A friend of mine of 25+ years committed suicide last week. It shocked me and shook me. I'm still trying to process what happened, and even - on some level - believe that it really happened. Other than "I don't understand" and "why," two things we'll likely never know, I've been at a loss for words. At the same time, emotions have been a roller coaster and seem to come out of the blue. I asked a colleague, professor of psychology at St Charles Community College, and someone who volunteers on a suicide hotline if she had any resources or information she could share. Knowing others could use these same resources and information, I asked Lisa to be a guest blogger. You'll see that I'm not the first person who has asked Lisa for information this month even. Hopefully this information will help someone else as well.
My name is Lisa Stoner and besides being a professor of psychology here at SCC, I also work on a suicide hotline and have worked with quite a few suicidal people in the clinical setting. It is worth saying, and I say it as often as I can, that most suicidal people don’t want to die. They just want their suffering to end. I could list the risk factors for suicide, but that is not my purpose with this blog post. If you are interested in learning those risk factors and how to help a suicidal person, watch the video at the end of this post or check out the following website - http://www.helpguide.org/mental/suicide_prevention.htm.
My purpose is, instead, to give some suggestions on how to help those left behind. In the last month, I have had three colleagues ask how they can help a friend who has lost someone to suicide. Sadly, there is no simple answer. It’s hard enough to have a loved one die, but it’s even more distressing when they die by suicide mainly because it is so stigmatized in our society.
According to the American Association of Suicidology, there are over 32,000 suicides in the United States annually. It is thought that each suicide intimately affects about six other people, which is probably a conservative estimate. So, all of these people are left to make sense of what happened. The big question then becomes, what can we do to help those left behind? Below are some tips I've found valuable in my years of clinical work and crisis intervention.
- It’s OK to say, “I don’t know what to say.” The most important thing you can do is listen. Listen without criticism or judgment.
- Don’t say the suicidal person was selfish. That is an extreme simplification of the despair and anguish the person who died by suicide was experiencing.
- Don’t avoid the topic, but if the survivor doesn’t want to talk, then just be there with him/her.
- Be patient. There is no time limit on grief. Let the survivor tell his/her story as many times as needed.
- Encourage professional help if you feel it’s needed.
Unfortunately, I can guarantee that you will know someone affected by suicide, either because that person is suicidal him/herself or because he/she has had a loved one die by suicide. I ask you to please show them the love and compassion they deserve. “A person's most useful asset is not the head full of knowledge, but a heart full of love, an ear ready to listen, and a hand willing to help.” – author unknown
Lisa Stoner, MS
St. Charles Community College