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What to Say and Avoid Saying to a Suicidal Loved One

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I hate being told what not to say. Don’t you?

But, after attempting suicide earlier this month, I realized people like you, who have to deal with people like me — which sure as hell isn’t easy — might appreciate some pointers. So, take them or leave them, but here they are.

First, let’s distinguish between suicidal and parasuicidal behavior. Hemingway’s metaphor describes it best:

“Death is like an old whore in a bar––I’ll buy her a drink but I won’t go upstairs with her.”

When I attempted suicide, I didn’t do enough to die. I researched what would specifically happen and planned accordingly. It wasn’t a true suicide attempt because I wasn’t committed to suicide.

I only agreed to a first date.

I’m surprised I made it this long before caving. He’d been asking me out for 13 years.

Asking.

Pleading.

Wearing me down.

And, for half my life, I had said no.

Sometimes, I’d let him buy me a drink because it was easier than resisting. The next day, I’d have to cover the fresh marks on my wrists so my teachers, then bosses, then fellow moms wouldn’t see I had flirted with him.

When I thought he was getting too handsy a couple years back, I went to the ER.

But this time, I let him take me out. And if things went further — if I ended up committing to him — I really didn’t care. I’d given up telling him no.

That’s parasuicidal. Not getting in bed with suicide. Not yet. Just flirting.

Giving him attention, not trying to get yours.

Which leads me to the first thing you shouldn’t say to your suicidal/parasuicidal loved one:

1. “You’re doing this for the attention.”

When my psychiatrist told me this, I heard, “You didn’t prove to me you’re in pain. Go further, then we’ll talk.”

This comment belittles. It invalidates. It encourages them to make the next attempt stick.

Instead…

“I’m sorry you’re in so much pain that you felt this was your only option.”

This validates the hurt but not their actions. This also gently reminds them that death is not their only option and invites them to look for others.

2. “You have X, Y, and Z to live for.”

Don’t tell a mom she has her child to live for; motherhood may be her greatest stressor. Don’t tell them they are blessed to have their great career; it might be the very thing they want to escape. Don’t say their family depends on them; that might be their heaviest burden.

No list of things to live for will convince a person to keep on living.

Instead…

“I see that X is overwhelming you. How can I help alleviate some of that stress?”

Insist on helping if you can.

3. “What did I do to make you this way?”

This goes for parents, spouses and other influential family members. Whether you realize it or not, you are asking the person who is sick and suffering to identify the past root their own problem and absolve you of any blame for it. It’s a fruitless question with no good answer.

Instead…

“This is the side effect of being the incredible person you are. You are gifted in X, are sensitive to Y, are capable of Z because of the way you are wired. Remember this is only a small part of you.”

A lot of people who live with depression, or other mental illnesses for that matter, are actually pretty talented. They aren’t remarkable because they are sick, they are sick because they are remarkable. The book “Living With Intensity” describes how many gifted children, adolescents, and adults have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression because they are hypersensitive to the world around them, as if they see everything in high definition when others see in black and white. Beauty is crisper for these people, but hurt is sharper too.

In their pain, remind them of that unique quality that is only theirs.

4. “If you continue to behave this way, they will take away your kids, job, etc.”

Threatening a depressed person with dire consequences if they refuse to stop being depressed is counterproductive.

Instead…

“I’m taking you to the doctor/hospital/therapist.”

Offer a solution, not a threat.

5. “Don’t ever do this to us again.”

This is like asking someone in remission from cancer never to get cancer again. I know, I know; this isn’t cancer. But I think there is a grave and prevalent misunderstanding about the lack of choice the suicidal have in their behavior.

Saying no to suicide when he nags persistently takes a strength no one has an infinite supply of. You see your loved one’s “bad” behavior. You didn’t see the months or years they silently fought to prevent it.

Not to mention how this comment makes you the victim and the suicide survivor the villain. You are also in pain, sure. Please, talk to someone, but someone else.

Instead…

“Your death won’t make our lives better.”

It sounds dumb to say, but they have a deeply held belief that suicide will improve the lives of those around them.

I was shocked at the fear in my husband’s voice when he shook me awake, hours after I attempted suicide. He was devastated. He even took the day off work. It made no sense. I was doing him a favor.

They are convinced they are your greatest burden. Suicide swears to alleviate it.

I hope this helps you support a friend in need.

A version of this article was originally published on the author’s blog.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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