A loss by suicide is like no other and survivors are especially vulnerable in grief because they often feel they are to blame for not having seen the often-subtle signs. Friends and family members feel helpless and don’t know how to respond or what to do.
Recently, I spoke with Anne Moss Rogers about suicide. Rogers is a TEDx speaker, storyteller, writer, and certified suicide prevention trainer who helps people foster connection to prevent suicide, reduce substance misuse and find life after loss. Among the topics we discussed:
- What is suicide and why do people kill themselves?
- What to say or do that will support a friend/family member.
- What is the “wrong” thing to say to a friend/family member who has lost someone to suicide.
- How to sit with someone in their pain.
- How to spot a suicide loss survivor who may be at risk of suicide themselves.
Anne Moss Rogers lost her 20-year-old son, Charles Aubrey Rogers, to suicide on June 5, 2015. He struggled with anxiety, depression, and ultimately a heroin addiction. Her blog, Emotionally Naked, reached over a half million in its first three years on subjects that have often been shoved to the back of the closet—suicide and that which triggers this cause of death, addiction and mental illness and grief. Her book, Diary of a Broken Mind, is an International Book Award Finalist and a nominee for the 2020 Library of Virginia Literary Award.
Watch the video, recorded as part of the Reimagine: Life, Loss, & Love virtual festival. Some excerpts are highlighted below.
Why is the term “committed suicide” out of favor?
Anne Moss Rogers: You can use the phrases “killed himself,” “died by suicide,” “he suicided.” The reason we want to remove “commit” is it comes from the 1400s in England, when suicide was actually a crime. You’re probably thinking, well, they punish somebody for committing a crime. What they did is they punished the family. They would actually tie the body to a horse and drag it through town as an example. They would shame the family for the suicide.
And then, all their worldly goods were donated to the crown. The family wasn’t allowed to have that inheritance. And they were also denied the right to a funeral and a burial in the cemetery. In many states, suicide is still on the books as a crime, even though you can’t charge anybody for a suicide. We are trying to get it off the books because it is very stigmatizing.
It’s going to take a while since it’s been in our language for such a long time. Suicide is a public health issue, not unlike diabetes or heart disease.
What are some of the wrong things people say in response to a suicide?
Anne Moss Rogers: “He’s in a better place,” because there’s nowhere better for my son than right next to me on Thanksgiving Day and not in heaven. I will admit that I was angry, and at times, I wanted to lash out and say, “I tell you what, I will send all your loved ones to a better place and see how you like it.”
If somebody says something to you, give them credit for having the courage to say anything at all. There’s a lot of stigma around suicide and it takes the other person a whole lot of courage to say anything. What offended me the most is when they said nothing at all, or they looked physically ill when they ran into me, or they would purposely avoid me.
I’m a very social person and it made me feel like such a pariah to get up the nerve to go in the grocery store or the drugstore again and be avoided. I wanted to be hugged, I wanted to talk about my child. And then I would run into people. I would talk about my child. And people would cut me off mid-sentence, and start talking about something else. It made me feel like they were erasing my child from our family tree and I didn’t like that.
What are some helpful things people can do or say?
Anne Moss Rogers: If you hear people saying, “I’m a burden.” “I can’t do this anymore.” “Things would be better if I just weren’t here anymore.” You stop for a minute and you will feel something in your gut.
Grieving people are at higher risk for suicide. And parents who’ve lost a child to any cause of death, usually 33% of them are considering suicide. The first thing to say to the person who is struggling is, “You know, that sounds serious. Tell me more.” And ask questions.
And what do you say to bereaved parents? “I have no idea what to say. I’m just HEARTBROKEN FOR YOU.” That was really nice, even some of the cliche phrases of, “You have my condolences.” Because like I said, it takes a lot of courage for people to say anything.
The best things are intentional like, “I don’t know what to say. But your grass is tall, I have a lawn mower, and I could be over at 10 a.m. on Saturday to cut your grass. Is that a good time for you?”
We wonder why the world has the audacity to keep spinning on its axis with our without our loved one in it. But the world keeps going forward and people need to pick up prescriptions.
That intentional work is very helpful because I remember when I could barely take a shower. I would get out of bed and I couldn’t remember the order. I almost got in the shower with my glasses and pajamas on, remembering the steps was just really difficult.
You have a kind of grief brain, of grief fog. It was so, so devastating, because I was also struggling with all those “coulda, woulda, shoulda’s,” which is part of the process with any death, but more pronounced with suicide death.