How to Help Suicide’s True Victims

Phil (Heather’s manager at FeedBlitz) says:

This summer, I’ve had to watch two close friends endure the unfathomable grief of losing family members to suicide. Heather wrote movingly about the excruciating nature of Laura’s loss here and, as Connie pointed out yesterday this was not the first bereavement in Heather’s family this year. In another awful twist for me personally, my friend Anne Weiskopf and her family lost their 17 year old son, Jacob, a few weeks earlier when he, too, took his own life. It’s impossible for most of us to grasp what Laura and Jacob and their families were and are going through. Our hearts break as the devastation ripples through our friends and their families.

Laura and Jacob

Heather and Connie have used their pain to provide tips and ideas for how you can have difficult conversations to make death and its aftermath, especially when unexpected, easier to manage. They have given to you.

But how should we care for Heather, Anne and their families? Death is one of the great taboos of western culture, and many of us are so poorly equipped to understand how to help those left behind. How do we help our friends through their agony?

Grieving for a child or lost sibling can take a lifetime. Initially, that grief can envelop the family in a mental fog – almost a fugue state, as Heather described it to me recently – and it makes it well-nigh impossible for them to function well. It’s not just unexpected tears; there may be flashes of fury, chronic insomnia, forgotten conversations and missed commitments. It might take them two hours just to find the right pair of shoes to go to the store in. And it’s all OK. You must cut them all the slack. Forgive every slight, social gaffe and painful moment. Their pain skews everything; suck it up and try to be kind.

Here’s the kicker. Ceremonies are not the end of the mourning for the family. They are the beginning. Funerals, wakes, sitting Shiva, memorials or whatever rituals your community performs are the time where we pay our respects to both the dead and, more importantly, to the living. We share anecdotes, pictures, songs; there are tears, and, yes, laughter too. Then, rituals performed, most people leave, duty done, back to the real world. At precisely the time when the family – suicide’s true victims – suddenly finds that the doing is largely done, and all that they have left now is endless time to contemplate their loss.

This is the most important time for you to step up, not away.

Everyone will at some point say, “Tell me what I can do for you” and the bereaved will nod – and you probably won’t hear from them. They mostly can’t. Grief comes with the emotions we expect – sadness, pride, survivor’s guilt, perhaps, with suicides and other unexpected deaths – and also with tons and tons and tons of pride.

Don’t wait for the phone call asking for help (and if you do get a call for help, by the way, the answer is “yes,” you drop everything, you do it, and you do it now).

No, instead, impose yourself on them. Pitch in. Don’t wait to be asked. Ask yourself instead what you can do, and then do it. For example:

1) Offer to babysit if the family has young children.
2) Give kids rides to and from school, the mall, sports practice, dance class, their friends’ houses, the movies.
3) Shop for them – “I’m at the store, what do you need?” is the perfect inquiry.
4) Be their chauffeur. It is hard and dangerous to drive when your brain is foggy with grief and your eyes full of unexpected tears because that song just came on the radio. Drive them to work, the store, the airport, church, the bank, the post office – wherever they need to go.
5) Cook. Fill their freezer and when it empties, fill it again. Buy a gift card to their favorite restaurant.
6) Clean it, wash it, fix it. Everything on this site, Home-Ec101.com? Do it for them. Coordinate with local pals and schedule.
7) Pop by; bring coffee. Be present and surround them with life and people. Visit – daily, if you’re close enough personally and emotionally. Set up a schedule. Arrange for friends from out of town to visit over time.
8) Out of town? Visit them, after the funeral. Take them out. Even party a little! It’s counter-intuitive and sometimes discomfiting to see, but they will need to reconnect with humanity and shed stress.
9) Share memories, photos, videos. Keep the “you are not alone” drumbeat up.
10) If they work for you (Hi, Heather), let them know it’s OK not to come in to work. That they have all the time they need. They should not feel pressured or guilty or God Forbid at risk of losing their job if they don’t show up. They will want to show up, mind you. And it’s going to be so hard for them to focus or be productive. Let them find their feet again over time.

