When someone dies as a direct result of a self-destructive lifestyle, or even through a decision to end their own life, society often has little sympathy for them. In addition to the pain of their bereavement, family and close friends are caused further suffering by the knowledge that society looks down on and judges their loved one. Not only do they have to deal with the loss of someone close to them, but they also feel added pressure and shame from others over what is sometimes known as a ‘socially unacceptable death’. How then do you go about supporting someone who is grieving over a person whom society may condemn?
In many ways they will be travelling a similarly painful journey to others who are bereaved and so will need the same basic support that you might normally offer. However, there will also be unique challenges and a more complex range of emotions to deal with. If your attempts to assist seem to be rejected, don’t take it personally and do keep trying to help – they are hurting deeply and do need you to be there for them.
Although you will never fully appreciate the extent of their grief, begin by attempting to see circumstances through their eyes. Try to appreciate that although the one who has died may have led a troubled life and even caused them terrible pain, family members and friends will still genuinely grieve for them. Though you may struggle to understand it, the bereaved person may have dearly loved them and will still feel the numbness, pain of loss, loneliness and isolation as others who are grieving. Let them know that it’s OK to express this grief.
Often with this type of death there is also the added trauma of the involvement of a coroner and the police, and post-mortems and inquests only serve to intensify the distress. These additional pressures can physically take their toll on those who are grieving; they may feel despair and lose sleep and appetite. The person who found the body may experience traumatic thoughts, memories and even nightmares. This is normal for a while but if prolonged, suggest they speak to their GP.
Those who are bereaved in any type of circumstance may often feel a deep sense of isolation as others don’t know how to relate to them. This feeling is heightened when people struggle to find positive words to say about the deceased and so choose to not say anything at all – or, worse, they say that the person who died deserved what happened. The family may even hear that people think they will be better off without that person around. Those who are grieving may also cut themselves off from others because they fear people’s reactions or feel shame. Show them you still accept them and value their friendship. Remember that silence and avoidance do not necessarily indicate that people do not care and it is possible that some people would like to help but are unsure how to talk to the family about what has happened.
The media may add additional pressure if they detect ‘a good story’, and those who are bereaved may find their grief splashed across the pages of local and even national papers, or conspiracy theories may surface through social media sites. The family may want to consider preparing a written statement to give to reporters that includes positive reflections on the life of the one who has died.
Death has a way of bringing feelings of guilt to the surface, and this is never truer than when someone dies through tragic self-destructive circumstances. “What if…?” and “If only…” questions closely follow on the heels of this kind of grief. “What if I had called him that night?” “If only I hadn’t done that?” “Why couldn’t they talk to me?” Some will want to place blame, and it is often those closest to the deceased who feel the brunt of that blame; families may even resort to blaming each other.
Don’t lightly dismiss the bereaved person’s sense of guilt, but let them talk through these emotions, being realistic about the tragedy that has taken place. Show them they are allowed to forgive themselves if they did or said unhelpful things.
When someone who takes their own life leaves a note expressing anger or blame, allow those who are grieving to talk this through. Remind them that the note was probably written when their loved one’s mind was very disturbed and at a time of great pain, that it does not necessarily reflect that person’s usual feelings, and that the blame may well not be justified. Remind them also that suicide is rarely the result of one single factor or event. The person may have been planning their death for a while and recent incidents may have played only a small part of their downward spiral. The reasons for suicide are usually quite complex and the signs are often hidden, even to health professionals. Suicide may also take family members by surprise if the person appeared to be doing much better. Remind those who are grieving that each of us is responsible for our own actions, they did not make that choice for their loved one and, whilst they cannot change mistakes that have been made, it is likely they did their best to support them.
It is quite natural to want answers, but these can prove elusive and may never be found. If someone has taken their own life and did not leave a note or communicate their reasons, the family may never fully comprehend why they made that choice. The family may even deny that it was actually a suicide. In offering support, try not to over-simplify their situation. There are no simple answers; don’t try to give any.
If the person who died was disruptive or destructive to family life, those who are bereaved may feel a sense of relief that troubled recent events and strained relationships have now come to an end. They may feel ashamed and guilty for feeling this relief, but assure them that these complex emotions are normal. Despite their difficult family member’s lifestyle and choices, they will still be a person with whom they once had a relationship, and they will miss them. Even if they weren’t physically or emotionally safe to be around, their family will often still have deep, if somewhat complicated, feelings for them.
A person who has taken their own life may have thought their family would be better off without them, or felt that it was a way of stopping the emotional pain. Those left behind, however, may feel abandoned and rejected by the person who ‘left’ them alone, or angry that they took a selfish way out and robbed them of a chance to put things right. Help them find positive ways to express their emotions – through social media sites, for example – which may provide a way of publically expressing grief and fond memories.
It can be hard for someone who is grieving to face people and find the right words to explain difficult circumstances surrounding the death, so be aware that they may value the opportunity to talk through with you how they might tell friends and young family members.
Finally, whilst still acknowledging that there were hard times, help them to remember more positive times with their loved one. Suggest looking at photos of better days, and celebrate together the good things about that person’s life.