It is often hard to know what to say to a friend who has lost a loved one to suicide. Although you cannot make the pain go away, your words and actions can be key to helping people through the difficult loss. Ruby Heyward reports.
While in the throws of grieving the loss of her son, Adam, Lynda Scott Araya never imagined she would also have to navigate a social environment that struggled to support her.
In the years following her son’s suicide in 2017, Ms Scott Araya experienced bullying, the loss of friendship and social isolation.
People avoided her in the supermarket and turned on their heels to walk in the opposite direction down the street.
A friend of 15 years deleted her as a Facebook friend – and another asked her for intimate details about how her son died.
Some people would casually mention and make jokes about suicide in front of her.
People gossiped and speculated about her experience, which resulted in strangers bringing it up in inappropriate contexts, blindsiding her.
She also experienced misogynist responses to her grief and described times where people victimised her son, while demonising her – suggesting she had done something to drive him to it.
“I’ve been told I’m sick, crazy, hysterical, unhinged, irrational, confused, overwhelmed,” Ms Scott Araya said.
“I doubt a grieving man has ever been asked to smile more.”
Ms Scott Araya, who now owns the historic Western House bed and breakfast near Kurow with her husband, John, said a lot of people were uncomfortable with, or unsure how to handle, the topic of suicide, and often invalidated or avoided her expressions of grief.
“All that does is compound and complicate [it], and furthers the anger.”
She believed part of the issue arose from the “hidden” or stigmatised nature of suicide.
It was treated differently to all other deaths.
“Everyone is going to die and know someone who will die.
“Death is natural.”
The issue was not helped by people using euphemisms to describe death, or the media describing it indirectly as a “sudden death or tragic accident”.
“It is tragic, but no accident.”
Skirting around the topic did not honour the choice of the person who committed suicide.
“We will never know why the person decided to do it, but it was their decision.”
While she did not agree with her son’s choice, and was angry about his decision, it was still his story, she said.
Loved ones left behind would never be the same again, experiencing physiological and mental changes.
“Grief is like a broken leg because it stops you in your tracks.
“There are no rules around [it].”
The bereaved did not follow a pattern, and the grief itself did not have a time limit.
She said it was important for people not to assume they knew how a grieving person was feeling, nor judge them for how they grieved and place expectations upon them.
“The way someone moves through grief depends on the support they receive.”
While the right words – any words, even – feel hard to find for many people, there was more than one way of showing support, understanding and validating someone’s grief.
It could be something as simple as dropping off some biscuits, offering to pick up children from school, donating to a mental health service or making a donation in the name of the deceased person.
“Let the person know you will be there for them, not just next week, but next year.
“Anything is better than nothing.”
Even saying “I’m sorry they are dead, what can I do to help?” was enough, she said.
Suicide was not something to be ashamed of, but something to be spoken about.
“It’s OK not to know what to do and it’s OK to feel awkward or embarrassed.
“It’s OK to say [the deceased person’s] name.”
Where to get help
- Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
- Depression Helpline, phone 800 111 757 to talk to a trained counsellor
- Healthline, phone 0800 611 116, if you feel unwell or sick, or need advice
- Samaritans, phone 0800 726 666, if you need confidential emotional support 24/7
- Youthline, phone 0800 376 633, free text 234, or email email@example.com
- What’s Up, phone 0800 942 8787, for 5 to 18-year-olds. Monday to Friday, noon to 11pm, weekends 3pm to 11pm. Online chat 5pm to 10pm, 7 days, at whatsup.co.nz
- OUTLine NZ, phone 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE), support for sexuality or gender-identity issues. Helpline available 6pm to 9pm daily.
- Lifeline, phone 0800 543 354, or text HELP to 4357.
- In an emergency, or if you feel you or someone else is at risk, phone 111.