Close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Suicide is a global phenomenon and occurs throughout the lifespan.
Effective and evidence-based interventions can be implemented at population, sub-population and individual levels to prevent suicide and suicide attempts. There are indications that for each adult who died by suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide (WHO:2019).
Across the internet and elsewhere, people apply the term suicide survivor to two different groups of people: 1) people who struggled with suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide, and survived, and 2) people who were never suicidal at all, but who lost a loved one to suicide. For those who aren’t currently suffering from thoughts of suicide, suicidal tendencies are likely the furthest thing on their minds. However, for someone who is feeling helpless, hopeless, and full of despair, suicide may seem to be just the ticket to solve their problems.
“Regardless of who it is applied to, I have struggled with the term “suicide survivor.” Yes, someone who lost a loved one to suicide did not survive suicide. But really, nobody can survive suicide. Suicide is death. The only “death survivors” or “survivors of death” are those left behind. I presume this is why family and friends were called “suicide survivors” in the first place, just as people who lost a loved one to murder are called “survivors of homicide” and “homicide survivors.”
(Stacey Freedenthal: 2014).
Given the social stigma associated with suicide, suicide survivors are often unable to cope with their loss and grief using normal support systems and are “forced into a privatised and individualistic mode of grieving,” making the healing process even more difficult (Pisón, Ramón Martínez de (2006).
What to say to someone who has attempted suicide?
Often people report that they find it difficult to support someone who has attempted suicide because they feel they don’t know what to say. It can be hard to find the right words when you’re feeling overwhelmed and emotional yourself.
Create a safe space, where the person feels loved, cared about, accepted, supported and understood. Letting the person know you support them, and asking open-ended questions, can help to open the lines of communication.
The following suggestions may serve as prompts:
- I’m sorry you’ve been feeling so awful. I’m so glad you’re still here.
- I’m here for you. Remember that you can always talk to me if you need to.
- I want to help you. Tell me what I can do to support you.
Supporting someone who has attempted suicide:
- Be available and let the person know you will listen. It is vital to create a safe space for the person to talk – this helps to build or re-establish trust between you and the person you are concerned about.
- Try to understand the feelings and perspective of the person before exploring solutions together.
- It may be advisable to remove possible means to suicide, including drugs and alcohol, to keep the person safe.
- Support the person in exploring and developing realistic plans and solutions to deal with their emotional pain. To let go of suicide as a solution, they will need to see real changes in their life. It is usually a case of making small steps in the beginning, as the person’s difficulties haven’t been created overnight.
- It is important for the suicidal person to assume as much responsibility as possible for their own welfare as they are capable of at that time. This might be difficult for you to consider, as you might not feel able to trust your loved one at the moment.
- Enlist the help of others and make sure you get family and friends to assist you to support the person.
- Remember that you do not have to fill the role of counsellor, psychiatrist or doctor yourself. Encourage your loved one to utilise the professional support available to them.
- Consider assisting the person to write a safety plan or to download the Re-Minder app that will detail the steps they need to take to keep themselves safe if they feel suicidal. Having a concrete plan in place may help both of you feel more prepared and in control about the possibility of future suicidal thoughts.
Telling other people about the suicide attempt
Unfortunately, there is still a degree of stigma surrounding suicide. This may make it difficult to talk about your loved one’s suicide attempt, as you may fear that you or they will be judged or criticised.
It is important to remember that it is up to you who you choose to tell about the situation, and how much you reveal to them.
You may find it helpful to prepare something to say when asked about the suicide attempt, such as a simple: ‘yes, it’s a difficult time for us, but we’re getting him/her the support he/she needs.’
Speaking to people who have also been in similar situations, for example, through a carers’ support group, may offer you a source of non-judgemental support and understanding.
Grief is a universal experience all human beings encounter. Though death inevitably touches our lives, research shows that many people grieve in varying and different ways. From the textures of emotions to length of time in mourning, to even the kinds of rituals and remembrances that help heal the irreplaceable loss. Grieving the death of a loved one is never, ever easy (Young, et. al. (2012). Suicide bereavement and complicated grief in Clinical Neuroscience, 14(2):177-186. (Serani: 2018).