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How to talk about the suicide of your loved one

by Ronnie Walker MS, LCPC

“I’m afraid to talk about how she died. I’m afraid of what people will think.”
“I can’t talk about it without crying.”
“It’s just too painful. I can’t go there.”

In the aftermath of suicide, talking about what happened can be very painful for survivors.  Members of the Alliance of Hope community often tell me that they feel great trepidation at the thought of having to answer others’ questions about the death of their loved ones.  Survivors concerns generally fall into two areas.

Some survivors fear that they will lose control of their emotions when talking about the loss. This is particularly true when the loss is very new. I tell survivors they don’t have to talk about anything just because someone asks. If it’s too painful, one can politely say “I’m sorry. It’s just too painful for me to discuss right now.” 

Other survivors worry because they aren’t sure what to say. They fear they, their family, or their loved one will be judged because of the suicide. When survivors are willing to talk about the death, but aren’t quite sure how to do it, I suggest they prepare something ahead of time to fall back on. I suggest they create something akin to an “elevator speech.” 

For those who aren’t familiar with the term: an elevator speech is “a short summary used to quickly and simply define a person, profession, product, service, organization or event …. The name ‘elevator pitch’ reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver the summary in the time span of an elevator ride, or approximately thirty seconds to two minutes.” – Wikipedia

I suggest to survivors that they design a response they can use time and again, if and when they choose to let casual acquaintances know about the death of their loved one. That response can be short, to the point, and contain only the information that the survivor chooses. By its very nature, it creates the “reality” one chooses to present.

As an example, I am often asked how I began my work in this area. That brings up the death of my stepson Chan, in 1995. From the get-go, I took a stand that Chan’s memory would be respected. His life would not be summed up only by the way in which he died. What I say reflects that.

I say: “My stepson Channing was an extraordinary young man. When he was 16, he developed bi-polar disorder. It was a devastating genetic disease that caused his moods to swing. He rose to the challenge of the disease for 4 years, but at the age of 21, when he was a junior at Stanford, he fell into a deep depression and ended his life. It was a devastating loss for our whole family.” 

That’s it.  71 Words.  

By what I’ve chosen to say (and not say) I’ve set the tone. Chan was an extraordinary young man. A glimpse into his life as a student at Stanford. Devastating disease. We grieve his absence. 

Invariably, the listener will extend their compassion and condolences and then – almost always – share about someone they know who ended his or her life. A child, sibling, extended family member, neighbor, or friend. 

I’ve helped many survivors find a short yet powerful way to respond to questions and remain in control of the conversation.  Here are four components to include if you want to put together your own ready response. 

Who was your loved one?  (Examples:  A talented musician / brilliant student / the kindest person you could ever meet, etc.)

What challenge did they face? (Examples:  Debilitating depression / addictions resulting from self-medication / chronic pain / business reverses / failed marriage)

How did they struggle against that challenge? (Example:  they tried to ___________ )

How was it for their family / friends when they ended their life? (We miss her every day / we wished he could have found better help / there is a hole in our hearts that will never be filled.)

In closing, I want to be clear: as we all know, there is much more to be said, when we lose a loved one, than just 70 words. Our hearts and minds are filled with words and emotions that need to be felt and expressed. Hopefully, all suicide loss survivors will find access to healing support that provides a safe opportunity for full self-expression in whatever manner and for as long as they need it. There is there is no right or wrong way to talk about the loss of your loved one, just as there is no right or wrong way to grieve. 

Be guided by your heart.