You care about someone who recently attempted suicide. What is your role now? How can you be supportive, helpful, and useful to them? Should you pretend it never happened, or follow up? Will talking about it make them more likely to try again? These are difficult waters to know how to navigate.
They’re experiencing a lot of feelings right now, and may not be able to ask for – or know – what they need. They may feel like a burden to others and feel unable or unwilling to ask for what they need. To get another perspective, here is an article for the attempter.
Be available as much as you can, and check in. The rate at which to do this depends on your existing relationship. Do what feels comfortable, and maybe 1/2 a step more. You are not expected to have a perfect solution or fix anything. Ask how they’re feeling, sleeping, eating, and what they’re thinking. Skip the platitudes like “everything happens for a reason” and “there must be a purpose you’re still here” as they feel hollow to receive and don’t create lasting change or connection.
Sort out your own feelings by talking to a therapist of your own, the family support staff at the hospital or agency where your loved one is being seen, or a trusted friend who will keep confidential what has happened. You can still lean on your loved one, but they can only give you back so much right now as they deal with their own stuff, so keep your portion lighter than theirs for the time being, but don’t withdraw, either, or be afraid to talk about some of your struggles. They likely don’t want interactions to feel phony, surface, or like others cannot be themselves – this can lead to guilt. If you have guilt, sort through it knowing that a person has to be at a personal low in order to make an attempt, and your part in that, if any, was only a part, and there are more pieces that created the depth of pain. Despite your curiosity, do your best to avoid asking them why they made the attempt as expressing the level of pain it took to try to escape it may be impossible to verbalize; do encourage them to discuss it in therapy, though any decent therapist will be exploring this.
Ask what you can do to help. This could be: making some meals and dropping them off to be heated up later, helping them get clothing or makeup to cover the healing wound, just sitting together, or checking in on them by text daily. Sometimes they want to be left alone, and if it is safe to do so, respect that request, and make the offer. Make plans for the future, something to look forward to – a restaurant you haven’t tried yet, a return to a fun activity, a small trip.
It’s okay to ask if they feel suicidal, or are having thoughts, urges, or a plan to kill themselves. Of course, making that every interaction would be annoying to anyone, but asking does not increase suicidality. You could also ask what the plan is if those feelings/thoughts return, and have a ready plan in place (mobile crisis unit, hospital, psychiatrist, therapist, who they will tell, if not you). It is relevant to know that suicidal thoughts are just thoughts, but urges and plans are more serious and safety actions can be mobilized at those later steps.
Be patient with them and with yourself as you each work through this. This part is going to suck for everyone. You’re enduring it together so you can all get through it.
Autumn Hahn is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist practicing at Clear Mind Group in Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and Virginia. Call 954-612-9553 for a consultation. Follow Autumn on Twitter & Facebook.