Suicide: Supporting the Survivors
Suicide. It’s a word many people even find hard to say, not something any of us would ever want to impact our world personally. But with the challenges of pandemic hitting an exhausted population in cold dark winter months, many are concerned that suicide rates may rise - although in spite of some media reports to the contrary we have yet to see reliable figures confirming that this is the case.
But it is vitally important we do talk about suicide - and suicidal thoughts. Much more common than you think, suicidal thoughts are a sign of a mind under pressure - or someone pushed to the limit by whatever life is throwing at them. When we experience powerful emotions, or when we’re overwhelmed, our analytical, problem-solving mind starts to shut down - meaning we find it much harder to feel like there are any possible solutions to challenges we face. And if this happens in the face of significant problems, it can lead to thoughts of ending your life as what feels like the only option for escape. Suicide, in the face of what feels like impossible problems, can feel like it offers the things people yearn for most: rest and peace. Many who have experienced suicidal thoughts talk of imagining it like a long sleep where you do not have to wake up. But of course, the reality is much more brutal.
And in the wake of nearly a year of pandemic there is good cause to be on the lookout for people struggling with thoughts of ending their life. We know that levels of despair are rising: that sense of hopelessness and loss of control. The monotony of lockdown life leads to a loss of motivation and many people have had periods of feeling flat or loss. The total loss of control and agency we have all experienced over the most basic of decisions, means we can’t choose to do many of the things we might usually do to cheer us up or seek support. And for many that same loss of control has meant they face real and genuine challenges: financial worries, threats to much loved and previously successful businesses, relationship losses or pressures, domestic abuse, or just isolation and finding themselves alone with the thoughts in their head.
Let’s recognise the most important fact about suicide: things are unlikely to be as bad as they feel, and it is certainly not the solution that your mind reaches for in those desperate moments. Suicidal thoughts are a sign that you need help, that you cannot manage this alone, that your brain is beyond itself, that it is throwing out desperate suggestions, that it can no longer be relied upon, that you need someone else alongside you in what you face. The minute you find your mind going there, reach out to someone else.
Every suicide attempt is a desperate tragedy, and if this has hit you or someone you love, our prayers are with you, particularly in this pandemic season.
But there’s another conversation to have about suicide, and it’s one not spoken enough about: how do you manage in the aftermath of a suicide attempt when someone has survived - particularly if they have suffered injuries or negative consequences of the attempt? This is an important reality check, because this happens a lot more than people realise: your under-pressure brain doesn’t think things through as well as it might and many suicide attempts fail every year, leaving people sometimes dealing with life-changing injuries.
So how do you support someone in this situation?
(1) Make contact. In a situation like this no one knows what to say. But do say something. Make it kind, and caring, and don’t feel the need to say something particularly clever. Remember you are part of a wider support network and it is not your job to be the professional. They need to know you love them and you are there for them. Keep contact regular, but unconditional: make clear there’s no need to respond if they don’t feel up to it. Share general chatter - avoid deep and meaningful topics - let them share when they are ready and take your lead from them. This is not the space for you to pour out your own feelings (see no2) And keep it short: concentrating is hard when emotions are high, or if someone is on a lot of medication. Note that in pandemic the ways you can do this might be very limited, if someone is in hospital - but do what you can - remember emails, cards, letters, phone calls, FaceTime … but do this in their own time. So make offers but be clear that it is fine to not take them up yet if that person is not ready. Be there when they are ready and make it as easy as you can for them to reconnect. So do send cards (think ‘I’m there for you’ style, encouraging or things to lift a smile), favourite foods or non alcoholic drinks (especially if they are stuck in hospital). Think practical too - a netflix/disney/prime subscription/lending an ipad may be the most helpful thing in the world if they are stuck in hospital with only their thoughts for company.
