When someone dies by suicide: how you can help

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When someone dies by suicide, it can be hard to know what to say or how best to support grieving family and friends. This simple guidance, and the links to further sources of advice and support, can help you reach out with love and care.

Offer your sympathy and support

Reach out; send a card, a text or flowers; attend the funeral if invited. Do whatever you would normally do in response to any death.

Because of the stigma that still exists around suicide, many people avoid mentioning the death at all for fear of saying the wrong thing. But it’s far better to say something than nothing. You don’t have to find the perfect words — you could say something as simple as ‘I’m sorry for your loss. How are you getting on?’

Listen, don’t judge

Everyone grieves in different ways. But people grieving someone who has died by suicide may be especially likely to wonder whether they could have done more to prevent the person they loved from dying.

They may also feel angry or blame the person who has died. When someone is grieving, their emotions can be really intense and appear unpredictable or illogical to others, but this is perfectly normal.

Listening to their worries without judging them or the person who has died is the best way to help. Avoid sharing any negative views you may have of the person who has died with bereaved family or friends, even if they initially express those feelings themselves.

Share positive memories

Sharing memories of their life moves the focus away from the circumstances of a person’s death.

Say the person’s name when you refer to them and be ready to talk about them with bereaved family and friends. This is especially important as some people may feel uncomfortable about mentioning the person who has died.

In many cases, a public funeral or memorial provides the opportunity to share memories. Some families and friends decide to have a memory box at the funeral for everyone to contribute their memories or a social media page where people can share memories online.

In the case of suicide, as with any sudden or unexpected death, a funeral may have to be delayed until after a coroner’s investigation. But there is no reason that family and friends can’t spend time with the person who has died before the funeral, or any reason to prevent them planning whatever kind of funeral that they would like. A funeral director can talk through all the options and what needs to be done.

Be mindful how you talk about suicide

Rather than talking about ‘commiting suicide’ (which makes suicide seem like a ‘crime’), use phrases like ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took their own life’ instead. Don’t say ‘I know how you feel’ or compare this death to others in your experience.

Avoid asking for details about exactly how the person died, and take care not to share any media which glamorises or sensationalises suicide.

Be there for the long-term

Some people may feel ready to talk straightaway, for others it might take longer. It may be that anniversaries, holidays or times when suicide is in the news are particularly hard. There is more advice here about coping with seasonal grief.

Often people receive lots of offers of help immediately after someone has died. Then, a few weeks later, everything goes quiet. Think of practical help you can offer — to cook a meal, walk the dog, babysit — not just straightaway, but in the weeks and months to come as well.

Make sure that family and friends of the person who has died know that you are there to listen, whenever they need you. But also that they don’t feel they have to talk before they are ready.

Suggest other sources of support

There are many fantastic organisations which provide support and information for people affected by suicide.

If it feels appropriate, let people know about these, without pressuring them to find out more if it’s not the right time for them. It’s one way to show you care. These can help you in your own grief, as well as in supporting others.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide have support groups run by volunteers who themselves have experienced a family member or friend’s death by suicide. Talking with others facing similar situations can be particularly helpful. These are running virtually at the moment due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their helpline is open every day from 9am-9pm on 0300 111 5065 and they also provide practical advice and information.

Winston’s Wish has helpful guidance on how to explain suicide to children and on talking about suicide in the news with children and young people.

Help is at Hand is a guide produced by Public Health England and the National Suicide Prevention Alliance. It’s full of lived experience from those closely affected by suicide; has tailored advice for schools in supporting students and employers in supporting their staff; and practical guidance on arranging a funeral.

Mind and Cruse Bereavement Care have also produced helpful guides for people affected by suicide.

If you need to talk to someone now about bereavement, suicidal thoughts or any other issue, the Samaritans are available 24-hours-a-day by phone on 116 123 or by email to jo@samaritans.org

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