"Tea for Two" on a Summer Afternoon, A small, white cafe table and two white, wrought iron chairs, My Forever Son
Always the Empty Chair-“Tea for Two” on a Summer Afternoon, My Forever Son

How to Offer Grief Support When a Child Has Died by Suicide

Suicide can leave the survivors with anger, confusion and guilt, and even well-intentioned words can cause pain.

By Gayle Brandeis, “What to Say (and Not to Say) to Someone Grieving a Suicide” New York Times, May 8, 2019

“There are no words”

As a mother who lost her son and only child to suicide, I can vouch for how stymied people get when they try to offer their condolences to parents bereaved by the suicide of the their child. The stigma around “suicide” lends a sense of awkwardness to even saying the name of this form of death out loud. I didn’t know how true this was until my son died by suicide.

Recently after my son died, I attended a Labor Day party that included my colleagues from work. The greatest gift of grief support came from a colleague who simply offered these words: “There are no words.”

Yes-when a parent loses a child, “there are no words.” And yes, when a parent loses a child by suicide, “there are no words.” The solemnity of the tragedy of my son’s sudden death was expressed in those few chosen words, for indeed, “There are no words.”

Please Ask My Child’s Name

Asking me to tell you about my child is not the same as asking me to explain their death. Ask my child’s name and what they were like because I (just like most parents) love to talk about my child. If I have tears, it’s because I lost my child and not because you brought the subject up. It does my heart good to hear my child’s name. If you knew my child, I welcome stories and memories of my child. It’s a lonely world without my child, and it’s easy to feel everyone’s forgotten I have a child who lived and breathed-and mattered.

Platitudes Don’t Help

“At least you had your son for 19 years.” “He’s in a better place.” “It isn’t right.” “Suicide is selfish.” “God must have needed another angel.” “You’re so strong.” Or worse yet, “I’d just die if anything happened to my child.” As well meaning as these things that were said to me were, not a single one helped ease my burden of mourning and grief after the death of my son by suicide. I am not strong because I survived my son’s death. I live on because as long as I live, my son does too.

Stigma of Suicide

My son died by suicide. Perhaps the harshest stigma of suicide persists (and still exists) when someone who has died by suicide is said to have “committed” suicide. To “commit suicide” is lexicon that harkens back to a time when historically, dying by suicide was considered a criminal act because so little was understood about suicide. No one “commits” death, and dying by suicide is properly referred to as she or he “died by suicide.”

the criminal language associated with the suicidal act endures in the lexicon. Specifically, using the phrase “to ‘commit’ suicide” equates the act with homicide or fratricide, and suggests that it is akin to “self-murder”.

Jack Jordan, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and grief counselor

The will to live and the instinct of “fight or flight” means that we rally against death and dying as long as we can in our lifetimes. Suicide is not “selfish” any more than dying by heart disease or cancer is “selfish.” Suicide is a tragic death, a sudden, violent, and unexpected death. Dying by suicide doesn’t make sense, and research is now focused on preventing death by suicide.

Break the Silence, Shame, and Shunning

As the mother of an only child who died by suicide, I find research that suggests suicide is always preventable deeply disturbing. I do not believe this means of death can always be prevented any more than any other means of death can always be prevented. The important word is “always.”

Suicide research is absolutely essential for knowing how to prevent what seems an unnecessary means of death. Suicide intervention can help, understanding and talking about suicide can help, and postvention follow-up can help those who have attempted suicide.

But for a mother or father who has lost a child to suicide, that the death of their child might have been prevented places a heavy burden of shame and blame on their parenting abilities. That something must have been “wrong” at home with the parenting when a child dies by suicide is simply not true.

Ideas for Offering Grief Support

Breaking the stigma of suicide means breaking the taboo of silence around suicide. Talk to those who have lost a loved one to suicide; offer condolences; provide emotional and physical support just as you would any parent who loses a child to any means of death.

There is no equivalent to losing a child. And when a child dies by suicide, the parent(s) already feel isolated. “Why?” “How did I fail my child?” “Why couldn’t I keep my child safe?” are questions that haunt those left behind. In breaking the silence, we break the stigma.

Because of the taboo and stigma attached historically to [suicide], too many people think that they should not bring it up at all.

Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., Grief counselor and educator, Center for Loss and Life Transition

Too often, others simply do not know how to talk to a parent who has lost a child to suicide. They fear upsetting the parent(s) so they say nothing.

Things to Say that Might Help:

Grief counselor Jack Jordan advises “The first thing is to not treat suicide as if it’s so weird or different or special that you don’t say anything.” He goes on to advise the following things to say and do that might help:

So offer your condolences. Attend the funeral if you can. Send flowers and a handwritten note. All of these acknowledge that something really tragic has happened for the person, and it communicates that you’re really willing to be there for the person rather than, ‘This is too difficult and awkward to talk about.’

Jack Jordan, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and grief counselor

Watching a loved one struggle with the pain and devastation of losing someone to suicide can make you feel utterly helpless. You might want to reach out, but hesitate because you don’t know what to say or do, and perhaps worry you might somehow make them feel worse.

AFSP, 10 Ways to Support a Loved One Who Has Lost Someone to Suicide
  1. Refrain from saying “I know how you feel” unless you are also a suicide loss survivor. Instead, something like, “I don’t know what to say: I have no idea what you’re going through, but I care about you and I want to be here for you,” will be more honest and meaningful.
  2. Read about suicide loss. You’ll better understand what your loved one is experiencing, and in the process might discover helpful information you can share with them.
  3. Don’t wait for your loved one to ask you for help; they may be too deep in their grief to realize what they need. Rather than saying, “Let me know if I can help,” do something specific for them, like shop for groceries, offer to babysit, bring dinner to their home, etc.
  4. Help connect your loved one with other suicide loss survivors through International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, AFSP’s Healing Conversations program, and bereavement support groups.(When appropriate, consider offering to accompany them to an event so that they don’t feel so alone.)
  5. Many people find that professional counseling helps them deal with their grief in a healthy way. Help your loved one search for a therapist, schedule appointments, etc.
  6. Don’t be afraid to speak the name of the person who died. Your loved one will be grateful for the opportunity to reminisce.
  7. Knowing what to expect and learning from someone else’s experience can help both you and your loved one get through the more difficult times.
  8. Just be there. Sit with them. Watch TV or a movie. Listen to music. Go for a walk together.
  9. Be patient. This experience has changed your loved one’s life forever. The weeks and months following the funeral, when the initial shock wears off and the full reality of what has happened sinks in, may be the toughest for them. 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.
  10. Most importantly, be sure to remind your friend of their self-care needs: get plenty of rest, eat nutritiously, etc.

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