When my sister died– and it was over twenty-five years ago when there was much more stigma surrounding suicide than there is now– I remember thinking how could she end her life, believing that she valued and cherished life much more than I did. And that also meant people often didn’t know what to say to me.
But there is another time that leaves people speechless– after a suicide attempt.
What do we say to someone who has attempted life? Life is the whole of everything we do and believe and when someone tries to end it, we know it goes against everything we’ve been taught about preserving it.
In the years that I trained people in suicide prevention and in the experiences I’ve had working with suicidal people/attempters, I’ve learned that it’s an opportunity to be there for someone, a time not to speak, but to allow them to speak. Suicidal people are looking for a way to express their pain and when they don’t find it, they might attempt to end their lives.
They don’t need to hear from us how wonderful their lives are and how great they are. They are trying to reconcile feelings inside themselves that we might not have any idea are there.
We have a tendency to want them to stand in a sunny place with us. The spot where they are standing is stormy and they don’t want to move from it until they have an opportunity to express the pain they feel, the road that led them to the attempt, and how much they hurt. It’s like the clouds in the sky continuing to hover until they’ve had a chance to drop moisture on the earth. Expressing the bad allows us to see the good again.
It’s a relief for them to express their pain and sometimes enough for them to move forward. Others might need more help in the vein of a therapist or someone to walk the road for them as they try to find a way forward. There might be other circumstances around the attempt that they need to cope with as well. No matter the depth of their needs, there is a place for all of us to be there for them to some extent.
Ultimately, I think of the founder of the field of suicidology, Edwin Shneidman, who said that it came down to two questions: “Where do you hurt?” and “How can I help?”