By Aileen Kim, MD

In part I and II of my educational series on suicide, I discussed how to recognize suicide risk, and identified actions that laypersons can take if they suspect a loved one might be suicidal. 

Taking action to help someone who is suicidal matters, but the reality is that suicide is not 100% preventable. I imagine that we all hope this post is something that we will never need. I know I did. However, a few months ago, a physician colleague of mine took her own life, which left my professional community feeling sad, shocked, confused and devastated. 

Since suicide is a relatively uncommon event, most of us had never experienced this kind of loss before. Many of us were unsure of what we could do to help and support each other after this loss. As we wrap up National Suicide Prevention Month, in this third and last installment of my educational series on suicide I will share some guidance on how to help a survivor of suicide loss. 

  • Simply listen. Being present is in of itself a form of validation. 

  • Give accurate refection ("I can see that losing  ____ has you feeling shocked/sad/confused) if you feel you are able to do so. If you don't know how, or don't what to say that is OK. 

  • Let survivors of suicide know that you radically accept their feelings about the loss as they are, without trying to change the distressing feelings or problem solve. Let survivors take the lead in sharing and talking about the loss. 

  • Used the loved one’s name instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’. This humanizes the decedent; the use of the decedent’s name will be comforting.

  • Refrain from judgmental language about the suicide, the person who died by suicide, or preconceived notions about suicide.  A subtle but significant example: many of my colleagues expressed objection to the use of the phrase "committed suicide" which can be potentially stigmatizing and shaming to survivors. Consider instead saying "died by suicide". 

  • Ask if survivors would like connection to professional help and support resources before offering; again, practice acceptance before promoting change. Give survivors the chance to move through changes at their own pace and on their own terms. Practice patience and acceptance of differences in how individuals grieve and process the loss. 

It's OK to ask survivors what they need. It can be an open ended question, or you can offer suggestions for them to accept or decline. 

There is nothing "wrong with you” if you feel uncomfortable with feelings and discussion about suicide. Suicide is a harrowing event. Do your best to accept your own discomfort and refrain from self-criticism and assumptions that others are judging you for it; I've observed that fear of such judgment can inhibit people from reaching out to offer support. Survivors of suicide will likely appreciate your positive intentions and the fact that you are consistently making an effort to offer your support and caring. 

References: survivors/hepling-survivors-of-suicide_what-can-you-do.pdf

Contents of this blog are intended as general educational material and are not a substitute for advice from a healthcare professional in the context of a treatment relationship. If you or someone you know is suicidal, call 1-800-273-8255, 911 or use the nearest Emergency Room.