FYI

What to say, and not, to those left behind by suicide

Updated: 2013-09-06T22:02:58Z

By LISA GUTIERREZ

The Kansas City Star

These are the cringe-worthy things that we say to parents and loved ones left behind by suicide.

At least you have other children.

He’s in a better place.

Aren’t you over this by now?

I know how you feel.

No, you probably don’t know how they feel, Bonnie and Mickey Swade would like you to know.

It’s going on 10 years since their son Brett took his life in the family’s backyard. The Overland Park couple lost friends after he died, friends who they suspect didn’t know what to say to them or, worse, played the blame game.

“I guess it’s human nature,” Mickey Swade says. “Everything that happens, there’s a cause for it. There has to be somebody to blame for everything. That’s part of the stigma that is attached to suicide.”

The Swades founded a suicide support group — hosting its annual Remembrance Walk on Sunday — and for the last decade have watched public discourse about suicide grow.

Schools now preach prevention. Hollywood stars make public service announcements. When “The Bachelor” star Gia Allemand and former Disney star Lee Thompson Young, both 29, killed themselves in August, shock flooded Twitter.

But one on one? Friend to friend? Words tend to fail us, and we don’t know what to say to families like the Swades.

Members of their support group will “say that someone said something really stupid, or ‘My best friend I’ve known for years and years didn’t even call me.’ Those things are very hurtful,” Bonnie says. “It’s because people do not know how to deal with someone who has lost somebody to suicide.”

Says Mickey: “It’s OK to call your friend or come by and tell them that you don’t know how to deal with this.”

Such honesty would have been preferred to what some of Bonnie’s co-workers said to her after Brett’s death.

“I’ll never forget this one,” Bonnie says. “She said, ‘Call me if you need anything, email me if you need anything.’

“I thought ‘email her?’ I don’t think so.”

They heard that often — “call me if you need anything.”

They would have preferred people doing something instead of just asking the question.

“Just call and say, ‘I’m thinking about you. I know you’re going through a tough time. I know my words feel empty, but I just want you to know that I’m thinking of you,’” Bonnie says.

Another of her co-workers, clearly flummoxed over the news of Brett’s death, told Bonnie: “Oh, that’s really poopy.”

“I just thought, oh my gosh,” Bonnie says.

They heard bromides, too, like this: He’s in a better place.

“You think, well, he’s not really in a better place because he’s not here with us,” Bonnie says.

People think they are giving comfort by saying things like “God never gives you more than you can deal with.”

“It’s OK to say those things, but further down the road,” Mickey says. “It’s not something you want to hear right after. You’re still dealing with the loss.”

“And the grief,” Bonnie adds.

Give the family time to grieve, Mickey says, “then you can say those kinds of things and they come out right.”

They never hid the circumstances of Brett’s death. They wanted no secrets. Everyone in their life knew that he was found hanged in the backyard.

After he died, an odd thing happened. Some people stopped using his name altogether. “They’d say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry about your son,’” Bonnie recalls.

But she goes on: “His name is Brett. It’s very important that people use the name of the person that is gone because that creates a real person.”

It’s not that people are intentionally cruel or insensitive. Sometimes, they just don’t think before they speak, which would help them avoid many an awkward moment.

“You’ve got to be aware of who you’re talking to,” Mickey says. “If you know you’re talking to somebody who’s lost somebody to suicide … chances are you know how they did it.”

His wife now can’t stand to hear the oft-used phrase “hanging out.”

“That just puts a knife in me because that’s how our son … hanging out is not necessarily a term that I use,” Bonnie says.

What also hurts to hear: When someone says they’re so upset they’re just going to shoot themselves.

“Too many people in our group have lost people” who shot themselves, Bonnie says.

Where words can get clunky, hugs never do, say the Swades, who welcomed friends and family who visited after Brett’s death.

“You want to see people,” Bonnie says. “I mean, there are some people who don’t. But I would say most people in general want to feel that someone is there to give them a hug, to give them some support.

“To even call and say, ‘I just wanted you to know that you’ve been in my thoughts.’”

Since Brett’s death, one of Bonnie’s closest friends has started a tradition of calling on either his birthday or the anniversary of his death.

“She’ll always say, ‘How are you doing? Hope things are going well,’” Bonnie says.

Some families yearn to talk about their lost loved ones, say the Swades, one reason they join support groups like theirs.

“We have some people who have been coming for four or five years because nobody wants to hear their story anymore,” Bonnie says. “It’s old news.

“We hear that people say to them, ‘When are you going to return to normal?’ Well, first of all, what’s normal? And second, they’re never going to be the same as they once were. You are forever changed.”

Lending an eager ear is a more welcome gesture than the I-know-how-you-feels the Swades heard early on.

“People who haven’t been in our shoes try to say that because they’ve lost their father or a relative to something they know,” Mickey says.

“But it isn’t the same as losing someone to suicide. There’s a definite, distinct difference.”

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

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