I just lost a friend to suicide, and it totally sucks. The thing is, I knew they were struggling with depression. We’d spoken about it on several occasions. But we never talked specifically about why they were depressed or what they had done or could do about it. So of course now there’s a whole lot of survivor guilt going on.
The questions fill my thoughts at all hours of the night and day: Did I do enough? Did I ignore the signs? What else could I have done? Why had I not checked in on them more often? Why didn’t I do more?
On one level I know it wasn’t my fault. I know his decision had absolutely nothing to do with me. On another level I am so angry at myself and sad. But this is the weird game our brain plays on us when we lose someone. Survivor guilt is insidious and very very unhelpful.
So I do the only thing I know how to do in these emotionally draining situations, I flip into help mode and charge ahead with a To Do List and Action Items, writ large and rife with busy work. I contact the family to offer my help with the death stuff. I post a heads up to our mutual friends. I scour photos for signs of him, confirmation of his presence in my life. I check in on friends. And I sob. I sob my eyes out. I feel the size and weight of this cosmic egg of grief I am carrying in my torso, right around where my gall bladder used to be. The grief is heavy; a physical presence. I hope some day I’ll get used to carrying it around, but for now the discomfort is, ironically, a comfort. It reminds me I am alive when they are not. Guilt strikes again.
So what have I learned from this experience? A few things:
- Struggling with mental health issues brings up a lot of shame, so we do our best to hide it. We avoid burdening others with this struggle. Society expects us to have Instagram perfect lives, y’all.
- Vulnerability is something we have a hard time sharing with others, even with those closest to us.
- If someone opens up about being in a dark place, even if they tell you it’s nothing, that they’re handling it, it’s likely much worse than they’re admitting.
And this is what we can do about it:
- If someone is giving you this gift of being vulnerable, please please please don’t change the subject because it makes you uncomfortable.
- Be direct, don’t use euphemisms. Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide or death. Use those words: suicide and death. It gives them permission to talk about it.
- Without judgement, gently challenge them about why they’re contemplating suicide. Discuss those reasons. Be an active listener.
- Ask them what help and support they have. Then ask them if it’s working! Tell them you will help them find more support.
- Remind them they are loved. Check in on them regularly. Mental health issues take time. There’s never a one and done quick fix.
- When supporting someone with mental health issues, don’t take it on alone. Support your own mental health. Emotions take energy, so check your resources often.
- And one other thing; society may expect us to always pursue happiness, but good is good enough. Surviving is good enough. Struggling is good enough. It’s okay to not be okay.
Not sure where to start? Call 211 in Edmonton and area, or check out Edmonton’s Canadian Mental Health Association website. If you’re outside of Edmonton, check out CMHA resources in your area.