Last week, my friend’s 16 year old daughter committed suicide. As far as what is known, there is nothing that indicates the “why”. As I read through your materials, I have learned that we try to bring an understanding to the un-understandable and it eats at us. He and his ex-wife divorced a couple of years ago, and they also have two younger daughters.
My question is what can we, as part our friend’s support group, do for him? We are encouraging counseling for him, as well as his younger girls. But is there things we should (or should not) be doing?
Your description of quest for meaning in a seemingly meaningless loss is as pointed as any I have heard: “We try to bring an understanding to the un-understandable and it eats at us.” As my friend and colleague Diana Sands says, we attempt to “walk in the shoes” of a loved one who dies of suicide following this tragic form of bereavement, as we strive to step into the mind-set of the deceased to grasp the thoughts and feelings that led to that traumatic conclusion. Your letter suggests that you are seeking a way to help your friend as he undertake such a quest, and merely survive day-to-day.
And so let me offer a few suggestions, for the near term and the long term, as this wounded friend and the family to which he remains connected try to regroup and move forward:
1. Make an offer. Reach out to your friend with small, concrete acts of kindness. Drop off a complete dinner for him or for him and his children when they visit or if they live with him. Ask them over to your home, offering a specific choice of dates. Help with transportation of the two younger girls to school or soccer, or suggest a sleepover or joint family outing if the girls are friends of your own children. The key is to avoid generic offers (“If there is anything you need, don’t hesitate to call”) which rarely are accepted. Just act, doing what you think best. If you know them well, and put yourself in your place, you can probably think of a dozen things. Such actions speak louder than words.
2. Speak her name. Counter the shroud of silence that tends to descend over those who die this potentially stigmatizing death. Voice his daughter’s name aloud: “How are you doing today, a month after _____’s death?” “What would ______ want for her little sisters?” You get the idea. As your friend’s bereavement moves forward, speaking about his daughter will eventually become easier, and he may have a need to tell the story of her life, and perhaps her death, many times, to make it more real. Eventually, speaking her name with love and appreciation may be more possible for everyone in the family, as they attempt to revive comforting memories of her life that are not over-written by her death. This is a long process for most of those who have known such loss, but it is a great resource to have others who can participate in both the hurtful and healing conversations.
3. Advocate for support. Both peer-led bereavement support groups by trained facilitators and professional help from specialists in grief therapy can provide critical opportunities to work on the loss with people who have walked the walk, and who can offer specific advice and understanding that is otherwise scarce in the social or even professional mental health communities. Begin by exploring and referring your friend to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention site (afsp.org), and also make some inquiries in you own geographic region; a group for men, or even bereaved fathers, may also be available, including at survivors’ conferences held each year. Suicide bereavement is an isolating experience, and breaking down the walls that separates your friend and others in the family from a world of caring others can go a great distance toward helping them find a way forward. In all of this, also take care of yourselves, as you likely also knew his daughter, and are touched in your own way by this terrible loss.