(2) Accept and manage your own emotions. Let’s be real - you are likely to feel a whole mix of emotions in this moment. Shock, horror, for sure - but most likely other emotions too. And these can be awkward or unexpected: anger (why did they do this to you?), rejection (why didn’t they come to me?), even disgust at what they did. You need to recognise these emotions exist, and find somewhere to process them - because it is important not to pile them onto someone already struggling with so much. Its ok to feel what you feel - but find or create a space you can talk about them so you can care for the person you love without those emotions bubbling up where you wouldn’t want them to. Be careful about that person’s right to privacy - make sure anywhere you share is with someone/people who will hold things confidentially and sensitively. And cherish spaces you can be real about what you are feeling - in particular the need to ask - and howl out - why? is a very human one. You need to be able to to do with someone else rather than the person who has survived, who may not be ready to process this yet themselves, never mind with you.
(3) Understand the unthinkable - and watch your words. It is SO hard to understand the kind of desperation that leads someone to attempt to end their life. And to understand why that person you love so much didn’t reach out to you. Recognise that in those moments people are not able to think clearly. Try not to question too much, but understand that it is not something you can understand in a normal way. Be careful about how you describe what has happened - avoid phrases like ‘failed’ or ‘unsuccesful’ suicide attempt - instead describe what has happened as an ‘incomplete’ or ‘survived’ attempt. Reassure them they are loved.
(4) Commit to the longterm. It is tempting, in a situation so awful, to want to sweep in and solve everything. To take control. To make everything alright again. But recognise that whilst these instincts may come from a place of love, actually what you need to do is enable that person to make some difficult decisions about where to go now. And they will need a lot of professional support as well as people prepared to walk with them on a long journey. Avoid the temptations to make impulsive offers that you may not be able to sustain for the time this might take. Instead assure them you will support them in decisions they make, and help them to find support to decide what those should be - but it does not all need to be solved now. Help them take one step at a time.
(5) Hold hope. Most of all people facing the aftermath of having attempted to take their own life need to know all is not lost. But be aware that may be very difficult for them to feel that right now. One thing that can help when you are not yet able to feel hope and dream future for yourself is to know others do - that is easier to believe in. So let them know. Help make concrete things that might be part of their future - things you can do together, moments you can plan.
If you have survived a suicide attempt yourself ... you are likely to be wrestling with some very difficult thoughts. Try not to feel like you have to deal with them all at once. Think of them like marbles in a jar - you can put them to one side and perhaps take them out and manage them one at a time when you have energy, support and a safe space to do so. Give yourself time to get better - especially if you are unwell, and recognise the impact of what has happened is going to take time to process. But here are some of the most common questions we hear which you might be struggling with…
(1) “Have I ruined everything?” The aftermath of a suicide attempt is so brutal on your mind. But it is important you know that all is not lost. Many people have been where you are and found a way back. Many are HUGELY grateful, later on, that they survived. There is hope, and you can find a way through this.
(2) “I can’t bear seeing what I am putting my family and friends through? How do I cope with the guilt on top of everything I was already feeling before?” This is very very hard. And it is natural they will be emotional - after all, they love you. That you will feel some guilt from that is natural - but that doesn’t mean you ARE guilty - remember that. You haven’t committed a crime, you were desperate and vulnerable and unwell. Your family and friends are hurting because You are hurting. That is what happens when we love someone - we share their good times - and their pain. Hard as that is to see, recognise it for what it is: a sign you are not alone in whatever you are facing right now.
(3) “People keep telling me they love me. How do I explain that isn’t enough?” You don’t need to explain everything. Let them share how much they love you - and see that for what it is - a really really good thing. But no, it doesn’t solve everything - it doesn’t take away all you were feeling and the things you are facing in your head right now. But those two things can be true at once. And facing those things WITH people who love you is better than on your own. Its ok to explain to someone it isn[t about that - that you value their love but it doesn’t take away the pain of what you are facing.
