For Loved Ones, After a Suicide Attempt
Recently, a man I have come to respect and care about attempted suicide. I am grateful he is still here to tell the tale. His suicide note was online and his pain was so evident it tore at my soul.
I was tremendously relieved to hear his friends had rescued him in time to save him. But I was then left with the problem as to what to say to this man. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was make the situation any more difficult for him.
What do you do when someone you care about just attempted suicide?
Suicide is About Pain
To be clear, people who attempt suicide aren't doing it for fun, they aren't playing at death nor are they looking for death. People who attempt suicide are trying to escape a life of (literally) unbearable pain. Suicide isn't about death, it's about pain.
The Shame and Guilt of Suicide
And most people who have attempted suicide feel extremely bad about what they have done. They're ashamed they committed the act and feel guilty they have put those around them through it. Waking up after a suicide attempt is no picnic.
What to Say to Someone Who Has Attempted Suicide
So, understanding the person is already feeling bad about attempting suicide, there is no reason to make this person feel worse. You need to be supportive. You don't need to support their action, but you need to support the person. They are hurting. All they want is to know you still care about them.
What Never to Say to a Person Who Has Attempted Suicide
The worst thing you can say to someone is about how selfish they are and how much they hurt you. These people already know that. These people are already beating themselves up. The last thing they need is to feel beaten up by you too. The more they feel rejected, the more likely they are to feel alone and to try to commit suicide again. What better reason is there to leave the planet than being in agony and finding out everyone suddenly hates you?
Stay With the Person, Remind Them Who They Are
This man I know who attempted suicide isn't "the man who attempted suicide," he's a man who is brave, bold, generous and friendly. He is a man who gives to his community and a man that I respect. He is not a "suicide attempt." A suicide attempt is only a symptom of his disease. It is not who he is. I know this. And now is the time to remind him. Because, unfortunately, he may have forgotten.
People need to feel included and loved for who they are. Yes, they may need company around them to make sure they do not hurt themselves further, but they also need it to feel human again. They feel horrible about what they did. They need to know people still love them and it will be OK.
But What about My Feelings?
You, as the loved one, have every right to feel worried, hurt, betrayed and many, many other things. I would never deny you those feelings. But right after a suicide attempt is not the moment to pick to express those. Call another friend and vent and cry if you need to. Get your own support. Make sure you are OK. But it's not the moment to enter into a deep conversation with someone who has just faced death. Wait until they are stronger. And then you can both talk openly about the act's effects and your feelings. It's OK to talk about those things, but you have to pick your moment.
But above all try to remember, this person is the same person they were before they attempted suicide. They just fell victim to a very serious symptom of their disease. No more, no less.
Tracy, N. (2011, July 11). For Loved Ones, After a Suicide Attempt, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, March 28 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/07/for-loved-ones-after-a-suicide-attempt
Author: Natasha Tracy
Thanks to those who shared comments about denial. I've written this in response:
Thanks for your comments Natasha...indeed I received no support from my family, but plenty of condemnation (particularly behind my back) Of note...my father was a physician...he is still living and still makes unhelpful comments about me behind my back..that usually drift back to me through other family members...I no longer take any of this personally..and know that it is his shortcoming...not mine. I have been an R.N. for many years and have worked in many areas...though for the past six years or so I have worked as a psychiatric nurse...I have tremendous compassion for those I have cared for who have also attempted suicide...it is so worth it to keep on keeping on...no matter what the challenges...when you fall down...you just get back up and if you have support...all the better...
Last year I attempted suicide 3 times and it was extremely difficult to try to build myself up afterwards. I just remember feeling so fragile and disconnected from everyone else. It took a while before I was able to do even simple things like run to the store for milk without feeling out of place. I fully understand denial with family members. My family has never accepted or really even acknowledged my mental illness; it's always been like the shameful family secret no one talks about.
After the suicide attempts and subsequent hospitalizations most of my family still has a very difficult time dealing with it. After the 3rd attempt though my husband and mom finally faced my illness head-on. They were scared when they realized how much pain I was in and how I couldn't see anything past the darkness. They finally "got it.". They read and researched everything they could about bipolar, depression, and suicide and have been amazing resources. It's such a contrast to the support I had before and it's made all the difference in healing this time around.
