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How to support loved ones grieving a loss from suicide

Suicide is one of the leadingcauses of death in the United States, and for families and friends dealing with this type of loss, support from loved ones can be vital.

While Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month is observed in September, the topic remains ever-present for those who have lost someone to suicide.

Loss of any kind is difficult, but grieving a death by suicide can be especially complicated, experts say, as can supporting someone through it. We reached out to some experts in the field for their guidance on do’s and don’ts for when a person you care about is navigating this kind of loss.

The first step can be to simply acknowledge the awfulness of the loss, says Dr. Michael Groat, director of psychology at psychiatric-focused Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut.

“Losing someone suddenly to suicide is devastating. People are left reeling and are overwhelmed,” he says.

If you’re not exactly sure what a person is needing in terms of support, asking them can be a good first step, says Dr. Tia Dole, clinical psychologist and chief 988 lifeline officer at mental health service Vibrant Emotional Health.

“There is no one way to support someone grieving a suicide loss. Some people will want space, while others want to be checked on quite a bit,” Dole explains.

In acknowledging the loss, it’s OK to say the person’s name — it’s actually encouraged, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“Don’t be afraid to speak the name of the person who died,” the organization’s website says. “Your loved one will be grateful for the opportunity to reminisce.”

Experts also suggest taking proactive steps to offer help — don’t wait for a grieving person to ask.

“Bring a freshly prepared meal, offer to watch pets or anything that might relieve burdens or pressures,” Groat says. “By not putting pressure on someone to identify things for you to do, you also relieve the person of that stress. If you have a good hunch that something will be helpful, just do it.”

Groat also says it’s important to understand that their needs will change over time.

“In the immediate aftermath of a suicide, people need help coping with intensely overwhelming feelings,” he says. “Over the long run, remaining understanding, curious and non-judgmental will be essential.”

For some, for example, the weeks or months after the loss “may be the toughest for them,” the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes, as the initial shock wears off and reality sets in. Holidays, anniversaries and other days the person would have been a part of are also going to be difficult.

“Be patient. This experience has changed your loved one’s life forever,” the organization says. “Continue to check in, and let them know you are thinking of them, that you’re there for them, and that you want to listen.”

When listening, people may express their distress over unanswerable questions such as “Why did they do this?” or “What did we miss?”

“Simply noting, ‘I know, this is so hard,’ or, ‘There are no words,’ and ‘I am here for you,’ are powerful statements,” Groat says. “You communicate that the person is not alone in their grief.”

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Things to avoid saying to someone who’s lost a loved one to suicide

While intentions may be in the right place, there are some things to avoid when trying to comfort someone grieving.

For example, statements that a person is “better off now” or “not suffering anymore” may be meant as comforting, but may not have that effect for a person who has lost someone to suicide, Groat says.

It’s also unhelpful to comment on what else could have been done, Dole says.

“Do your best not to comment on that person’s mental state or what they might have been thinking or feeling,” she says.

Additionally, making judgmental comments about the person who died by suicide can be hurtful.

“Even if someone has mixed feelings about the person who died, there is a part of them that is suffering over this person’s death,” Groat says. “People who are suffering tend to do best when offered comfort, support and respect.”

Dole adds you will also want to avoid being judgmental about their feelings surrounding the death.

“People are allowed to feel what they feel,” she says, but adds that if you notice significant changes and are close to this person, consider connecting them to professional services or a support group.

“An incredibly helpful experience for suicide loss survivors is knowing they aren’t alone in their experiences,” she says.

And if you do make a mistake or say something that hurts the person you’re trying to support, experts suggest apologizing sincerely and moving on.

“An apology is key — without excuses or caveats,” Dole says, advising that you can say, for example: “I am so sorry that I did that. I want to support you however you need support. What do you need from me next time?”

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or crisis, you can reach the988 Suicide & Crisis Lifelineby calling or texting 988. You can alsochat with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline here.

For more information aboutmental health care resources and support, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. ET, at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email info@nami.org.

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