If you have a friend who has lost a loved one to suicide, you may be wondering how to be there for them. You’re not alone. In 2017, 47,173 people in the United States died by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leaving behind many loved ones in need of solace as they grieve and attempt to heal. Although suicide is tragically common, we as a society are often not great at talking about it, especially with those who are survivors of suicide loss.
“Because of the taboo and stigma attached historically to [suicide], too many people think that they should not bring it up at all,” grief counselor and educator Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., founder-director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, tells SELF.
This can give your friend the devastating and isolating sense that they’ve been abandoned at a time when they most need support. “Survivors [can] feel that not only do they have to manage the loss of their loved one, they have to manage [losing other] friends and family members,” clinical psychologist Vanessa McGann, Ph.D., suicide loss division chair for the American Association of Suicidology, tells SELF.
Choosing to talk about your friend’s loss despite any uncertainty, helplessness, or discomfort you may feel is an act of love. While every loss is different and there are no lines of dialogue that will apply to everyone, suicide bereavement counselors do have some recommendations for what to say in this awful circumstance—and what not to say too.
The following phrases may offer comfort:
1. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
This is a good sentiment to express when a friend’s loved one dies from any cause, including suicide. Yes, losing a loved one to suicide can be very different from other kinds of death in various ways. But your friend has suffered a grave loss either way. Not acknowledging this can make your friend feel shunned and perpetuate stigma around suicide.
“The first thing is to not treat suicide as if it’s so weird or different or special that you don’t say anything,” clinical psychologist and grief counselor Jack Jordan, Ph.D., tells SELF. “Treat [your friend] as you would treat anybody you care about who is grieving and in pain.”
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,’ ” Jordan explains.
2. “I know how much you love [their loved one’s name]. This must be so hard.”
Explicitly mentioning the person who died is a subtle but effective way to convey your support. This tip might seem obvious, but the experts note that many people in this situation avoid saying the name of the person who died (or avoid referring to them by their relationship to the bereaved friend, like “your mom”). Acknowledging who your friend lost instead of treading around it may help them feel as though their loved one isn’t going to be forgotten.
3. “I want you to feel safe sharing anything with me. Do you want to talk about it?”
Many myths about suicide persist, like that it’s a “selfish” act that needs to be hidden. Many survivors of suicide loss have internalized this stigma. They may be reluctant to speak about the experience for fear of being judged or making someone uncomfortable.
“People who lost someone to suicide are often looking for cues from the people around them,” Jordan explains. Instead of assuming your friend knows they can talk to you, make that explicitly clear. Communicate that suicide is not a taboo subject for you, and give your friend permission to express their feelings without fear of criticism, Wolfelt says.
Samantha Seigler, 29, lost her younger brother to suicide seven years ago. “I liked having somebody to talk to about it,” she tells SELF, explaining that it can be as simple as someone asking, “How are you doing?” or, “Do you want to tell me how you’re feeling?”
4. “It’s OK if you don’t want to talk about this now. I’m here to listen whenever.”
Whether your friend is preoccupied with what’s on their plate or still in shock, they might not be ready to talk about the suicide yet. “You don't always have time to grieve right away,” Samantha says. “For me, it didn’t hit for a while.”
If that’s the case for your friend, they will probably give you a cue to back off and wait, Wolfelt says. Honor that. “Let them know you are ready to listen if and when they want to share,” Wolfelt says. And you can always ask again later or reiterate your availability. “Stay steady in your efforts,” Wolfelt says.
5. “Can I can make dinner/do laundry/run that errand for you?”
Don’t underestimate the power of simple favors. “Taking something off their to-do list can be invaluable,” McGann says.
It’s most helpful if you are proactive instead of just saying, “I'm here if you need anything,” which puts the onus of asking for help on the person who is grieving, McGann says. A few ideas: Bring prepared food, clean the kitchen, help sort mail, babysit, give their kids a ride—whatever you can do to make their life even a tiny bit easier.
In addition to providing practical support, you’re showing how much you care about your friend at a time when it’s hard to come up with comforting things to say. “Sometimes, when words are inadequate, actions can be a symbol of nurturing and love,” Wolfelt says.
Samantha appreciated all of the offers to help her take care of tasks from organizing the funeral to making meals in the weeks following her brother’s death. “Not having to worry about things like that was such a big sense of relief,” she says.
