A suicide loss is so unlike any other. It’s difficult to know how to react when dealing with suicide. And it can be even more difficult knowing what to say when someone we know loses someone to suicide.

During many of my presentations, I ask the audience to consider the impact of a suicide death. I ask them to raise their hands if they have been touched by suicide, and the typical response in every group is that nearly 100 percent of the hands go up. Unfortunately, many of us in the construction industry have been touched by suicide.

Prior to our son’s death by suicide, I was like most of you not knowing what to do or say. On March 3, 1994, a dear employee lost her teenage son to suicide. It still haunts me that I, as a fellow employee and the company leader, had no idea how to handle the situation. Any of us with children could not imagine what it must be like to have a child die, and worse yet die by suicide.

Because a suicide attempt or a suicide death is so difficult to comprehend, we try to bring clarity by assigning blame. We think the unimaginable thought of “Could the suicide have prevented?” or “If it’s not the parent’s fault, then was it the son’s fault?” Once blame is assigned, we can move on. Unfortunately, it is much more complex than that.

There are approximately 25 suicide attempts for every suicide death, and in the United States that is over 1.4 million suicide attempts per year. Most suicide attempts are only known to a few immediate family members. Only our immediate family members knew of Michael’s first suicide attempt at the age of 29. Frankly, I was devastated. How could this have happened? Believe it or not, I was ashamed to tell people that our son had attempted suicide. In addition to my guilt, fear began setting in. Why did this happen? How could I prevent this from happening again? There were no answers to my questions. Everyday forward until Michael’s death four years later, I worried about the possibility of him dying by suicide.

What do you say? Obviously, dealing with any death is an uncomfortable situation; but those grieving with a death need your comfort. What do you say to someone who has lost a loved one due to cancer or a heart attack? I imagine you might say some of the following: “I’m so sorry for your loss,” “I am here for you,” “Let me know how I can be of help,” “I will keep you in my prayers,” etc. 

Those same words are needed for suicide loss survivors. Unfortunately, after Michael’s death there was often silence which only increased our guilt and shame; and some of our friends drifted away. I would submit that it was due to their inability to accept a death by suicide. The most comforting words were, “As you grieve, I’m here for you,” and then that person kept in touch to listen and support. I would encourage you to provide support on an ongoing basis, because the grieving process is long and difficult. 

Grieving a suicide death is unique and grieving the death of a child adds to the uniqueness. Let us first talk death of a child. I have a friend whose child died shortly after birth, and I have another friend whose teenage age son died from cancer. In both cases, the fathers still live with guilt of why they couldn’t have prevented their children’s deaths. Even though many years have passed, I let each of them know that I am thinking of them on the dates of their child’s death; in each case that is still a difficult time for them.

I have many lingering thoughts regarding Michael’s death by suicide, such as “What else could have been done?” One of the most difficult things is the inability to have our final goodbyes. These thoughts bubble up each year, especially on Michael’s birthday and the day of his death. I find great comfort in the friends who still acknowledge Michael by checking in with our family on those two special days.

Now that we have a better understanding of what to say and how to react, I’d like to share what we should avoid saying or doing. These aren’t intentionally hurtful, but they don’t help the grieving. One of the most hurtful is, “How did he die?” It’s a valid question when you genuinely don’t know, but it is a painful question when you already know the individual lost someone to suicide. Other comments that were not helpful included, “Did you have any warning?” or “Was he taking his meds?” 

Let’s compare those phrases to someone dying of a condition like a heart attack. Would you ask the surviving family member if they had any warnings before the individual died of a heart attack? Would you ask them if the individual was taking their meds? Probably not, because we can more easily understand a heart attack death. My advice when consoling someone who is dealing with a suicide death (or any death in general) is to allow them to tell you what they want about the death in due time, as the shock of their loss settles in. 

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Learn More – Podcast
Bob Swanson sat down with FCA CEO Anthony Darkangelo to discuss mental health awareness & suicide prevention in the construction industry. Listen to the podcast for a management approach to looking after your employees’ mental health, how suicide is preventable, what to do when you suspect someone is having suicidal thoughts and what resources are available.