What to Say (and Not Say) When Someone Dies by SuicideLeave your judgment at the door.
In general, death can be pretty tough to talk about, and when a death occurs by suicide, it can feel downright impossible to navigate. Regardless of whether we’re posting on social media about a public figure or talking to a family member of someone who passed this way, finding the words is a struggle.
For a whole bunch of reasons—including our own discomfort and internalized beliefs about suicidal ideation—we can stumble over finding the right thing to say. At best, we end up being awkward and unhelpful or, at worst, hurtful. At the same time, some of us just avoid the whole thing or get caught up in speculation around the event itself. That’s all not great.
Yes, suicide is complex—like, really complex—and it’s OK that you feel all sorts of stuff when it happens and thus have no freaking clue how to talk about it. In fact, honoring that is actually the ticket to being able to talk about a person’s suicide without completely panicking.
But there’s a whole lot more to it than that. Here, we asked experts how to have hard conversations, show up for those impacted, minimize any potential contagion, and stop perpetuating stereotypes (even accidentally). Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.
1. Accept that you don’t have any answers.
Our brains are meaning-making machines, so the urge to “figure out what happened” when someone dies by suicide is understandable. But anytime that impulse tries to pop into the conversation, nip that shit in the bud.
“A suicide loss involves a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity—and our discomfort with that can lead to simplistic explanations and the tendency to blame a single cause or person,” explains clinical psychologist Nina Gutin, PhD, who specializes in suicide prevention. Thing is, there is no simple explanation as to why someone took their life, so speculating about it is pointless. On top of that, it fuels gossip and creates more pain for suicide loss survivors (even if that’s not your intention!). It can also hurt anyone you’re talking to who may have been touched by suicide in some way.
2. Audit your beliefs about people who die by suicide.
Historically, our culture has been rife with some pretty awful myths about suicide and those who die by it, including the idea that those people are weak, selfish, or cowardly, says Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, a therapist and author whose work focuses on all things related to suicide. In reality, though, people who die by suicide are often struggling with cognitive distortions or other forces they see no way out of, she explains.
There are many intersecting factors that can lead to suicidal ideation aside from mental health issues, explains Dr. Gutin. Most of the time, people who act on their suicidal thoughts are attempting to “escape extreme pain,” adds Dr. Gutin. Though the level of suffering is immense, the stigma and shame of having those thoughts in the first place often keeps people from getting help.
Whether you’re reacting to a headline, attending a funeral, or learning that a co-worker has died by suicide, take a good, hard look at any ingrained judgments that might be lurking in a corner of your brain. By replacing harmful stereotypes with a more compassionate understanding (check out this list to get started), you ensure that anything you say will do no harm. That goes a long way to suppport the person’s loved ones or anyone who very well may have experienced suicidal thoughts—or could in the future, Dr. Freedenthal suggests.
3. Don’t let discomfort keep you quiet.
Intense anxiety about saying the wrong thing to someone who has just experienced a suicide loss might—consciously or unconsciously—keep you from reaching out. And even if it feels safer to distance yourself from the topic of suicide or the survivor, that’s not the way to go.
All too often, people who lost a loved one to suicide feel abandoned by people they assumed would be supportive, explains Dr. Gutin. That said, you don’t have to say or do the perfect thing to show up for them. “You can be open and honest with people who are grieving and say you're not sure what to say, and that you feel for them,” says Kathryn Gordon, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of The Suicidal Thoughts Workbook. Being present, even if it’s a little clumsy, is worth the discomfort.
4. Know it’s OK to talk about suicidal ideation.
Another reason people keep quiet after a death by suicide is because they worry talking about it could trigger suicidal ideation and behavior in others. But, know this: Research suggests asking people about their suicidal thoughts does not make these outcomes more likely. Those findings also suggest that talking about it actually reduces the risk of suicidal ideation.
Plus, it can be especially beneficial to talk about suicidal thoughts and feelings with anyone personally affected by a suicide loss, since it’s common for survivors to experience them, the experts suggest.
So go ahead and check in with anyone close to the person who died (or anyone who seems to be really affected by it) about how they’re coping and offer your support. It could be life-saving, the experts say. If they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Dr. Gordon recommends guiding them toward professional help and sharing crisis lines (such as 988) with them. You can also check out this list of ways to help someone with suicidal thoughts.
The one no-go: Whether you’re sharing difficult news with a friend or posting on social media, do not talk about the method through which a suicide death occurred, urges Dr. Gutin. Research shows that this seems to be particularly dangerous when the deaths of celebrities or other public figures are sensationalized, but it’s worth avoiding no matter who passed.
And though this should really (!!!) go without saying, don’t ask survivors about the details of the loss, since doing so can trigger PTSD symptoms, Dr. Gutin adds. Instead, honor the victim’s life, she suggests. Validate the distress of those hearing about the loss, and highlight resources for support.
5. Just BE there.
Death by suicide often leaves loved ones with sadness, shock, and guilt that hit harder than grief brought on by other deaths, explains Dr. Gordon. This is why comforting a grieving friend by checking in on their well-being is so important—and also why it can be so hard to know how the heck to show up for them in a way that feels even somewhat adequate.
So, first, take the pressure off yourself. Then, do all the things you would typically do for someone who just lost a friend or family member (like sending meals, attending services, or other helpful stuff). Also, be sure to ask them what they need. “It may be a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold in silence, a conversation, or anything else—and it is likely to change over time,” Dr. Gutin says. Check in often, listen without interrupting, and ask open-ended questions when they want to talk, adds Dr. Freedenthal.
6. Resist the urge to fix.
This might sound pretty obvious, but in order to be present for anyone grieving a death by suicide, you need to acknowledge and check any desire to make things better. Even though it’s natural to try to make things right when we’re uncomfortable with the pain we’re experiencing or witnessing, there’s really nothing to do.
“To heal from grief and integrate the loss, one must initially bear and process the pain,” says Dr. Gutin. “Although it may seem counter-intuitive, don’t give advice about how to move on or get over the loss,” she adds. “You can offer to listen, to bear witness to the pain, and to hear stories and memories without judgment.” It may challenge your own capacity for discomfort, but you can totally do it.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.