International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, this year on November 23, reminds us that the holiday season can take a toll on survivors around the world. The World Health Organization estimates that over 800,000 people die by suicide each year, and each death has a ripple effect on family and friends. The challenges faced by those left behind are enormous. Sadly, most of us have now been touched by this particular form of loss. Suicide is no longer someone else's problem, it's everyone's problem.
Survivor Day is the one day a year when people around the world gather at events to find connection, understanding and hope through their shared experience. In 2018, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention sponsored 370 events, including 32 international sites in 19 countries.
Not all of us are "group" people. Even though other survivors have a shared understanding of devastating loss, for some it may be too overwhelming to express their deeply personal feelings in a group. They may feel too traumatized and even too fragile to hear about other tragedies. That was my experience.
I joined a Survivors of Loss to Suicide group, and completed the series of meetings without achieving a sense of increased hope or resilience. I did make one friend, who was just as raw and angry as I was. So that was something. Each of us has our own path to walk, not to say "journey", a word I hate, especially with regard to suicide or cancer. It is not a journey. It is a unique struggle, emotionally and existentially. It is a weight that you learn over time to accommodate. But there are helpful and comforting ways we can talk to those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
First and foremost to remember, grief is not a disease. Don't be afraid of the grieving person. If you don't know what to say, do not say, "I have no words." Please. Then it's about YOU, and how gobsmacked you are. Instead, try "I'm so sorry," or "I'm here for you." The presence of someone who really cares is consoling in itself.
Do not say, "I know what you're going through." You don't, and that's okay. Don't start in about someone else you know who suffered a similar loss. Don't say how bad you still feel after losing your grandma. Don't seek to compare this event to anything else.
Instead of asking intrusive questions, let people tell their story in their own time. The details will come. Don't ask for reasons. Steer clear of blame. Ask which issues are of most concern. Say, "What can I do for you?" Maybe there are chores or favours like babysitting or grocery shopping that in the immediate aftermath of suicide would be a welcome relief.
Try to avoid giving unsolicited advice or spouting clichés. I still remember a guy at a holiday gathering who said to me, "You'll get over it." “Everything happens for a reason” and “You are never given more than you can handle,” are other statements to avoid. Any sentiment that minimizes the magnitude of what someone is going through is like a secondary trauma.
Those are a lot of don'ts to remember but as this is foreign territory to many of us, it's good to follow best practices. Research into suicide and suicide prevention has brought more awareness into the open but there is still stigma to overcome, and conversations to be had about surviving the unthinkable.
The best way to help a survivor of loss to suicide is to say their loved one's name. Instead of fearing it will upset them, be generous in sharing your memories. Reminiscing about our loved one is a gift. I constantly wish more people knew this!
Finally, be patient. Don't disappear. It may take months or years or forever for a survivor to find their footing. Keep checking in. Try to lower your expectations of a timetable or a linear "recovery." Your friendship and patience mean the world those whose lives have been impacted by suicide. It is such a profound shock to the system; your empathy is reassuring.
I wish suicide wouldn't happen, and I wish we could see the signs and prevent each one but none of us are magic. The worst thing people can say to me is some version of "I could never endure it if it happened to me!" This makes a survivor feel like a criminal for still existing. Like I need to apologize for being ambulatory. You do endure because you've learned the disruption caused by not enduring.
If you're struggling, there are resources! Go here for information: https://afsp.org. Go here for help: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. For survivors seeking community, go here: https://allianceofhope.org/