One of the most frequent questions I get is, “How can I help my friend who lost his or her son (or daughter) to suicide?” And so I’ll answer that here with some explanation of how those parents feel. I can’t possibly touch on everything. I have a 280-page book that does that.
So first, I’m going to say, please say the child’s name!
I remember a story from a friend who lost his Dad to suicide in the 1970s. No one came by. No one called. And then two days after, a neighbor dropped by but didn’t come in. And he brought with him a bucket of chicken and handed it to him from the front porch and then said he was sorry and left. My friend said all he saw was a bucket of chicken and fear. He said it was the only communication, the only mention, the only gift of food they got. People just didn’t know what to do with the cause of death–suicide.
It’s petrifying to step into someone else’s tragedy
As a friend or family member, you may be shocked at how nervous and even scared you feel. Will you say or do the wrong thing? What do they want? Should you call and ask? Maybe you should just text? Should you go by?
It all seems too big and if you waltz into this devastation it might swallow you. After all, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare–your worst nightmare. You think, “Surely nothing I do or say would ever be enough.”
Just know that you are enough
Take a deep breath. Expect fear, acknowledge it when it comes, and just move forward.
The trouble is that collectively friends do resort to texting instead of calling. Or just doing nothing other than a card because it’s so traumatizing a loss that friends and relatives feel frozen. You don’t know what to do so you take the path to least resistance and hope it’s enough.
Still, others want desperately to know some secret saying or formula to help their friend.
The truth is that all those parents need is to be with you.
There is no fixing this.
It’s hard to be there in that space where a heart is so crushed. However, your presence, your calls are appreciated and that does take courage. Sitting with someone in their pain, without fixing, is hard. So hard.
Sometimes just being there binge-watching stupid movies is enough. Telling stories you remember and using that child’s name are all important. Calling and checking in with, “Do you want to meet for tea or coffee? (lunch, dinner, a walk, etc.) Or if you are out of town, just call and say that you don’t know what to say but you want to know how they are coping. Even years or decades later, parents need to know you remember their child. Please don’t ever forget that.
According to research, a death by suicide is the most traumatic.1
That doesn’t mean it “hurts more.” Because parents who have lost a child will tell you it can’t hurt more. And a comparison of grief isn’t fair.
But here is the difference. Parents of a child who died by suicide wrestle and struggle with the intentionality that comes with a suicide death. We struggle with “choice” when it’s really that the person was driven to suicide in an episode that is not entirely within their control. But we don’t see it that way. And for a long time, we blame ourselves and hyper-focus on the 2% we missed or did wrong because we are imperfect humans and don’t consider the 98% of what we did well.
Most of us resolve this eventually and forgive ourselves but that takes a long time. So when a child dies by suicide, we feel more helpless, and stupid for missing the clues or hurt so monumental that our child took his or her life. It rearranges everything we thought we knew about our loved ones and the world. We can also feel abandoned, even betrayed– as if our love wasn’t enough to prevent the tragedy. More frequently there is more PTSD, depression, and complicated grief.
Besides that, there is more judgment
Some people consider it a “sin” to take one’s life. Those painful accusations from friends and loved ones make the grief more difficult, even worse if the parent believes that themselves. Those who lose their child to suicide get less support and are ostracized more from social interactions. In short, we are avoided because this kind of loss is so uncomfortable and poorly understood.
If the parent found the child?
That final scenery is even more difficult to manage because we can’t “unsee” what we found. Again, intentionality and not understanding the “why” behind this complicated cause of death simply makes it different. It feels more personal. This is why education on suicide is so important for parents who’ve lost someone to this cause of death. And it’s why I am so grateful that attempt survivors have graciously shared their stories with me. It helped me understand.
If the loss is recent
If it’s recent and if I were to impart some advice, it would be to designate a friend within your group of friends and go over what that person wants (link to a worksheet below to guide the conversation). You don’t say, “What do you want?” Because they don’t know. Their thinking brains are floating in an alternate, slow-motion universe.
You figure out specifically what they need by observing and asking and you act with intention. The article, What to say to parents who’ve just lost a child, will help you with that. In early grief after the loss of a child to suicide, it’s hard for a parent’s grieving brain to sort out what they need or doesn’t need, and having a friend who can think and listen is a huge asset.
Worksheet for loss of a child
This worksheet simply offers you guidance on what to talk about and ask with a parent who has lost a child. While this is not specific to a loss by suicide, it does cover many of the aspects of what you need to ask or help your friend or family member decide.
Helpful Articles and Resources
- How to help a friend who lost a child to suicide
- The stories you share about our beloved dead mean the most
- My grief timeline, the first two years (I lost my son to suicide)
- Helping teenagers with the death of a sibling to suicide by Molly Senecal
- Who’d have thought my son’s worst enemy would be in his own head
- Grief journey in a jar kit for those who’ve lost a child
- What to say to parents who’ve just lost a child
- Recommended grief books (includes loss of a child by suicide)
- What to say to grieving parents? (video)
- Make the memorial service for the death of a child meaningful
- Loss of a child: Say this, not that
- Grief resources including support groups
Source: 1Jordan J. R. (2020). Lessons Learned: Forty Years of Clinical Work With Suicide Loss Survivors. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 766. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00766