It’s hard to know what to say to someone when they’ve lost a relative or friend to suicide, but your support can make a huge difference. Being there for them without judging and being prepared to listen well if they want to talk are the two things that can help the most.
You might feel you don’t know what to say or do, but offering ongoing care and compassion, and being prepared to listen if they want to talk, can help a lot. It won’t take their pain away, but it can make the road ahead a little less traumatic.
Acknowledge what’s happened. Let them know you’ve heard the news. Use the name of the person who has died and speak respectfully of them.
Express your care and concern. Tell them that you’re there for them and want to support them, now and in the days to come. Respect any cultural differences.
Listen to them. Don’t interrupt. They might repeat themselves sometimes. Be patient. Repeating is a way of processing what’s happened. Don’t push them to talk or to tell more than they want to. Their emotions may be very strong, even extreme, but let them get out what is inside. Understand if they would rather talk with someone else. You can show your support and care in other ways.
Let the person grieve. It’s painful but grief is normal and healthy. Don’t minimise their loss or criticise how they’re dealing with it. Be accepting. Let them grieve in their own way, at their own pace. Bereaved parents can have an especially difficult grief journey and can need a lot of caring understanding and support
Silence might be what they need. Don’t always fill silence with words. You can also show support through eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
It’s okay to feel emotion yourself. Just make sure your focus is on the person. If you get overwhelmed, take a break to catch your breath. You don’t want the person to feel they’re responsible to support you.
Ask how you can help or make specific offers. Don’t force help on them. Offer to do things like take them to an appointment, have a coffee, or drop off a meal. It’s okay if they say no. Offer again another time.
Avoid giving opinions and strong advice not asked for. You don’t need to know the answers to all their questions. If you do have some suggestions, start by saying… "Have you thought about..." or "You might like to...", so the choice stays with them.
Check in with them regularly. Don't assume how they are. Ask them. The grieving process can be long and complex, so continue supporting them. Remember key dates such as anniversaries and birthdays. When the moment seems right, share positive memories.
Find out and about trauma and grief. These information sheets can help you better understand what the person you’re supporting may be going through.
Encourage them to consider using the free government-funded suicide bereavement support services of Aoake te Rā. Find out more about their free services around AotearoaNew Zealand here.
Watch for warning signs of suicidal thinking. When someone is bereaved by suicide, it’s not uncommon for ideas about suicide to come into their own mind. This can place those who are especially vulnerable at risk. Look for the warning signs below. Talk honestly with them and get professional help for them as soon as possible.
You could say: “I’m very concerned about you right now. I think you need to talk with someone about how bad you are feeling and get some help. How can I support you to find that help?
For more information see Worried someone is thinking of suicide? a booklet by the Mental Health Foundation which offers some helpful tips.
See Tihei Mauri Ora by the Mental Health Foundation for information for Maori whānau and friends who want to support someone who is in suicidal crisis or distress. You can read it online or order a copy.
o Persistent feelings of bitterness, anger, rage, guilt, self-blame, whakamā.
o A lack of concern for themselves, neglecting their own well-being.
o Negative changes in their behaviour at home, socially, or at work.
o Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
o Sleeping little, or a lot more.
o Changes in appetite.
o Inability to enjoy life.
o Extreme anxiety, depression, or dramatic changes in mood.
o Ongoing feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.
o Saying there’s no reason for living or they have no purpose in life.
o Talking/writing about joining their loved one who has died, or “being better off dead”.
o Talking about being trapped or wanting to escape to end their emotional pain.
o Talking directly about dying or attempting suicide, possibly making threats.
In an emergency crisis, don’t hesitate to call 111 and stay with them, until help arrives.
Contact your local DHB’s mental health crisis team. (See page 8 of the booklet this links to)
Take good care of yourself too. Supporting someone bereaved or affected by suicide can be challenging, especially if you’re grieving the loss too. Suicide is confronting, unsettling, and tragic. Your own well-being matters as well.
Talk with a Victim Support Worker. You can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker.
Other useful websites and information
Help Give Hope – Le Va
Helping Someone Who’s Grieving - Help guide
Coping with Anniversaries - The Grief Centre