The healing power of the most microscopic exchange with someone who knows in a flash precisely what you are talking about because she experienced that thing too cannot be overstated. —Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Most people find it challenging to come up with the right words to condole with a bereaved person. A suicide, however, brings out the worst in people, and those left behind are thus at the receiving end of insensitivity. Cursory condolences are what we get, along with intrusive questions, worn platitudes, hurtful cliches, moralistic branding, all rubbing salt into their cavernous wounds.
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I experienced the entire gamut of insensitivity during my bereavement. Of course, it was all ‘well intentioned’. Nobody meant to hurt me. Much of it stemmed from lack of empathy and awareness. The inconvenient truth is: nobody knows what to say in such an unusual situation.
When I asserted my right to privacy and expressed my anguish, I was told, ‘You are overreacting.’ Because there are no guidelines for ‘suicide bereavement etiquette’, many people stop reaching out for fear of saying the wrong things. How then, instead of minimising, erasing or denying the bereaved person’s grief, does one convey concern and compassion? How does one bridge the chasm between intention and expression?
Some norms of suicide bereavement etiquette—based on compassion, concern and care—may help provide a road map to navigate conversations on suicide loss. For instance, don’t say, ‘I know how you feel.’ Or, ‘I understand what you are going through.’ Suicide grief is a profoundly isolating experience. The truth is that unless you have had a similar experience, you can never really know how a person bereaved by suicide loss feels. Also, no two suicide losses are alike. They may be similar, but not identical. When you say ‘I know how you feel’ although you have not had a similar experience, you minimise, trivialise or deny the bereaved person’s right to grieve. Say, instead, ‘I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.’ This comes from a space of non-judgement, compassion and concern. And the doors remain open for the kind of honest, authentic communication that is so vital for healing.
Don’t ask intrusive questions about the manner and mode of death. During my bereavement, the most frequently asked questions seemed to be, ‘How did it happen?’ and ‘Why did it happen?’ Morbid curiosity may be a knee-jerk response to suicide, but it seems to have become normalised.
Don’t use hurtful cliches. Phrases such as ‘This too will pass’, ‘You must be strong’, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ and ‘You will get over this’ trivialise deeply complex circumstances. Avoid doling out such ready philosophies to someone in the throes of suicide bereavement. They don’t have the wherewithal to process them and will be overwhelmed. Instead, remember that less is more. Use evocative body language if the person is comfortable with it. You don’t need words to make meaning.
Don’t assign or imply blame. In your desire to get to the bottom of the story, please do not take on the role of judge and jury. Avoid questions (directly and indirectly) that hold the survivor responsible for the death. Ours is a fishbowl bereavement. Suicide is a public death. Every shred of our privacy is being ripped apart. As it is, we have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for not having been able to prevent the death of our loved ones. Please don’t make it harder for us. Instead, show unconditional positive regard. Say ‘You did your best’, ‘You were a great support’, ‘It is not your fault’. Such words are salve for the soul.
Don’t make statements such as ‘Suicide is an act of cowardice’ or ‘Suicide is the result of selfishness’. They are inaccurate and hurtful. Such value judgements criminalise our loved ones. In life, they were loving and responsible husbands, wives, daughters, sons, uncles, aunts, friends and grandparents, and they were also in tremendous psychological pain. Remember them fondly and for the way they lived their lives, not for the way they died. Suicide cannot define them. Your willingness to look at other aspects of our loved one’s life will help us to do so too. Otherwise, we feel ashamed and we try to divorce them from our memory, which impairs our healing.
Don’t give us unsolicited advice. We are capable of finding the answers we seek, at our own pace. Please don’t assume responsibility for our lives. Instead, show that you truly care. Ensure that we get plenty of nourishment and sleep. Encourage us to take care of ourselves.
Don’t condole with us just because it’s the thing to do. And please don’t use the condolence visit to gather juicy titbits about our loved one’s death to enliven your conversations. Don’t just say a few superficial words, or worse, make silent accusations, and then disappear.
Be proactive. We would like you to accompany us on our journey through suicide grief. This is a lifelong journey, and you can help us navigate the road ahead. Please read about suicide grief and how you can help. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, death anniversaries and festivals are painful reminders of our loved one’s absence. While you cannot take their place, you can certainly make our loss more bearable in many ways. For example, you can include us in get-togethers or call to find out how we are.
Simply listen. Through evocative body language, let us know that you are there for us. This sends out a ‘no pressure’ invitation to talk, if we feel like it. We need that reassurance because telling our stories over and over is one of the ways in which we heal.
Talk to mental health professionals and other people with lived experience of suicide loss to understand the complexity of the issue. Suicide grief is isolating and alienating. You can be a bridge of hope and connection.
Excerpted from Left Behind: Surviving Suicide Loss with permission from Westland Books.