(4) “Everyone is so pleased I am alive except me. How do I deal with that?” There are many reactions when you have survived a suicide attempt. Some people do feel relieved - it's more common than you’d expect. But many other feelings are also normal and common - including anger that you survived, frustration at yourself that things didn’t end how you had imagined, distress to still be alive, panic and fear at what you now face. And you may find your own feelings vary hugely day-to-day. Try not to fight with what you are feeling, and find somewhere you can share those thoughts when you are ready. Don’t feel you have to put on a brave face with the people who love you, but remember you don’t need to share everything with them if you are afraid of upsetting them. Sometimes it is enough to sit in silence with someone willing to hold the dark times with you - not everything needs words. Remember you can reach out to some of the support lines available (see the end of this article) or to professionals.
(5) “How do I get through this when every day just feels worse?” You’ve heard it said ‘take one day at a time’. Well, its good advice - but sometimes the skill is to try to take each second at a time. Your mind may be buzzing, wanting to rush into a future you are not needing to face yet. Remember you don't need to know how to solve everything. Try to live in the moment when that is challenging enough. Don’t try and pretend things are easier than they are and don’t try and do things before you are ready. Be as honest as you can. Accept pain medication and the resources available to keep you comfortable - you don’t need to punish yourself by not accepting help. When you can’t hope for yourself, allow other people to hope for you without expecting you to agree.
An open letter to you if you’ve survived a suicide attempt: from another survivor, many years on:
I won’t say I know how you feel, because I don’t, but I do know how I felt when I was living in the world after I’d tried to end my own life. I felt angry at myself, guilty for what my family were going through, scared of what was going to come next, utterly devastated and more exhausted than I have ever been before or since.
I will not say anything trite like ‘things get better’ or ‘the darkest day is before the dawn’, but I will encourage you to take time second by second, minute by minute if you need to. Allow the people who love you to hold the hope you can’t yet conceive of.
You may need to cry all day, or you might feel as if you’ve cried your tears dry; however you find yourself, give yourself the chance to experience your fear and grief, you don’t need to pretend you’re okay. If you feel able; draw, write, paint or shout your feelings out.
Be gentle with yourself and those around you and allow God to be gentle with you, to join you in your pain - because our God knows pain through Jesus who wept and cried “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”, he won’t leave you alone to flounder. When you call out to him in pain, He won’t reject you, but remind you that He is love and you are loved. Even if you can’t feel it, even if you feel it doesn’t make any difference, rest in His love and gentleness toward you.
(Rachael is the author of "Learning to Breathe" - the story of her own experience of a path back from self harm, and her own experiences of surviving suicide attempts)
Experiencing suicidal thoughts?
Catch up with our recent article “5 things you need to know when suicidal thoughts kick in”
Need help NOW?
Several organisations in this season run crisis lines for those struggling with suicidal thoughts, to help you calm your mind, manage those moments and stay safe. Be aware your mind may push you into something impulsive - instead reach out and get some support.
SHOUT offer free, 24/7 text based support - text 85258
THE SAMARITANS have a free 24/7 phone line and also offer other sources of support via email/post.
FRONTLINE STAFF - we know that frontline staff experiencing huge pressure in this season have also struggled with the mental health impact. Our Frontline is a support service specifically for you offering phone or text support - for NHS staff, emergency services, education staff, social care and for any essential worker. Note - numbers and details are slightly different depending on which sector you work in so follow the link/check the website to find the right one.
TEENAGERS/YOUNG PEOPLE - check out The Mix - a site full of mental health info and support for under 25s, including 121 text and crisis support.
Or Papyrus support children and young people struggling with suicidal thoughts offering info and advice, email via firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the helpline - 0800 068 4141 for calls or 07860 039967 for texts, open 9am-10pm each weekday and 2pm-10pm weekends/bank holidays.
Support for those bereaved by suicide
We’ve talked in this article about those who have survived attempts but utterly tragically many people die from suicide every year. Here are some organisations offering support:
SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) are a uk based organisation providing support, advice and resources to all those affected by a suicide. Call 0300 111 5065 9am-9pm.
Cruse Bereavement care also have specific support for those bereaved by suicide - check out the website or call 0808 8081677