At some point, all this imposition will be too much. When the survivors decline to come out, ask that maybe you visit later, request that you ease up on the food already, and start to do their own laundry – you can back off. That will be the time when the grief gets real and you simply need to be available to them when they need you. But this will be weeks or months after the funeral.

Which gets me back to Laura and Jacob.

This week is National Suicide Prevention week. Suicide’s true victims are the living left behind. But in the face of such darkness, we can shine a light. We – you – can save lives. If you can’t help Heather or Anne practically, please consider contributing to The Kristin Brooks Hope Center – funding an online chat-based suicide prevention service IMAlive.org. For young people; for women in abusive relationships, for those afraid or unable or unwilling to safely pick up the phone to ask for help, an online chat service is a great alternative to help them step back from the abyss.

If $50,000 is raised, the Kristin Brooks Hope Centre will be able to keep their chat service up and running 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, until next August. Currently, the total stands at just over $31,000, with a less than FOUR DAYS to go. Consider: If all of Heather’s Twitter followers gave $10, they’d crush that target.

No, we can’t know whether IMAlive would have helped Laura, or Jacob, or the million others a year suicide takes globally. But isn’t the chance of saving one life worth $10? The fund raising is run at Razoo.com, and we can organize communities into teams to help. Team Jacob, in memory of Anne’s son, has been up and running for several days. With Heather’s permission, I have created Team Laura in memory of her sister to unite her community around. Time is short, people. We need to do this. You need to do this.

• To give hope to women like Heather’s sister, Laura, please give to Team Laura here: http://www.razoo.com/story/Saving-Lives-Team-Laura/
• To give in memory of Anne’s son, Jacob, and help teenagers battling suicidal depression, please visit Team Jacob here http://www.razoo.com/story/Get-Punky-For-Team-Jacob

You must give by midnight eastern 9/15. Don’t wait. Please donate and share now.

Thank you.

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Comments

  1. Heather, thanks so much for writing this moving post. It says something about Jacob and about Anne that so many people have been moved by them. Your support of “Team Jacob” is priceless. Thanks again.

  2. Well done – I donated :)

    I would also like to remind everyone that even in families where counseling is not usually considered this is the time for suggesting it. Even if it’s just calling a suicide hotline themselves to get some assistance – but hopefully also some referrals for longer term help

    prayers for both famiies

  3. Annette Riffe says:

    This was a tremendous post! Great information in here. I wanted to add some info from a survivor perspective. My sister didn’t take her own life, it was taken from her, but the ideas are still applicable for those left behind.
    First, when someone dies, someone often says, “I don’t know what to say.” What I respond is, “It’s okay – they know, and they understand. They appreciate that you are there and that you care.” Second, during holidays and birthdays during the first year, there are lots of people there to distract you, and that’s wonderful. But someone needs to remember to be there the *second* year. It’s often harder because there’s no one around to distract you. Birthdays in particular are horrific for a few years.
    Speaking of holidays, survivors might think they should stick to tradition in the absent person’s memory. We were advised to break with tradition the first year. For example, at Thanksgiving we didn’t have a family meal but went to someplace like Plymouth Plantation and joined about 100 people in a First Thanksgiving recreation-type meal. It helps you get through a tough season.

  4. Jamie Cabral says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I have lost two biological children and a child that we were adopting that the birth mother changed her mind after two months. (That child is still alive but I have no contact with her).
    The anniversaries, (of the death, diagnosis, etc) holidays and birthdays are very difficult to deal with, sometimes even years later. Something will trigger a memory and throw you into a deep depression or mood.
    One of the best things was one of my friends came over a week after my daughter died and spent the day with me, she didn’t want me to be alone, she still calls me on my daughter’s birthday, even though my little girl has been gone for 20 years.
    Sometimes just a hug can be so comforting.
    If I may add something else, if you have a friend or friend’s child that is going through cancer treatments, please, please, please go visit them. Don’t use the excuse that, “I want to remember them BEFORE they got sick”. When a loved one is diagnosed, there is so much uncertainty and they need all the support they can get from friends and family. Bring them a meal, spend some time with the one who is sick so the caregiver can have a small amount of time to maybe run errands or just have some time alone to deal with all they are going through. I don’t want to sound preachy, but I have been through this and really want others to understand how they can help.

