How best to support my friend?
March 9, 2016 8:23 AM   Subscribe

A friend of my close friend took his own life a couple of nights ago. My friend is pretty wrecked. What's the best way for me to support him?

Day before yesterday, my friend's friend took his own life by jumping off a tall building. Apparently it was a pretty awful scene on the ground. My friend, who I'll call Scott, texted me last night, very upset; apparently, Scott was the last person the guy texted before he jumped.

I texted Scott this morning to ask how he was doing, and he said he was basically in shock. To make things more dicey, he's been having a bit of a hard time lately for reasons I won't get into. The suicide would be bad enough without anything else adding to it, but combine the two things and I'm genuinely worried about him.

I told him to please call any time if he wanted to talk. But he generally plays things pretty close to the vest and isn't much for talking about feelings or processing.

I don't want him to feel like I'm bugging him, but I do want to be supportive, and I'm worried that Scott will spiral into a really bad vortex of depression and anxiety (he has a history of those). I'm lucky that I haven't had anyone close to me take their own life, so I don't really know how to proceed here. Other than telling him I'm here if he wants to talk, is there a way I can help? Is there anything I should be encouraging him to do or not do? (If it matters, I didn't know Scott's friend at all.)
posted by holborne to Human Relations (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
There's this period right after a horrible shock where as long as you can just get through it, that's enough. Hydrate, try to sleep (and see a doctor quickly rather than getting to the desperate/delusional point before getting help with that if necessary), try to eat some actual nutritious food, avoid unnecessary driving and power-tool using and other things that require concentration for safety. Try to get actual sunlight in/near your eyes early in the day every day so you don't give yourself jet lag on top of all your other suffering. Passing the time with really unchallenging but distracting entertainment or activities is fine, as long as they're healthyish.

What if you invited him on a standing date (daily or every other day, ideally) for a walk or coffee and a game of checkers or just some sort of leaving of the house and doing something for a short period? No requirement to talk - about what happened or even talk at all - but he's free to if he wants, tell him you just want to make sure he gets a little change of scenery and company every day right now. If he wants to use that time to go to the grocery store, take him and help him plan some meals for the week. If he wants to go to the movies, take him to the movies.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:40 AM on March 9, 2016 [11 favorites]

I'd call a suicide hotline and ask them for advice.

Me, I'd tell your friend what you told us. "I know this is hard for you and I'm concerned that because you tend not to discuss or process your feelings. It's not healthy, especially for something this terrible. You may not feel comfortable talking to me, but I really urge you to find a therapist you can work with on this. I don't want you to think that I'm bugging you or being intrusive, but again, I'm really worried about you. I want you to know that I'm okay with you leaning on me as much or as little as you need. I value our friendship and I know that this is devastating for you. I love you man."

I like Lyn Never's suggestion of keeping him moving in the physical world.

You're a good friend.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:42 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

*Don't* call a suicide hotline. (I did that once, for the same reason. They don't like their lines tied up by non-suicidal people.) Call NAMI. Scott will probably need some help from therapy. Just stay in touch with him, point him to help if he sounds like he needs it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:05 AM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Are you nearby? I'd drop by his house, bring him food, clean up, sit and watch a movie with him if he's up for it. Not necessarily talk, but just show up.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:09 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Being able to sit with someone and just let them feel their pain and be with them is, I think, better than efforts to comfort and reassure and "fix" what is in fact not fixable.

My elderly but healthy mom collapsed and died unexpectedly one day. I expected that the grieving process would be mostly about being Sad, but actually the word you used, Wrecked, describes it better. I was very emotionally volatile with rather surprising mood swings. Being around people who put expectations on me to perform grief just right and let them talk to me about how sad they were was a burden.
posted by puddledork at 9:12 AM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

Can you go hang out with him, in person? Take him out to dinner or a movie or just a walk in the park? Just show up at his house with pizza?

If you aren't nearby can you call him (without waiting for him to call you)?

If he doesn't want to talk about his feelings, don't press him to. But oftentimes when folks are struggling, people who care about them might say "let me know how I can help," or "call if you need to." But the struggling person doesn't want to take them up on it because they don't want to feel like a burden. It can help if you take the initiative.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:14 AM on March 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm so sorry.

