difference in their grief journey.
- Find expression. To have compassion means to empathize with someone who is suffering and to feel compelled to reduce the suffering. When words fail us, a sincere “I am so sorry for your loss,” is heard. Normally, we would pay a visit and share the warmth of a hug or touch of the hand with the words. Even so, don’t discount that your words through a phone call or written on a card will be felt and remembered.
- Listen without judgment. How you interact with people at this critical time will become part of their grieving stories. Listen without judgment and accept each person where they are. People grieve differently. The old euphemism applies here, “If you haven’t walked in their shoes, how can you possibly know?”
- Reduce isolation. The pain of losing a loved one by suicide can also increase isolation due to the stigma around suicide itself. If your friend lost someone by other sudden death (e.g. car accident) think about what you would do in that instance. If you would have food or a plant delivered to the home – make that same outreach to them – don’t treat them differently. When we are safely past COVID-19, extend invitations for outings together.
- Make thoughtful gestures. Write a card or cards in the coming weeks or months, share a memory, and mention the loved one’s name. Survivors of suicide loss often fear their loved one will be forgotten. Keep in mind this person lived a full life and there are many memories. Do not define the loved one by their death but rather by the totality of their life. Consider sharing helpful resources, such as AFSP’s Healing Conversations program where they can connect with other loss survivors who have gone through what they are facing.
- Honor and respect the needs of the survivors in the days, weeks and months following the death. Some survivors want help with some of their tasks or responsibilities while others need the structure of taking care of things themselves. Follow their lead. For those who appreciate help, you might point out specific tasks you are willing to take on for them.
Acts of kindness carry more weight than we can imagine. I remember well an action 20 years ago when I returned to my workplace after my own tragic loss during the holidays. There was a card on my desk chair from a colleague. A simple angel pin was attached to the cover and one word was inscribed inside, “Hope”. I still have the card, the pin, the friendship, and the memory.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For additional resources, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website.