My youngest son attempted suicide many times, the first time at 14. He finally succeeded 2 years ago at 21. Each time, it was so hard to see his face when he realized he was still alive. The only words I had for him were "I love you." Unfortunately, all the love in the world isn't enough to save someone who does not want to be saved.
That being said, I know he felt even worse when he went back to school after being released from the hospital, and he was treated like a freak. By teachers, administrators, classmates and even friends. No one seemed to realize he was still the same person.
My first attempt was when I was 54. I've heard the knee-jerk responses to my attempts too many times: it was such a selfish act; how could you do this to me (us); if you had more faith God would protect and heal you from your pain; you're not welcome to be a leader in our church anymore because of your attempts and your mental illness (I was a minister at the time); if you had succeeded, you'd have gone to hell because suicide is murder, and no murderer can enter heaven. I have been made by some to feel like a spiritual outcast. What I'd like to hear? Very little (except from my therapist). I need to hear love and respect and support in whatever words are spoken, and see those those things acted out in kindness. At 60 now, I'd accept offers to help with mowing the lawn, fixing a meal...I have a long list of things that need to be done around my home that I've been too paralyzed by pain to deal with. Though it's been around 5 years since my last formal attempt, thoughts are never very far under the surface, and that, in itself, is a source of pain.
I know full well how much God loves me and that He has a plan for me. I also know that if I do one day succeed at suicide, that there will be a welcome for me in heaven, not hell. Some sympathy is acceptable, some admonishment by someone I respect may be acceptable, but total silence or shunning can cause even more pain and guilt and shame. A few simple, unselfish words are so much appreciated.
Thank you, Natasha, for your perceptive words of encouragement. They've brought tears both from what others have suffered, as well as from what I've gone through.
Mary Ann and Beverly,
Denial is common and very destructive. You can't get help about something you can't admit happened. And your family can't support you if they can't acknowledge what you're going through. I'm sorry that is your experience.
It's particularly sad because people _can_ and _do_ come back from these events every day, but denial just makes that harder.
You are not alone in surviving a suicide attempt. Most people who attempt suicide do, indeed, survive. Yes, there is still stigma and shame around it, but it is common among those with a mental illness. We fight the stigma by being honest (when possible) and understanding that this action is a symptom of a disease and there is nothing wrong with "us" as people.
Tell them the most important life saving, soul saving truth there is, that Christ died for them to forgive them and bring them home to Him, not to destroy themselves in a world that doesn't care and be lost forever with the satan who deceived them about life in the first place. Look to Jesus, who saves and loves you enough to pay the price for your sins, and wants you with Him for eternity! He turns your life around 180 degrees; there is no sin or shame or hurt too big for Him to take from you, He took the suffering of the Cross didn't He? Just accept His free gift of salvation and you are secured everlasting. You see, He has a purpose for you, thats why you are not dead and lost forever right now! Praise God! He loves You! His will and mercy endures forever! Amen.
In the past I have attempted sucide many times---the most serious ones came very close to ending my life. The first attempt came when I was 19--and I came very close to dying due to extreme blood loss.
While I was only trying to see in anyone in my extremely dysfunctional family was aware of what I was going thru..not a soul recognized it---I was being abused sexually by my worthless relative (I don't claim him as a brother)...except when I had to undergo surgery to heal the problem. The doctor who treated me. He advised my parents to seek psychological help but to no avail.
I struggled with this for 7 years before someone really cared enough to help me receive counseling. It wasn't until sometime later did I realize why I did continue in self harm.
I know from my own experiences that suicide attempts are not about death--they are about escaping from or at least putting a temporary halt on the emotional pain that I live with.
Coming back from the attempts isn't easy either. My sisters--every so often, now will say "don't do that" ever again....I can't promise them I won't. No one, I mean no one knows how desperate anyone is who attempts suicide unless they have been at that point in their lives--they can 'assume' how it feels!