Do you live in the same city as Scott?

Of course you don't want to intrude, but often people don't realize the value of face-to-face time until it happens (true particularly of anyone prone to depression).

So, instead of, "Would it help if I visit?" you might say, "I'd really like to stop by this evening." Unless he actually objects, just do it. Grab a pizza on the way (or whatever would smell good to him). Don't worry too much in these first days about whether food is healthy--he just needs to be eating something--and don't bother asking ahead of time whether he wants it, because the abstract thought of food means little to someone whose appetite is likely to have gone missing.

Remind him he can talk to you any time he's up for it, and assure him it's fine if that's not now (or not you). But please don't lecture him just yet about how unhealthy it is for him to not talk to someone. You'll be in touch again soon enough, I presume.
posted by whoiam at 9:18 AM on March 9, 2016 [9 favorites]

On preview: What sparklemotion said.
posted by whoiam at 9:19 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

From my own experience of grief, you can have a hundred people telling you "let me know how I can help", and just one person who actually comes and sits down with you and listens. Of course it's the one who comes sit with you the one that helps the most. But yeah, he may or may not want to talk about it. You can try asking a question or two but if he shuts those down then maybe the company is enough for now.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:24 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to answer a couple of questions: Scott and I do live in the same city, and usually speak a few times a week and see each other every few weeks or so. We both have kind of a phone phobia thing going on so when we're not face to face, we text.
posted by holborne at 9:32 AM on March 9, 2016

I am a suicide hotline volunteer. If you called and got me, here's what I'd tell you:

1. First of all, I'm so sorry about the pain you're both going through. The effects of a suicide run through a whole community, even though the person in crisis often feels that they are alone.
2. Make sure he has our number, 1 (800) 273-8255. Even people who aren't used to opening up will often find it easier to talk to a stranger.
3. If you suspect at all that he is suicidal, ask him about it, no matter how awkward it is. That's what we do; sometimes I think it's the main thing that we're for. Again, the goal is to help the person recognize they are not alone with these feelings. And if you ask and he's not suicidal, fantastic -- he's safe for today, and later on if he's not, he'll remember that you're a person who's comfortable talking about it.
4. If he is suicidal and he has a plan, see if there are concrete things you can do to help him step back from the plan. (Getting guns or pills out of the house; keeping him company.)
5. If you come to believe he is in immediate danger, call your local non-emergency line.
6. We are on your side. We really appreciate that you're on your friend's side; what you're doing right now, your concern, is the act of a true friend. At the same time, remember that you're not responsible for his mental health, any more than he's responsible for what his friend did. You'll take better care of him if you can keep up that boundary.
7. Make sure you tell him how much you care.

All of this is kind of cold comfort, I realize. A lot of attempted comfort surrounding suicide is like that, and the whole world of suicide is full of difficult choices (like, for example, I know very well that many cops aren't good with mental health crisis, but if it's really time for cops you have to take that risk). But this infrastructure -- keeping lines of communication open; offering empathy; keeping up boundaries; supporting each other; offering concrete help in averting plans -- is what we use, and it's effective, bearing in mind that people who call crisis lines do want help on some level.

Re: Cotton Dress Sock's advice, every line and call worker has a different policy about talking to non-suicidal people. Mine will generally talk to concerned friends, especially since these calls tend to be brief and self-limiting. Sometimes the friend is in immediate crisis and we need to set up a police rescue. A "concerned friend" call is even one of our simulated calls that we use for training.

Seconding that NAMI does a lot of good work, though, and that they'll probably be a more productive call in the long run. What we do on the hotline is necessarily limited -- I realize all my advice here was suicide-focused, and for most people, being safe from suicide today is only a small part of self-care.

