by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC
When someone dies, we struggle with what to say, “I’m sorry for your loss, They are at peace, I can’t even imagine how you feel” are phrases we may say. Now, consider what we say, when someone dies by suicide. We struggle to find the words, we don’t know if we should even acknowledge the reality of death by suicide, and sometimes, we may not even know it, if family chooses not to share that painful reality.
The grief of a person whose loved one died by suicide, can be so painful, unspeakable, traumatic, shameful, shocking, and unimaginable. Simply saying the word “suicide” can create a stigma that can isolate the survivor, yet it is also the painful reality. How then, do we acknowledge this difficult and deeply distressing death of someone we love?
The Survivor of suicide (referring to the loved one(s) who remain after someone died by suicide) is dealing with a plethora of emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and is often struggling with what to tell others, much less, how to say it. At the funeral or whatever ritual may have occurred to honor the memory of the deceased, and after the ritual, who will support the bereaved, and what do you say, without stigmatizing or traumatizing the bereaved even further?
What we say, and how we say it, has an effect, for the rest of our lives. When someone dies by suicide, we usually use the language we have heard throughout our lives:
He committed suicide. She completed suicide.
He had a failed suicide. He took his own life…
Please stop reading and reflect on these questions for yourself:
- How do these phrases make you feel when you say them?
- How do these phrases make you feel when you hear them?
- What thoughts are running through your mind after the words are spoken?
When someone dies of a heart attack, we don’t say, they committed a heart attack, or they completed a heart attack, or she had a failed heart attack, so why would we say this about suicide? Mostly because, that’s what we have heard others say throughout our lives. Admitting our ignorance and asking forgiveness, when we don’t know what to say, is a good start. Even more helpful, is learning appropriate language as the bereaved speak about their loved one, and as we reach out to support the bereaved.
On the Australian Psychological Society web site, Susan Beaton MAPS, beyondblue Suicide Prevention Advisor, Dr Peter Forster MAPS, University of Worcester and Dr Myfanwy Maple MAASW, University of New England wrote an article about Suicide Language and “Why we shouldn’t use the ‘C’ word”, the “C” word being the word “committed.” They developed a chart, below, to provide more appropriate language when speaking about those who died by suicide.
|TALKING ABOUT SUICIDE|
|Stigmatising terminology||Appropriate terminology|
|Committed suicide||Died by suicide|
|Completed suicide||Ended his/her life
Took his/her own life
|Failed attempt at suicide||Non-fatal attempt at suicide|
|Unsuccessful suicide||Attempt to end his/her life|
Additionally, these links provide additional information and can be a good source of support and healing.
American Association of Suicidology offers an article Helping Survivors of Suicide, What Can I Do? and offers practical suggestions about how to support and comfort the survivor.
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education offers practical resources for what to say and how to say it, what to say to children, and other helpful information.
Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors a web site offering information and resources for those whose loved one has died by suicide.
Break the stigma, learn and use this language, review these resources.
- For the bereaved, one way to find meaning out of this unspeakable death, is to speak about it, learn and share resources, collect and share information, dialogue with others.
- For those who are supporting the bereaved, learn the terminology. Reach out with gentleness and understanding. Review these resources with the bereaved, and learn together. Share what you have learned and let them go at their own pace.