  5. Thank you for the opportunity to help! Donated. Love you Heather!

  6. Robyn Hornal says:

    My husband died 2 yrs ago this Oct 14. Mostly from drinking (the slowest type of suicide). Yesterday I cleaned my bathroom and powder room – Sink, tub and toilets too. Heather, I don’t know you personally but you’ve been helping me to think about what to next for some time now. Thanks.

  7. Great post Phil with very useful suggestions on how to be there for others. My daughter’s (she’s just 22) boyfriend of 18 months died very suddenly earlier this year, it was not a suicide but still, this post and the comments are very helpful to me as I struggle to know how to help her put things back together. It really is much harder on those left behind regardless of the cause of death, we are left with a huge hole in our lives and very often without the will to fill it or move on.

  8. How about: you really get to kmow the people you are in relationship with, and you do all those wonderful things for the person who feels alone and vulnerable in this world–enough so that the want to end their own lives–thereby, avoiding the creation of “the true victims of suicide”–so called by you. How about that?

  9. Can you even try to fathom what it takes for a human being to override their survival instinct? Just try to imagine it. I assure you, it will whither your marrow. Because THAT is what it has done to your “loved” one that chose non-existence! “The TRUE victims of suicide” is the biggest insult to their desperation you could have chosen. These victims are here, receiving support, and hobbling their way to better days. The wounded walked through the most imposing fear any human ever faces, because they saw NO BETTER DAYS possible for them.

  10. “SUCK IT UP AND BE KIND” while they are still alive!

  11. This is none of my business and I should shut up but I can’t so feel free to delete this comment if you like.
    First, my love to everyone suffering. Suicide is a horrible thing and awareness is a great thing. I’ve donated and it looks like the hopeline met their $50k goal, which is awesome.

    I just wanted to add though – for anyone reading this who is considering suicide – that the “true victims” of suicide are both the people who lost their lives through their struggle with depression and also the family and friends they leave behind. I know you didn’t mean to be dismissive by saying the “true victims” were the ones left behind, and I’ll agree that they are often the forgotten victims of suicide…but anyone reading this needs to know that depression lies, and when in you’re fighting depression it’s easy to read posts like this and feel worthless and awful for even considering suicide, which can make things even worse if you’re hanging by a thread and listening to the lies your brain is telling you. Depression is deadly and horrible, but it doesn’t have to be fatal and I know that you’d want anyone who finds this page to know that you understand that and to know that we recognize that they are just as much of a victim of this horrific enemy that they have to fight so hard against. We’re all in this together….the survivors, the fighters, and those left behind.

    Sorry for derailing the conversation. I just know how it feels inside the mind of a suicidal person and I couldn’t not comment. Thanks for letting me talk.

    • thank you so much for making this comment. i don’t disagree with the idea that the people left behind are victims of suicide, but the implication that the people who were in enough pain to go through with it are somehow “false” victims really hurt me — both as someone who’s considered it and as someone who’s lost people to it.

      • I agree. I’ve attempted. Thank goodness I failed. But my brain still tells me the lies sometimes, and it’s an active fight somedays. When my brain says “I just want to die,” I know it’s not true, but it’s been a very long road learning how to talk back to the voices. This was a very hard post for me to read. Thank you Jenny for your comment. You said what my heart wanted to say without knowing how.

  12. All great comments. It’s important to understand that I by no means diminish the pain of those who take their own lives. They are vital and that is why the whole point of this post is to raise money for prevention.

    Those who take that path are indeed victims. they are victims of mental illness, hopelessness, chronic abuse, mind altering chemicals, a society that continues to ignore their plight and where mental health is still underfunded, dismissed as being lesser, and those suffering are largely doing so invisibly.

    So yes, they are victims, but not of suicide. That is the end of their pain and the start of their loved ones’ suffering. That is the reason I wrote this post. For the loved ones left, and to try to provide another avenue to help the desperate before they take that last step.

  13. https://www.imalive.org/ – if you need to talk online and, for whatever reason, the phone is not right. They can help you be safe.

  14. We did it. Between the teams involved in the fund raising for IMAlive.org, we raised $50k to keep it funded through August 2014. Thank you to all who shared and gave.

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