Immediately After a Suicide (or Any Sudden Death)
I’m posting the following writing on my blog, because unfortunately, I get asked frequently about how to help a family after a suicide. (My son died by suicide in 2012 at the age of 21.)
I wrote this article and posted it to my Facebook wall a while back. Soon thereafter, a parent whose child had died suddenly, commented that it can be applied to any tragic death.
I want to provide a place where individuals can access this information quickly. Feel free to post it to Facebook or email it to those who would benefit from reading it.
When Someone Dies by Suicide (or Any Sudden Death),
What Does One Immediately Do or Say?
(c) by Emily Boller
First of all, the family is in intense shock. They may not totally understand or grasp the news of what just happened.
Initially, in those first few hours, they are in this perpetual state of shock–just surviving–and scrambling to get the news delivered to other family members.
Their brains are on overload.
At this point they can’t process a lot of phone calls or texts, except a few from very close friends and family members.
If you know details about the death, don’t post anything on Facebook or send emails out to contact lists until the family is talking openly and publicly about it.
Give the family time and space to process what just happened.
Sit tight for a day or two.
Do nothing but pray at this point.
Close friends and clergy should come by the house during this time, of course, because their comforting presence is invaluable. (A nearby neighbor brought over warm soup and fresh fruit that first day. Another close friend brought a large salad–and another gave us a wad of cash.)
After a day or two, food in disposable containers, and practical items such as paper plates, toilet paper, tissues, and bottles of water are welcome and appreciated. The family is consumed with funeral and burial decisions, and the last thing on their mind is life’s basic necessities.
If you are bringing food, consider foods that promote healing instead of foods that induce additional stress to their already fragile state of being. Examples would be vegetable or fruit platters, bean dips, and hearty vegetable and bean soups.
Monetary gifts, gift cards, and cards of sympathy are also greatly appreciated. (They are also suddenly inundated with an avalanche of unplanned expenses; everything from funeral and burial expenses to crisis-intervention counseling. And especially, if a child was involved, I can’t think of any parents who financially budget for the death of a child!)
Practical helps such as mowing the lawn or taking out the trash are also appreciated. The family is mentally and emotionally overwhelmed and distraught. They may not have the mental capacity to even know what needs to be done. Don’t be afraid to take initiative and just do practical tasks for them–whether they are a close friend or not.
Try not to say, “Call me if you need anything.” Although the kind intention is much appreciated, they don’t have the mental fortitude yet to take the initiative to reach out.
In that first week/month, the family’s routine is completely out-of-sync. Sleep habits are severely disrupted. Everything is upside down in their world. They may not even be able to comprehend or remember anything that is spoken to them.
Wounds are profound. Emotions are raw.
Eventually, after the funeral is over and life is a bit quieter for them, visit in-person–but call first. If they don’t answer the phone, take no offense. They may just need space at that moment . . . or they may be embarrassed how messy their house has become in the aftermath of the tragedy. They may want company on-down-the-road. Try again a week or two later. Extend a listening ear without asking a lot of questions. Silence is okay. Just sit with them in their grief. Your presence is invaluable.
And whatever you do, please don’t tell them your grief story. They may act interested, but on the inside they may be falling apart and can’t handle it.
Younger children appreciate getting breaks away from the chaos and sorrow at home. Offer to involve them in your family’s happenings for a welcome distraction–but not for long periods of time–home is still a place of comfort for them.
Teens oftentimes are uncomfortable with receiving hugs from adults they don’t know; be sensitive.
Most of all, know that they may suffer for weeks, months, and for many, possibly years to come.
(For instance, suicide is very complicated to process. It’s not normal grief. The family may have additional layers of unresolved crises to deal with due to the deceased person’s battle with mental illness leading up to the death. Don’t expect a normal grieving pattern.)
Most of all, never stop reaching out to the family, even if it feels awkward–and never stop praying for them–even months after the funeral. (The funeral was just the beginning of the long, healing journey ahead.)
And if you don’t know what to do or say, send a thoughtful card or brief note that expresses you are thinking of and praying for them.
Always remember, love never fails.
Love is what heals a broken heart.
If you have experienced a sudden death, please feel free to share in the comments what helped you the most through those first days and weeks. It is beneficial information for those who don’t know what to do or say–but want to be supportive.
If a child has died, “The Compassionate Friends” is a wonderful support group for grieving parents. Almost every city in the US has a local chapter.