Another nice resource is Many people don't know about warmlines, which are basically like crisis lines, but without the crisis. They're there for daily peer support for people living with mental illness or addiction.
posted by thesmallmachine at 9:42 AM on March 9, 2016 [25 favorites]

PS -- yes, and I second the advice about just being there to listen -- there's a reason hotline calls aren't just "Are you suicidal today y/n; can we help in concrete ways y/n?" We usually talk for like an hour, and somewhere in there we ask.
posted by thesmallmachine at 9:47 AM on March 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

I lost a friend to suicide, and even though I was much farther from the actual suicide, I still constructed an entire scenario in which it was my fault or at least my failing that caused or at least significantly contributed to it. I would be prepared to disagree very persuasively with whatever scenario he constructed. It is not his fault.
posted by slidell at 10:42 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

My more like a sister than an aunt killed herself almost 3 years ago. The pain will subside a little for Scott, but the questions (and guilt) never will in my experience. The most helpful thing for me in the immediate term was someone to just listen to me talk about her, the stupid fights we had, memories that came up, questions that I had. Even if it wasn't a conversation about her, random things just came to my head that I wanted to get out.

I have found this book helpful if he is the reading type.
posted by getawaysticks at 10:51 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't want him to feel like I'm bugging him, but I do want to be supportive

Ask him what he wants from you. It might be nothing, it might be to play four hours of Frisbee golf in the park to take his mind off the situation. It might be something else entirely. It's important to be supportive in the way he wants to be supported, assuming that that's what he wants.
posted by Solomon at 11:13 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

A good friend of mine found excellent support in similar circumstances from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They have resources for survivors and those who are feeling suicidal themselves here.
posted by goggie at 11:56 AM on March 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm taking a NAMI class right now. I second calling NAMI. Part of their mission is helping people in exactly your situation: helping others who are in crisis. And yes, it sounds to me like your friend is in crisis.

Also seconding thesmallmachine, who works for a suicide hotline, and NAMI will tell you this too: If you at all suspect your friend is suicidal, you MUST name it. You must ask him if he's thinking of hurting himself, and then if he has a plan, and then finding out if he has means. NAMI will tell you that research indicates asking someone if they're suicidal does not create suicidal feelings. And if he is suicidal, and talks to you, then you've opened up an avenue to help him that wasn't open before.

This is so hard. I'm pulling for you.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:57 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a close friend kill himself; it was over twenty years ago and it's still very hard to think about.

What I needed -- your friend may vary -- in the period immediately following it was practical help. I needed somebody to drive me to and from the service (and prop me up at the appropriate times, and give me massive amounts of tissues). I needed help grocery shopping, I needed help dealing with my university about late papers &c, I just wasn't functioning well with basic everyday life tasks.

He had stayed with me for a year prior and eventually I needed help cleaning my apartment and purging it of all his things, no matter how tiny, except for a few small bits and pieces that I wanted to put in a box and hang on to.

"Call anytime" can be a hard thing to make use of if you are in a fetal position on your bed with no idea what to do except bawl or scream. I would go over with food, ask if he is up to doing anything. If he isn't, perhaps tidy up his bathroom and kitchen if that's cool with him and go, staying in touch via text/e-mail.

Be prepared for some lashing out. I was seeing a guy at the time. There were arrangements for a few of us to meet at my apartment to drive from there to the funeral. He didn't show. Eventually I called him, exasperated. He claimed he thought we were meeting at his place, which made no sense at all. We got him and drove off in a hurry. He was petulant about the mistake instead of apologetic, and my response was pretty much "fuck you," and that was the end of the relationship. I had no patience at all for anything going on with the rest of the world in the period immediately afterwards. Don't take it personally if he tells you to screw off with your stupid fucking coming over with your stupid fucking Chinese food, etc.
posted by kmennie at 4:31 PM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Scott and I got together earlier tonight. He wanted to talk about it, so I mostly just listened. The details are actually far, far worse than I realized, so I'm very concerned for him. He seems ok right now, although I suspect he's kind of shell shocked. He specifically said that he wasn't blaming himself for his friend's suicide, which gave me a bit of comfort.

I asked him to please promise me that if he needed need some help with this later, he'd get it, and noted that emotionally intense events can sometimes hit you pretty hard when the shock wears off. He made me that promise.

Thank you, everyone, for the advice you gave here. It helped a lot.
posted by holborne at 8:28 PM on March 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

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