How to Talk About Suicide, from a Psychologist Who Lost a Loved One

It can be difficult to talk about suicide. It is a taboo subject, full of discomfort. Add to that some harmful misunderstandings and our tendency, as a society, to shy away from difficult conversations, and it’s no wonder you struggle to find the right words.

As a psychologist who has lost a loved one to suicide, I have been on many sides of this conversation. My hope is to share some guidance on how to talk about this important topic.

What to say when you are worried

There is a myth that asking someone about suicide can cause them to become suicidal. I can’t emphasize this enough. That is not true.

Asking someone about suicidal thoughts will not plant the idea. However, it will open the door to conversation. With that simple but clear question, you are communicating that you are a safe person to talk to.

What to say when someone reveals suicidal thoughts

It can be unbearable to hear that someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts. You may experience fear, shock, sadness, or anger. While all of these are completely understandable, don’t let them dictate your answer.

You may be tempted to say:

“How could you even think that?”

“You wouldn’t do that to me, would you?”

“How do you think it makes me feel to hear you say that?”

“Why are you depressed? You have a lot to live for!

“That’s selfish.”

Those comments can make your loved one feel worse and they will learn that you are not someone they can talk to.

Instead, try:

“Thank you for trusting me enough to share this. We will solve it together.”

“I’m so sorry you’re struggling. I’m here for you.”

“I know it feels overwhelming right now, but it won’t always be that way.”

“You are not alone.”

So, be curious and compassionate. Ask questions. When did you start to feel this way? Is there something in particular that triggered it? Have they taken any action steps (e.g., make a plan, write a note)? Do they have reasons to continue living?

Sometimes talking about things can help you feel better and get over the immediate crisis. Talking can generate hope, which is a lifesaver. And sometimes you’re simply gathering useful information that you can share with their parents, partner, or provider.

As a teenager, you may worry that your friend will be mad at you if you tell anyone, but it’s too big a responsibility to keep to yourself. Talk to a trusted adult, like a parent or school counselor, or call or text 988 to talk to someone who can help you 24/7.

Parents, treat suicide as a real concern. Don’t leave your child alone and make sure potentially dangerous items are secure (for example, absolutely locked away or removed from the house entirely). You can also call 988 or talk to your child’s doctor, school counselor, or therapist. If you are not confident in your ability to keep your child safe, take him or her to the nearest emergency room or call 911.

The same advice applies to anyone whose partner, family member or friend is struggling.

When acting, be honest and supportive. Say something like, “Let’s call the crisis hotline now. They will have people who can help us. “We will get through this together.”

What to say to someone who is grieving

It is a shame to lose a loved one under any circumstance, but suicide is especially difficult. Loved ones often have a hard time understanding why it happened. They may feel guilt, anger, or shame in addition to sadness.

I start by saying, “This sucks. “I am very sorry this happened.” I ask them if they want to talk about it. Then I listen. If it seems relevant to you, I tell you that it is not your fault. If you’re willing to listen to it, I tell you it’s not your loved one’s fault either. Their brain played tricks on them and convinced them that there was no other option. I tell them that I am here for them and I sit with them in their pain, as long as they need it. Read My Suicide Notes.

Let’s choose our words carefully

Notice how the phrases “I have to…” and “I have to…” have different tones: one is an obligation to fear while the other is a privilege to cherish. It’s amazing what a difference one little word can make. That’s because language matters. We need to be thoughtful about the words we use.

Committed v. died by

I deliberately use the phrase “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide.” We do not say that someone committed a heart attack, even if his or her behavioral choices throughout life (e.g., lack of exercise, poor diet, smoking) contributed to his death. Rather, we see his death as something that happened to them, not something they actively and voluntarily chose.

When you truly understand suicide (how someone gets to the point where they lose their life), then you know it is a losing battle. It is not a choice in the sense that “committed” implies, any more than a heart attack is.

Adjusting our language to reflect this more accurate understanding is important to eliminate stigma and shame, which can hinder the grieving process for loved ones. It also helps us, as a society, change our way of thinking, which will hopefully lead to greater efforts to effectively prevent unnecessary deaths.

Bad thoughts versus thoughts of self-harm

I also caution against using the term “bad thoughts” when talking to someone who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. If you ask someone if they have “bad” thoughts, they may shut down. Instead, be more neutral but precise and ask, “Do you have thoughts of self-harm?” or “Do you want to die?” Eliminating (“bad”) judgment paves the way for more open, honest, and helpful conversations.

Given the prevalence of suicide, it is important that we feel comfortable having real, honest conversations about it.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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