It is no surprise that following the death of my brother by suicide, people didn’t know what to do or how to respond. I remember in one instance that on telling a very close friend of the suicide of my brother, his response was, “Well that was stupid wasn’t it?” So if the pain of the loss wasn’t enough, now there is a question mark over his level of intelligence? There were many others that offered awkward, superficial platitudes, some that just looked at me with big, wide eyes and a panicked expression and others that simply got as far away as possible. At the time, I resented the inability of those around me to provide comfort in my pain, but over time I realised that my pain was so intense, I may have been reflecting an energy that could have been intimidating for some.
Suicide pain has an energy all of its own. Without minimising the grief associated with any loss, particularly the loss of life, death through suicide comes with its own special type of grief. It’s the grief that comes from both mental and emotional pain, as not only do we have to come to grips with what, but also the inevitable questions that are associated with why.
When somebody dies from an explainable cause, whether it is sickness or maybe an accident, though traumatic, those that are left behind can rationalise what happened. There seems to be a clear reason as to the probable cause of death and though we may not like it, we at least understand it. When it comes to terminal illness, you generally have time to say your goodbyes, mourn the impending loss or celebrate a life well lived. In the case of an accident, as tragic as it is, we can understand the events that led to the accident occurring. In these cases, the individual involved has had the choice of living or dying taken out of their hands. Circumstances have transpired to bring about the outcome.
Not so with suicide. The main issue that anyone bereaved by suicide is the fact that the individual concerned made a choice. A choice that leaves behind so many questions that need answering, so many misunderstandings, so many unexplained conundrums that the emotional grief takes on a form of mental anguish as well. This mental anguish has an intensity to it that can manifest itself for a period as anger, bitterness, resentment, hostility, regret or blame. This intensity may direct us to push people away, respond in a way that is out of character or lash out at those that are around us. All of which can culminate in people no longer feeling that they can express themselves clearly, when in our company. As unfortunate as this is, it can result in damage to seemingly stable relationships that have significant tenure and intimacy.
For those that are trying to support an individual bereaved by suicide, here is some simple advice.
- We are not OK and we are not coping. We are experiencing emotional and mental pain that will not go away for a long time.
- Do not be put off by behaviour that is out of character because coping with suicide will change a person forever. For a period of time, we will not be the same person.
- You don’t need to take that pain away, you just need to understand it and allow us to be. In the same way, we don’t need you to do anything but be present.
- Your support needs to be unconditional and for as long as it takes.
- You don’t need to ask permission to help. If there are defenses, they are feeble at best and easily overcome. Your help is appreciated, though you may not feel recognised for it. We have other things on our mind.
- Simple kindness is the easiest and most valued kind of support. Any gesture will be valued, regardless of the type or size.
For those that are already doing these things, thanks. For those that have supported someone bereaved by suicide, thanks. For those that showed compassion, empathy and love, your impact is more profound then you realise. Let’s not wait to have the opportunity to display these characteristics. Bereavement is over-rated and prevention is much more powerful. Suicide prevention starts with these characteristics being shown to someone that you feel is in need. Reach out to those around you with a view to changing the life of someone in a meaningful way. It could mean that we no longer have to worry about those awkward conversations, after the event.