When I attempted suicide as a senior in college...my family refused to acknowledge my attempt..they insisted that my overdose was an "accident" and never spoke of it further...that attitude was very unhelpful...I would have preferred that they at least acknowledge that I was in acute pain and suffering...it was partially fall out from being raped in a foreign country as an exchange student some years previous...they refused to acknowledge that incident either...I feel that I would have experienced a very different and better life, if my family had shown some understanding and compassion instead of denying my experiences...
Such a great comment. Thanks for contributing. I'm going to share it on Facebook.
At 12 years old, I wrote: "If I could die, it would be so easy, just to leave the pain behind." Then I took a bottle of Excedrin. It would take another 10 years before I used more lethal methods. My point is that even before adolescence, I knew it was about the pain, and not about the death. My father committed suicide when I was 19, I have a brother who killed himself when he was 26, and I was 23 when I took 300 pills. It is decades later that I finally hear others like myself talk about having survived their own suicide attempts. I no longer feel the shame, but society still holds a stigma.
Thank you for sharing. All too often we are a society of “me-first”. If we got out of that mindset, we would understand and empathize. Imagine how much kinder this world would be?
"It is not a selfish act but an act of desperation."
Well said. It can be hard to see it that way when you're looking on at someone who you don't want to leave your life, however.
Remind them who they are - yes! this is by far the keystone I think... This has got to be tailored to the person and you've got to try hard NOT to be reminding them who they were (before illness) or who they could be if they weren't sick... Got to keep things immediate and concrete. If possible, show that you value their humour, their opinions, their company, their ideas, their help, their love - them, themselves, who they are.
I wish your friend a full recovery and a peaceful, rich life.
"We can be prisoners in our minds and when the torment is too much to handle we desperately search for a way to stop it; sometimes the only logical solution is suicide."
Yup, that is the trouble. And I do believe it takes others to be the light because we can't all be our own light all the time.
I hate that people think that suicide is a selfish act. It is the feelings that everyone would be better off without me in their live that one feels when they are suicidal. They are thinking of others and not about themselves per se. They just want to end the emotional pain and can see no other way out. It is not a selfish act but an act of desperation.
Lori, you are so true. My story is a parent felt to be a burden and was in immense physical pain and felt she was hurting her family by existing. Now, we just try to support her as best as possible and never judge. Thank you for your words. They mean a lot and hit close to home.
Great post! Suicide is about the pain not death. I have experienced this and it is so hard for people who have not experienced that level of pain to understand your thoughts of just wanting the pain to stop. I have experienced mental and physical pain both on extreme levels and I would much prefer to experience physical pain. We can be prisoners in our minds and when the torment is too much to handle we desperately search for a way to stop it; sometimes the only logical solution is suicide. That is why it is so important to be the light for these people who are imprisoned in their mind, you might be the light they can use to find their way out of the darkness.
good point. i would love to receive cards or flowers while dealing with this crap x
Get well soon cards and flowers, which are so often not received in the psych ward unlike all the other hospital wards.
I agree. It's a tough idea to get across to someone who has not experienced much pain.
You're lucky to have such supports, for sure. It would be great if we all had those.
'People who attempt suicide are trying to escape a life of (literally) unbearable pain. Suicide isn’t about death, it’s about pain.'
so so true, but almost impossible for those who have not been there to really understand x
Another great post. I consider myself so lucky that I have friends who have supported me after a near suicide attempt. I say near because I was stopped just before. If it wasn't for their support, I likely would not have survived, and if I had I'd probably wish I had died. I can't thank them all enough. It was my disease, not me wanting to die, and I still feel guilty for putting everyone through it (though they don't blame me).
Wow......after my suicide attempt all my wife did was text my mom who is hundreds of miles away. That was it my little sister found me in the ER. Then the ER kicks me out and my wife dumps me......alone......in our house.....after giving me a we aren't husband and wife anymore letter. She took my kids my retirement and just moved on.....like I was dead....has a full biz of my credit and retirement. I am disabled no law help. So many comments of understanding.....all I got from my wife was....the section of what not to say.
Hi Joshua, I am so sorry you had to face this. You are not alone. It’s so tough to understand what the other person is thinking. But most important I hope you are doing well. Hugs from a stranger who cares.