Supporting Survivors

You can offer understanding and support for survivors of suicide.

  • Honest speech is essential to the bereaved
  • Hear and accept the range of emotions
  • Sensible compassion helps healing
  • Forgiveness assists the survivors and the deceased.
  • Ration time with the bereaved

Helping those who have experienced the suicidal death of someone close to them.

Family, friends and other survivors who have experienced the suicidal death of someone they know:

  • Are driven by the search for reasons as to why the suicide occured
  • They feel guilt
  • Their trust is eroded
  • They may be at risk of attempting suicide themselves
  • They experience intense grief
You can support them by:
  • Get support from Victim Support 0800 842 846
  • Get them to a grief counsellor (Check out our resources page and link to a counsellors directory)
  • Take them to a survivor support group (if there is one locally you may find it through SPINZ who keeps a database of Bereaved by Suicide Support groups: Information Officer Email: chris@spinz.org.nz)
  • Look for a grief support group (Try the pathways listed above)
  • Accept their need to search out the reasons why
  • Encourage them to talk and be a good listener
  • Try to get them to put off making any major decisions
 Key Insights: 
  • Be honest. Grieving can't be completed and healing occur otherwise
  • Hear and accept a variety of emotions
  • Show compassionate acceptance
  • Realize the value of simply being there
  • Promote forgiveness: for the survivors and the deceased.
Counsellors advise speaking plainly to the survivors, saying "suicide", instead of euphemisms like "the unfortunate incident."

This isn't easy, the awkwardness of grief tempts us to hide from the truth. Those bereaved by suicide are tempted to avoid the painful fact that a loved one took his, or her life. But hiding from that fact, only makes it harder to recover from the grief.

No one is comfortable with the reality of suicide. No one should expect to be comfortable talking about it, or even thinking about it. But grieving can't be completed, and healing can't come, if dishonesty takes over.

Honesty, of course, doesn't mean emotional brutality or insensitivity. The facts can be faced gently and lovingly. We don't have to pretend we aren't afraid, awkward, or hurting. In fact, when we show these feelings, we assure the bereaved that it's all right for them to feel and express these emotions.

We need to be ready to hear and accept a wide range of emotions. Some survivors feel intense anger and hatred; others experience remorse or guilt. Still others may feel a sense of relief, or even peace and happiness.

Replacing rejection with acceptance
Life may be filled with rejections: an unkind word, failure to listen, walking out in the middle of a conversation. But none compares with the rejection felt by many survivors. To them the person who committed suicide has said: "I don't want to be around you - ever."

The bereaved rejected in such a final and horrible way, can believed they are the most worthless person alive.

As a friend of the bereaved and now aware that they are feeling full of self accusation, it does help to visit them and assure them of your acceptance. This can become time consuming and there is a risk of too much dependance on you.

Counsellors recommend arranging for other friends and relatives to keep in touch and visit. This shows the bereaved that others also accept them.

The temptation is to think we must have exactly the right words for the bereaved. It helps to realize the value of simply being there.

Understandably, we may feel inadequate for the task, for example thinking: "If only I could think of the right words to say". Or, "I wish so-and-so was here, they could do it much better."

Experience indicates that your sympathetic prescence provides the balm to their agony. They may not tell you so, at the time, but be assured that it is appreciated.

The amount of time spent "being there", of course depends on the helper's schedule. One-to-three hours in the beginning, is usually sufficient to show the family that you care. During that time, it is recommended that you not leave family members alone unless they ask for some privacy. They don't want you there forever, but need to sense you are committed to them.

Pointing to forgiveness
In spending time with survivors, two kinds of forgiveness may be needed. The first involves the survivor who hungers to be forgiven, who feels somehow responsible for the suicide. "If only I had ..."

In the case where family members might have made a wrong decision that directly led to the deceased committing suicide, it is important to seek forgiveness - and to be forgiven themselves.

Christians are usually familiar with the concept of forgiveness and can seek the advice and assistance of a pastor.

Whatever your personal beliefs, there is a concrete, practical side to forgiveness. You may not feel forgiven right now, and you probably shouldn't expect to. Forgiveness is more of an action than a feeling. It's deciding not to make a person pay for what he or she has done.

When a survivor feels unforgiven, it may help to explain that he feels angry with himself for not preventing the suicide. The anger is rooted in hurt, and he will probably feel angry with himself as long as he feels the hurt. But he doesn't have to act on the anger by refusing to accept forgiveness.

Think about what you're doing to yourself. You don't have to keep punishing yourself, constantly reminding yourself of what you did and depriving yourself of the help you could be getting from others. You can decide, step by step, to forgive yourself, learn from your mistake, and maybe help someone else. Once this is accomplished, the survivor is free to move ahead in the grieving process.

Sometimes, no matter how many explanations a survivor hears about his family member's mental state, no matter how many times he is told about the pressures the person who died was under, it doesn't help. He still struggles to deal with his anger and resentment.

The first step in helping this person, is to let him see others forgiving his deceased family member. Not condoning the person's suicide, but showing a willingness to forgive. Then it is important to help him see that refusing to forgive is not hurting the deceased, it is hurting himself. This often helps a person to proceed with his grief.

There are no sure-fire formulas for helping those left behind by suicide. There may be times when we feel out of our league and have to refer to others. But that need not keep us from answering the next call from a stunned survivor.

These recommendations are adapted from an article by pastoral Counsellor Randy Christianson.

When you support someone grieving:
  • Be yourself
  • It's not your job to "fix" them
  • Journey with them, allowing them to set the pace
  • You're never going to get it right all the time
  • Remember to look after yourself too
These grief support recommendations come from www.skylight.org.nz