Mothers of children who die from suicide will struggle with normal grief issues that come with the loss of a child. But they also face challenges that may include guilt at not preventing the death, compulsive questioning about what caused the suicide--including self-recrimination--and possible shame due to the manner of death. Friends should be willing to offer nonjudgmental validation, support, encouragement and information.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, what you say will not be as important as your presence. Your best communication may be simply listening. She will possibly struggle with fear that others believe she was somehow responsible for her child's death. She may struggle with the even deeper fear that they might be right. She will have feelings of pain and loss. She also may be angry at her child and then angry at herself for being angry. She needs to be able to say that out loud. Encourage her to grieve and be a good listener.
Let Her Lead
Let the mother lead the conversation. Don't be afraid to discuss her child if she chooses. Conversely, do not steer her in that direction. She may benefit from the distraction of unrelated subjects. Remind yourself that you do not need to have the "right" words. In fact, if you do not know what to say, tell your friend that. Ask her if you can help with anything. If she says no, ask again later and keep asking.
Acknowledge the awfulness and pain of the tragedy. The mother will want to know people understand the difficulty of her situation. Band Back Together, a support website, gives an example, “This is the worst thing. I am so sorry and sad that it had to happen to you and your child.” What you say is not as important as your presence and consistency, but there are statements to avoid. These include: "It is for the best," "God must have wanted/needed him more," "The silver lining is...," "It gets better with time," "You need to move on," "I know how you feel." These are attempts at explaining, fixing or putting a positive spin on a mother's pain. They are condescending.
Remind her that healing will happen in time. Don't hurry her with expectations about when she should be done grieving. Encourage friends and supporters to be patient. Expect setbacks. She may have good days, months or even years, followed by periods of significant grief. You can best help her by nonjudgmental support, respecting that everyone grieves differently and for differing lengths of time.
Help ease her guilt. You may have the opportunity to do this by reminding her that suicide is a horrible outcome of depression or other mental health issues, just as a heart attack is due to cardiovascular disease. Point out that even mental health professionals cannot predict suicide. Remember to listen first. Let her decide when she is ready to hear feedback and reassurance.
Call and visit her. Encourage her to join a support group -- it will help her heal. Give her resource options, including support groups, spiritual help or counseling referrals. If she struggles with symptoms of depression, encourage her to seek professional help. Offer to drive or accompany her to counseling or support groups if you suspect she may not go on her own. If you believe she may be suicidal, seek help. Call emergency services.
Encourage her to take care of herself. She may struggle with loss of sleep, loss of appetite and lack of motivation for even basic hygiene. Remind her to eat. Supply food if necessary. Encourage her to maintain a regular schedule. If she stops taking care of herself or can't sleep, encourage her to talk to a medical professional. Antidepressants or sleep aids may help.
A Final Tip
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggests avoidance of the phrase "committed suicide." The word "commit" connotes crime. Use terms like died from suicide, died of suicide or died by suicide.
Ellen Topness has been a counselor in the mental health field for more than 25 years. She has a Master of Arts in counseling. Throughout her career, Topness has enjoyed writing articles, poems and vignettes for pleasure. She also released a new ebook, "A Natural Disaster: Learning to Survive Myself."
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