There is little anyone can say or do to help ease the pain of losing a child.

As "reason" failed to convince a friend or loved one that life is worth living, it then fails as well, to explain to us why a tragic death has happened. Why him or her? Why now? Why this way?

Whether the death is clearly due to suicide or seemingly the accidental result of some life-threatening behaviour, it leaves an endless trail of questions that beg for answers.

We may never discover any satisfactory explanations, but we can help each other to better accept the painful realities of suicide by learning what experience and study have revealed about it and other fatal behaviour.

There is no immunity to suicide. It happens among people of all races, creeds, socio-economic groups and nearly all ages.

Death by suicide is so steeped in myth and mystery, and has been for so many years, it compounds the plight of the suicide survivor in his or her struggle to break free of its stigma. Sometimes described as the "ultimate personal rejection," suicide plunges survivors into a labyrinth of emotional turmoil different from nearly every other kind of bereavement.

If we would help those who grieve when a loved one dies by suicide, we must ever be willing to listen, slow to speak, reluctant to judge, and be present with the most enduring qualities of friendship and patience as grief's slow healing makes its painful progress.

Some "Do's" and "Don'ts"

  • Do attend any public services (even if you were not close friends), your presence with no more than a hug or a handshake, brings more support than all the "rehearsed remarks" you could imagine. * 

  • Listen without judgement. Let them tell the same story over and over. This is one of the ways survivors can begin to grasp the reality of what has happened.  

  • If you must say something, be especially careful not to assign blame, assume feelings, or rationalize reasons for what has happened. As a rule, let their words be your guide; you need not agree nor disagree, only affirm their right to feel as they do. 

  • Inappropriate comments include: "You have other children," "You'll get married again," "You must forget about him or her," "He or she had to be insane," "It was God's will," "Be brave, don't cry, don't talk about it." 

  • Accepting and loving survivors as they are, helps them live with themselves and learn to accept a most "unacceptable" loss. 

  • Try to avoid the words that infer the deceased has committed a crime. 

  • Share a positive memory. In the painful face of the present, some happy and endearing memories help keep one tragic moment from overshadowing a lifetime. 

  • Do something practical: cook a meal or freeze one for the future, help with babysitting, shopping, phoning, fixing, driving, etc. Don't wait for them to call you (most never will!). 

  • Be persistent, but thoughtful and patient. It is hard to accept help, but as months pass they will need you more and more - not less and less. 

  • Remember holidays and the anniversaries of important dates with a visit or a call. Suggest several things to do together and let them choose but not refuse without discussion. 

  • Perform what you promise. Disappointment is devastating and destroys the very best of your good intentions. 

  • Be aware of self-help groups and offer to go with your friend. Read all you can.

Understanding Suicide:

Some Questions and Comments

Must you be insane to take your own life?

No. Although many patients diagnosed to be insane do take their own lives, researchers believe that most suicide victims wish not so much to die as to escape pain. They feel so totally trapped by some life circumstances they see suicide as the only way out, yet even in death they may wish somehow to be rescued. Suicide victims have become depressed, but not necessarily insane. Thus to assume a state of insanity may not only be untrue but unkind to survivors.

Are there always warning signs?

Yes and No. Some statistics have reported as many as 80 of suicide deaths have given a clue or warning, however, many of these "warnings" are so disguised or coded that even a trained counsellor may miss them. Survivors must remember that statistics have the benefit of "20 x 20 hind-sight." While the final act of taking one's own life may be the product of a long and much larger process, it is never entirely predictable by any-one - until it has happened.

Do people always leave notes?

No. In many apparent suicide deaths, there are no notes - only circumstances that may indicate a self-inflicted death. Legally, a coroner's jury or medical examiner must register the death as suicidal, homicidal, accidental or of natural causes. For many people, however, such deaths must always remain a mystery with no name. It is a point at which love and the law may never agree.

Why do some people seem so "happy" just before they take their lives?

Feeling like a failure, unable to make firm decisions or succeed at things they see as important, may lead some to seek suicide as something they can do "successfully" once and for all. Therefore, someone who has previously been depressed over a sense of failure, may actually seem relieved or even "happy" at having made definite plans to die. Naturally this is especially hard for families because they never know when to assume a loved one is safe from himself.

How can you watch someone every minute!

Obviously no one can and survivors must not forever carry the unreasonable guilt of assuming this is possible. While the usually long and winding road to death by suicide may afford many opportunities to seek help, there comes a point at which no human can stop another who is firmly committed to self-destruction. Sadly, even when trouble is known, help cannot always be given or received in time. Many arms may reach out to help, but the "tunnel vision" that is so characteristic of suicide, may prevent the victim from seeing the love that is all around him or her.

If Only . . .

If only I'd stopped and knocked on your door, 

If only I'd known you couldn't take any more, 

If only I'd been there, if only I'd called, 

If I'd not been so busy, - and once again stalled. 

Why didn't I see then, the pain in your eyes 

And know that you felt so alone and despised. 

Why didn't I hear the hurt in your voice, 

And know you were about to make your last choice! 

Maybe if I had been home on that day, 

I'd have changed things for you in some little way. 

Maybe if I'd chosen my words with more care, 

I could have seen more and been more aware. 

I feel so bewildered and torn from inside, 

The truth of it all gives me nowhere to hide! 

Each time the phone rings, though I know it's not you, 

I'm still trying to see things from your point of view. 

God, help me to find some true Peace in my mind, 

Without leaving the memories of this friendship behind. 

Grant me the courage to start once again, 

To trust in the love and the life of a friend.

- Karen Howard

Reprinted with the permission of the author for the exclusive use of The Compassionate Friends, South Africa.

COPYRIGHT 1983 B.H. Conley