When I was in high school, my father attempted suicide several times. He ended up committed into psychological and addiction institutions more than once across a range of months. As a family, we desperately struggled to cope with this trial.
I remember that we had to lock up everything that could hold an edge, from my shaving razor to seam rippers to straight pins. I remember wondering if I would come home to find my dad alive or not. And I remember the things that people said--both good and bad.
My heart goes out to the children of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams, who committed suicide earlier this week. Some of the things said over social media about him and to his children have ranged from caring and supportive to thoughtless and downright cruel.
In light of the Williams' experience and mine, I'd like to propose my list of things you should and shouldn't say to the loved ones of someone who has attempted or committed suicide:
Click here to find out what you should and shouldn't say to someone with depression.
1. Don't say: "I know how you feel."
Instead try: "How are you feeling?"
Even if you've had the same experience in your own life, it's hard to know exactly how someone else is feeling. We may have a different relationship with our loved one than you had with yours. Presuming you "know" how we're feeling will make it more difficult for us to connect with you emotionally on our level.
Each person going through this will react differently, so asking us how we're feeling gives us the chance to express the emotions we're experiencing, from confusion and anger to helplessness and loss. And sometimes, just articulating our emotions helps.
2. Don’t say: "Why didn't you notice and get help sooner?"
Instead try: “My condolences for your loss” or "How are they doing?”
A lot of times, those who suffer from depression and similar destructive mental patterns do so in silence. Even close loved ones might not have known how devastating the problem was because the person may have been purposefully hiding it from us. (My father hid his illness for more than a decade.) Asking how we didn’t notice assigns some of the blame over what happened to us—and we already feel guilty enough.
Since we can’t go back to change how things happened, it’s better just to offer your sincere condolences for our loss and leave it at that. Alternately, in cases where suicide is attempted but not completed, inquiring after the person is a great way to show support. Our loved one needs that support now more than ever--and staying engaged in their life and asking after them helps us feel like there's hope for things to return to normal someday. I also loved when family friends or my father's friends would call him to talk or write my dad notes of encouragement--those kindnesses meant as much to me as they did to him.
3. Don’t say: "You shouldn't feel like it's your fault."
Instead try: “What can we work on right now to make things better?”
Even if it’s true that this situation isn’t our fault, loved ones of those who attempt suicide will always feel like there was something we could have done better or differently to prevent it from happening. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to realize the warning signs we missed and then feel terribly guilty about missing them.
Instead of trying to convince us we’re not at fault (we’ll likely never believe you), remind us not to dwell in the past and offer to help us deal with those things we can take care of in the present.
4. Don’t say: "That was really selfish of them."
Instead try: Finding a specific trait of or memory about the person you feel you can praise.
Those who commit suicide are often suffering from other underlying mental diseases, like depression or bipolar disorder. We cannot tell all the circumstances and factors that lead a person to attempt suicide, and therefore, it’s not our place to judge whether or not their motives were “selfish.” Additionally, telling loved ones that our spouse or child or friend is selfish doesn't comfort us. What will help us is a sincere recollection of specific good traits they had or fond memories about them.
5. Don’t say: "Committing suicide is a sin--like murder."
Instead try:"You will be in my prayers."
This phrase sounds harsh, but unfortunately, it gets said frequently to the loved ones of those who attempt suicide. It is true that life is sacred, but the Church's official stance on suicide is different than its stance on murder: "Although it is wrong to take one's own life, a person who commits suicide may not be responsible for his or her acts. Only God can judge such a matter."
Likewise, making other comments that allude to suicide as a sin (e.g. "I'm so sorry they won't be with you in heaven") should be avoided at all costs. Not only is this an unfair judgment against these people who struggle with an almost unbearable trial but it also crushes our hope as their loved ones for eventual healing.
Instead, because we cannot know the eternal consequences of a suicide, offer to pray for the person and their situation. Knowing that others are out there praying for us can help bring us comfort and peace during turbulent times of confusion and doubt. There is nothing like the power of righteous prayer.
6. Don’t say: “Tell me if you need anything.”
Instead try:"I'm here for you."
While it’s kind to offer help, we probably won’t take you up on it because we feel like we’re imposing. Make sure that you clearly communicate your willingness to help us and then actually be there for us. Stop by or call regularly. Take some time to talk about things not related to the situation at hand, like how our favorite sports team is doing or what's been happening at work. Sometimes we crave a distraction and want to be able to go back to when things were normal.
7. Don’t say: "You're so strong; you'll get through this."
Instead try: "Let me do ‘something’ for you."
It might feel like complimenting a person’s strength to overcome is comforting, but it makes us feel like it's unacceptable to have feelings other than hope or optimism. We need to process this event, and often times that means feeling angry or uncertain or guilty about being angry and uncertain.
We need help. And there are a lot of “somethings” you can do to help us because, often, we don't know what to request or are too hesitant to ask. Take the initiative, and just bring dinner over one night. Offer to babysit the kids so we can take a break. Even just come do the dishes. In my case, I always appreciated those who offered to go visit my father with me and my mother.
8. Don’t say: "You should..." or "If I were you I would..."
Instead try: "I'm not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care."
Choosing how to cope with this situation is unique to every person. Even well-intentioned advice will sound like you think we're doing something wrong in how we've chosen to deal with our very personal trial.
Above all, more than any advice you can give, just tell us you care about us and our situation. Be there for us. Be a friend. We appreciate your patient and understanding support more than anything.
9. Don’t say: “It will be okay.”
Instead try: Giving us a hug.
In the end, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to, but we don’t need you to remind us of that. More than anything you could say to try and give us comfort, a physical expression of your love—like a hug or holding our hands. Not only does this help us sense your love and support but it also helps us feel like maybe, eventually, things can work out.
For more on the Church's stance on suicide, read "Suicide: Some Things We Know and Some We Do Not" by Elder M. Russell Ballard.
For more on mental illnesses such as depression, read "Like a Broken Vessel" by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.