I volunteer with an organization that allows me to speak in high schools and tell the students my story of mental illness, suicide attempts and recovery. Recently, I was able to speak at their parent night where the parents could hear exactly what we share with the students. It was followed by a question period. The first question was from a gentleman sitting near the front. He took the microphone, slowly got up and asked a question from the heart. He shared with me, and the audience, that someone close to him had died by suicide and he and his family were struggling with the guilt and pain of this trauma. He then asked me if he could have seen warning signs or if he should have done anything differently.
How do you tell someone how they could have prevented a suicide? How do you begin to help them make sense of the complex emotions that come with this event? As always, my first response was to focus on empathy and support. I thanked him for trusting us with this information, for making himself vulnerable and sharing with us. Because it can be so hard to open up the most intricate part of our pain for everyone to hear. I expressed that warning signs are different for everybody and to focus on the self-compassion piece of the situation.
That is what is key to remember here. That self-compassion is part of the healing process, part of the grieving process and of the road towards letting go of that guilt and facing the pain head-on to learn how to process it and cope with it.
Suicide does sometimes come with warning signs. However, they look different for everybody, some even being contrary to each other, depending on the person. In terms of being aware of when we can reach out to someone to check in or to offer support, here are some things to keep in mind:
High Risk Warning Signs
· Talking about wanting to harm or kill oneself
· Collecting materials necessary to carry out the act
· Doing research on how to carry out the act
· Writing about death, dying or suicide
· Feeling better or more at peace when one was previously very depressed
Other Warning Signs
· Sleeping much of the time or sleeping very little
· Withdrawing from family and friends or putting on a façade to hide the pain\
· Increased substance use
· Reckless behaviour
· Talking about feeling trapped, hopeless or a burden to others
In supporting people on the crisis helpline, we are trained to ask directly about suicidal intent when we hear phrases such as the following:
· “I just can’t do it anymore.”
· “I don’t see a way out of this.”
· “I can’t go on.”
· “I want to disappear”
· “If anything happens to me, take care of _______”
And of course, any direct mention of suicide or killing oneself warrants further questioning and support to ensure the person’s safety is not at risk.
THAT BEING SAID. While these are signs that may help you determine when to offer additional support to someone or check in on their safety, as you can see some are one way for one person and the opposite for another. And some people show very few warning signs at all.
What is important to remember, as I mentioned above, is that the time after the suicide of a loved one is important for YOU. It is important to support yourself and care for your mental wellbeing. Guilt is a normal part of the grieving process but remember that it is NEVER YOUR FAULT. Anger may also be part of the grieving process. Anger at your loved one for leaving you, and further guilt at feeling this anger. Suicide is a loss like no other and comes with an extremely complex grieving process.
Part of that blame comes from the illusion of control; the belief that we had much more control over the situation than we actually did. Someone who is suicidal is living with an untold amount of emotional and psychological pain. Most often, that pain requires professional treatment. As family and friends, we most often do not have that training, we do not have the tools to help the person unpack and heal that pain.
Compassion, again, is the key. Compassion and forgiveness can help guide you through this process of grieving a loss by suicide. Remember that being a suicide survivor (This phrase does not mean “a person who has attempted but survived”, it actually means “someone who has lost someone to suicide”.) actually puts you at greater risk for attempting suicide yourself. Check in with yourself, reach out to your supports, be self-aware and recognize your emotions. If you feel you are beginning to have suicidal thoughts, use resources to keep yourself safe.
A loss by suicide is extremely painful, complex and overwhelming. Be patient and kind to yourself and reach out for extra support when you need it. Your pain is valid and so is your grieving process.