6. “I remember that time when…”
“Usually what people grieving this loss want to do, especially after they get past the initial shock and confusion, is to remember the person’s life—not just their death,” Jordan says. “They are thinking of their loved one all the time,” McGann explains. “It is most likely a relief to get an invitation to open up.”
This was Samantha’s experience. “One of the best things was people telling me stories about my brother,” she says. “Hearing what they loved about him, that people had a good relationship with him, moments they had with him that I didn't know about…that never got old. I didn't want people to remember him by his death or have that define him. It was more about what happened when he was alive.”
If you can’t get a sense of whether or not your friend would appreciate hearing a memory, you can always ask first, McGann says. Say something like, "I was thinking about a memory of [their loved one’s name]. Can I share it with you?"
7. “You can grieve as long and hard as you need to, and I will be here for you.”
It’s not unusual for a survivor of suicide loss to be flooded with concern and support right after the death, then to watch everyone go back to business as usual a week or two later, Jordan says. In combination with our culture’s general hush-hush conventions about grief and suicide, this decline in support can make many people who have lost someone to suicide feel pressured to “get over” the death, Wolfelt says.
But grief doesn’t usually follow a quick and tidy timeline, Wolfelt explains, adding that the unexpected, traumatic nature of losing someone to suicide can make the process even more complex.
Encourage your friend to mourn at their own pace. Make it clear that you’re in it for the long haul, and follow up in the weeks, months, and years after the suicide. “When you talk to survivors, the person they really appreciate is the person who continues to be there for them and check in from time to time,” Jordan says.
For Samantha, the people who stuck around to support her mourning long after her brother’s death really did make the biggest difference. She explains that it helped when people continued to ask how she was doing, if she felt like talking, or if she wanted to grab a meal. Even when she wasn’t up to it, she appreciated knowing that others were still thinking of her.
Now, here are some phrases to avoid:
1. “Oh no, what happened?”
It’s natural to be curious about the exact details of how someone took their life or what may have contributed to the decision, but that really isn’t your business. Asking for details like how the person died can make a suicide loss survivor feel like they are a spectacle, McGann says. Samantha found it hurtful and upsetting when people asked how her brother killed himself: “It was like, why would that matter to you?”
2. “I know exactly how you feel.”
If you’ve never lost somebody to suicide, you might feel totally unequipped to relate to your friend’s loss. The truth is, you’re right, and that’s perfectly OK to admit. “Never say, ‘I know just how you feel,’ because you don’t,” Wolfelt says.
Instead, acknowledge that you can’t claim to know what they are going through. “It’s actually very useful to recognize that you do not know what [this loss] feels like,” Jordan says, “and that there is nothing you can do or say to fix things for them.” This level of honesty and humility is a powerful way to express compassion, Wolfelt explains.
Samantha suggests saying something like, “I have no idea what you’re going through, but I want to be here for you. Do you want to share how you’re feeling?”
If you have lost someone to suicide, it’s OK to mention that, McGann says. If your friend wants to hear more, they’ll ask. Still, don’t claim to know exactly how they feel.
3. “They’re in a better place now.”
When you don’t know what to say after a suicide, you might feel tempted to rely on platitudes like, “Time heals all wounds” and, “At least they’re not in pain anymore.” Even if you intend to be comforting, these statements can feel trite and even insulting to some because they may minimize the depth of your friend’s pain, Jordan explains.
Samantha knew that people meant well when they told her things like, “It was God’s plan,” or “He’s in a better place now.” But they didn’t make her feel better, only misunderstood. “That was just not something I wanted to hear,” she says.
Of course, if your friend uses this kind of language when talking about their loved one, that’s a sign that they may welcome this kind of reassurance. Let them take the lead in going there, though.
Being a fully present listener is often more important than figuring out exactly what to say.
Hopefully, these suggestions offer a place to start when it comes to supporting your friend. But remember that listening with compassion and without judgment can mean the world to people in this situation, Wolfelt says. “Your friend is hurting, and your role is not to change that. It’s to lean into that,” he explains.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t try to always fill the silence or get anxious over landing on the exact “right” words. You can’t necessarily make things better for your friend, but you can give them space to feel their feelings, Wolfelt explains. Sometimes that’s enough.