Bereavement, Grief and Coping After Suicide, with Lianna Champ

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day 2021, an awareness day instituted in 2003, aiming to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides.

While there has been a overall reduction in the number of people completing suicide over the last ten years, numbers are still worryingly high, and with the stresses of the last year in everyone’s mind, it’s important to support conversations about depression, mental illness, suicide and grieving. World Suicide Prevention Day aims to start the conversation about suicide and to show that recovery is possible.

Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ. We asked her for her insights into grief and bereavement, and particularly into the complex nature and effects of suicide in the family.

If you find yourself as a shoulder to lean on, here are some helpful tips:

  1. Make contact and stay in touch
    Ask if they prefer text, phone call or in person. Grievers often feel isolated and if people avoid making contact for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing upset, it can just serve to intensify these feelings of isolation.
  2. Acknowledge their loss
    And encourage conversations about the person who died. So often we avoid mentioning the name of the person who has died in case it causes upset. It doesn’t. Even though there may be tears, that’s OK. Mentioning their name opens up conversations and when we lose ourselves in memory we often find laughter. Sharing our memories is where healing can begin. Grievers often really appreciate the opportunity to talk and share their memories. It shows how much you care and also how important that person was and still is.
  3. Let them know that they can share their feelings and thoughts with you in confidence
    If they cry, don’t try and change how they are feeling. Tears are part of the healing, not the hurting. Grief needs expression, just as happiness does – both emotions need equal expression. We have to experience our grief, talk about it and share it to help reduce the weight of it. Grievers don’t need to be agreed with or understood. They just need you to listen and accept their words without analysing or justifying them. When a griever is talking about how their loss has made them feel, they are making a statement.
  4. Listen
    Grievers don’t need to be fixed, just listened to. Be a great listener. Allow for little silences in the conversation so they feel heard and for thoughts to form.
  5. Try not to say, “Let me know if you need anything”.
    They won’t. Instead try putting your words into action in a gentle way … “I’d like to cook a casserole for you. Is Wednesday a good day for you?” or “I’m shopping on Saturday, what can I get for you?”. These practical offers are incredibly helpful to a griever. Offer a specific time for errands, dog walking, mowing the lawn etc. Practical help can say so much more than words and can take the pressure off worrying about saying the wrong thing.
  6. Try not to say “I know how you feel”.
    You don’t. Grief is a uniquely personal experience.
  7. Never start a sentence with, “At least ….”.
    Don’t just be there in the early days and disappear when it looks as if life has returned to normal. It hasn’t. Keep in touch, keep talking and keep sharing.

Why is suicide bereavement different?

A suicide can leave behind a particularly devastating kaleidoscope of pain which is complicated and can be long lasting. Grief often becomes enmeshed with negative emotions. That we can be left with no answers and a huge ‘why?’ can leave us feeling shame and guilt at not seeing the signs. We are also robbed of the opportunity to help. Admitting we have lost someone to suicide can make us feel that we have personally failed them.

How do I cope with this grief?

Following the shock of suicide, our self-talk is vital to our recovery. Constantly asking ‘Why…….what if ……. why didn’t I ..?‘ can increase feelings of failure, shame and guilt. Try to focus on the things you did in a positive way. Instead of asking “Was I kind enough?” ask yourself “Was I kind?” Following a suicide, we can all berate ourselves into believing that we should have done more. The truth is that often there are no signs. We have to accept the things that are out of our control and make a concerted effort to make a difference in the areas that we can.

It can be a great support to reach out to others who have suffered a similar loss and to hear other people’s experiences of suicide. This can help to reduce feelings of isolation. Suicide is the harshest answer to any kind of problem. There should be no judgement against the person who has died or against you.

How can I help someone who has lost a close friend/relative to suicide?

Don’t avoid people because you don’t know what to say or do. Most want to and need to talk about their relationship with the person who has died and share their feelings around the loss.

Be patient. Accept whatever reaction they show. Grief has many expressions. Try not to judge. Just be there with open, loving acceptance. You don’t need to lead them through their grief or take it away, just accept the changes and emotions it brings. Above all, listen.

Be practical. Don’t ask if they need something doing. Just do it and make a commitment to see it through. Help them make a list of things they may need help with and allocate duties to relatives and friends. There is something very healing about helping others in times of need.

When they withdraw, don’t try and force change. Grief can be silent too. Grief changes in intensity minute by minute. If you feel that there is too much withdrawal, it may be time to find a professional who can help to unravel their thoughts and provide some hope.

Be aware of the difficulty of approaching birthdays and the anniversary of their death – don’t just be there in the early days and disappear when it looks as if life has returned to normal. It hasn’t. Keep in touch, keep talking and keep sharing.

Why is it good to talk about death and thoughts of suicide?

If someone feels that they can talk to you about anything and come away from you with their self-esteem intact and feel that they have had a confidential sounding board, this can go a long way in being an outlet when things become challenging for them.

It is said that ‘a worry shared is a worry halved’ yet it can feel so awkward to start a conversation around the things that really affect us on a deep emotional level. We seem to be terrified of the very thought and this can stem from years of withholding our innermost feelings. But it is only by talking about our fears and thoughts surrounding death and suicide that we can begin to unravel what has taken us to that point. The power of spoken words can release so much pressure. We need to speak and put our pain into words. It’s one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves. By being open and honest with others, we allow them to be open and honest with us.

Don’t debate whether something is right or wrong or whether feelings are good or bad. Always be honest and direct with your words. Use no platitudes. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide and above all, be non-judgmental and try not to lecture on the value of life.

Where can I go for support?

If you are affected by suicide it is vital that you share your thoughts with someone you trust. Talking to the right person can help with the isolation of suicide grief. Yes, it’s good to talk but it is also important to have the right ‘ears’ around you. People you feel safe with, who won’t judge you or criticise you. A lot of our grief is tied up with fear because we don’t understand suicide and can be seriously affected by the violence of it.

Papyrus UK Suicide Prevention | Prevention of Young Suicide
Tel 0800 068 4141

Support After Suicide
Tel: 116 123

Provides information on bereavement, where to go for support, and suggestions for helping yourself and others through grief.
Cancer information and support, coping with bereavement, support with grief

About the Author

Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ. At the age of eighteen Lianna became the youngest qualified female funeral director and embalmer in the UK. Now managing director of her own funeral company, Champ Funeral Services, Lianna has helped thousands of people who have been bereaved or are suffering with unresolved grief.

Instead of providing a purely practical solution to death and funerals, Lianna has created a holistic experience that aims to ease the pain of losing someone and help the grieving process. Distilling her years of experience into the ultimate guidebook to help people understand their grief and how to navigate this difficult time, How To Grieve Like a Champ is written to be comforting and practical.

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