For nonexistent God's sake, don’t say “just let me know if you need anything.” Follow these pointers instead.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
I don’t pretend to be original. As the eminent theologian Bono phrased it, “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief.”
But for this column, I won’t hide my larceny. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, on their Real Conversations webpage, includes a 10-point primer on “How to Talk to a Suicide Loss Survivor.” I can’t improve on the original, but I can use my own experience to broaden it into 13 pointers for helping the bereaved.
Sorry/not sorry if this comes across as overly blunt. But tiptoeing on eggshells helps no one at times like these.
I’m starting with the last item on the AFSP’s list, because this can be the most wounding.
I won’t name any names, but it’s immensely disappointing that some family members and people I formerly considered dear friends have been MIA since Josh took his life. I know this shit is awkward to talk about and painful to consider. News flash: it’s even harder for the survivor.
Take the initiative
Half my workdays, I struggle to reach the finish line. Not uncommonly, daily adulting—laundry, dog walks, emptying the dishwasher—feels like wading through Jell-O. Asking, “How can I help?” piles one more responsibility onto our overstuffed plate. And if you tell us, “Just let me know if you need anything,” we won’t.
Don’t wait for the suicide survivor to get the ball rolling. We need you to initiate. If we say no to socializing the first and third times, if you don’t get a callback, keep asking. It’s comforting to hear that you give a damn.
Ask open-ended questions
Don’t hesitate to inquire after our well-being. Like most, I don’t want to be a burden. If I start talking about my emotional state, I often feel guilty or like I’m dumping on others. Let us know you’re willing to shoulder some of the load.
Talk about the dead person
It sucks to feel as though Josh has become a taboo subject. But the Band-Aid has already been yanked off. You’re not going to deepen my grief by bringing up my dear boy. When new memories aren’t being created with my stuck-forever-at-age-20 son, I delight in hearing your reminiscences.
On the other hand, I don’t want to hear about your dead mother, your classmate who drowned in third grade, or your deceased pet. Grief is awful, no matter who died, but unless you’ve lost an intimate to suicide or buried a child, you don’t have a clue. Take those comparisons elsewhere.
Don’t be morbid
This is a prime case of nunya. The details of Josh’s death are nunya business.
Yuval Harari speculates that language evolved to facilitate gossip, but this is one urge you must resist. Being asked “how did Josh die?” has been intrusive and re-traumatizing.
Deliver practical help
See Item #2 for the challenges of adulting after suicide. In the days after Josh died, it felt so good to come home and find a casserole dish sitting on our porch, or have a pizza delivery lady unexpectedly ring our doorbell.
Avoid clichés and advice-giving
Most of these transgressions have fallen into the religious microaggression category. “May the Lord bless you.” “I’m praying something good comes out of this.” Ugh.
One of my atheist friends has it right, with phrases like “I can’t begin to understand what you’re going through, but I’m here for you,” or on a despondent day I phoned her in tears, and she asked, “What do you need me to do?”
Do normal stuff with us
My wife Jessica and I have lucked out in the local friend department. As soon as one couple learned Josh had suicided, they nudged us to go out for dinner with them (pierogies, the ultimate comfort food). Hardly a week has gone by where we haven’t done something with them: a meal here, the welcome distraction of a gaming afternoon there. We know we can talk about Josh with them, or we can talk news, books, movies, pets, whatever. What a gift.
Cards and donations welcome
Thankful tears well in my eyes when I’m notified someone has donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Josh’s name. And perhaps I’m showing my age when I say how much I appreciate cards in the mail. But I’m not a total Luddite: emails and messages via social media are equally cherished.
Hugs are nice, too
After a traumatic loss so isolating, direct human contact feels pretty darn good. I’ll always be grateful to our neighbor who—after asking permission—squeezed Jessica and me in a ginormous hug. Or my dentist who gave me a shoulder rub after learning Josh had died.
Don’t expect the old me to return
As Eddie Vedder roars in the best song of suicide loss I’ve heard, “There’s no previous reference for this level of pain…if I look okay, it’s just the outside.” If you’re waiting for the old Lincoln Andrews to return, spare us both your disappointed expectations and seek companionship elsewhere. The contact list on my iPhone looks totally different since Josh died. I’ve accepted it’s gonna continue changing.
Keep the kindness coming
This week marks six months since Josh took his life. The grief is less intense, but everything is colored by my son’s absence. Everything.
Listening to other survivors, this is my new normal. Even as the burden lightens, the burden remains, years after traumatic loss. Review Steps 1-12, and repeat.