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What to Say

By Heidi Bryan, the author of Must Be the Witches in the Mountains: An Irreverent Guide for Knowing What to Say After Someone Dies by Suicide

I thought I knew what grief was and what to expect from people after a death of a loved one. I lost my father, then ten months later my mother-in-law, and nine months after that, one of my favored aunts. I knew what it was like to grieve and I knew what it was like to be supported by friends and co-workers after a death. However, twenty-two months later, when my older brother killed himself, I felt like I had been blindsided. Not only was this grief totally different, with the shock, guilt, shame, and anger swirling around inside of me, but the reaction of people was totally different, too. It seemed as though there were two types of responses: either people didn’t say anything at all or even mention my brother Jeff’s name or they said really inane things. I didn’t know which was worse. I kept telling myself that people meant well, but there were times when I felt like I wanted to scream.

“Don’t feel guilty.”  “Did they leave a note? ‘Cause if they don’t leave a note, then it’s not a suicide.”  “Why?”  These are things that either were said to me or said to others soon after the suicide of their loved one. These comments aren’t comforting or helpful at all. In fact, they’re head-scratchers. Don’t feel guilty?! How???

If they don’t leave a note it’s not a suicide??? Seriously??? Did you know most people don’t leave a note?

Why??? Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? The only person who really knows is dead so he’s not talking!

A lot of people have said they’re afraid they’re going to make things worse so that’s why they don’t say anything at all. Or they say stupid things. What I always tell them is that we’re already at our worst so saying nothing compounds our guilt and shame. Saying inane things irritates and hurts us.

So what can you say? What do you say when someone dies a natural death? “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m sorry to hear your (loved one) died,” right? Well, the same comments work here, too. Just treat it like you would any other death and you’ll help us immensely!

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