“Babe, my mom killed herself.”
I can literally hear and feel my husband’s words on the other end of the phone as if the call was still happening. Hardly able to breathe, let alone speak through the sobbing of unthinkably heart-wrenching tears, he called me with the news that none of us ever saw coming.
On a sunny Friday morning in October, my mother-in-law woke up in pain, as she did most days. Physical pain, yes, but more emotional and mental distress than anyone will ever know. She scrolled Facebook, shared a memory, then reflected on the news of what doctors had told her earlier in the week: “Trina, there is nothing more that we can do for you.”
And with that, she decided her life was no longer worth living.
For years, my mother-in-law had suffered from chronic pain. But before any of the physical pain crept into her life, she had lived a life plagued by mental illness. Depression and suicidal thoughts were a common theme in her life.
As my husband picked me up from work and I held his shaking, sobbing body, I couldn’t help but think, how did we not see this coming? What could we have done differently on our end that could have prevented this on her end?
In the days that followed, I listened as my husband delivered the news to countless friends and relatives. Each one had the same response: “I didn’t even know, I wish I would have reached out to her.”
We say that a lot in circumstances of suicide: “reach out,” “tell someone,” “don’t stay silent.” But what does that mean? If Trina had told me she was depressed, or feeling suicidal, would I have known what to say? Would I have responded in a way that could have saved her life?
Hear me when I say, this is not a matter of guilt or blame. But in reflecting how we respond to those courageous enough to share what they’re dealing with, I realized, so many of us could use some guidance in what to say to a suicidal friend.
As a society, we have this horrible tendency to defer the conversation when things turn taboo. Suicide, depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles are messy. They’re uncharted territory for many, and they’re uncomfortable for people to talk about because of this stigma of weakness, and “craziness” that is often associated with them. But y’all, talking about them less and sweeping them under the rug doesn’t make them any less real. It just makes the ones we love feel even more lonely.
You may not know what to say to a suicidal friend, but knowing what NOT to say is a great place to start.
Hard conversations are always worth it.
Deferring the conversation and making light of the serious cry for help your friend has shared with you is no way to save a life. Your reaction in this life-or-death circumstance sets the tone for everything that follows, meaning, if your initial reaction is blowing off their suicidal claim like it’s a joke, or like they never said it all, then you can bank on them never confiding in you ever again. And you may not know it then, but that careless reaction could be confirmation of the decision that’s brewing inside them.
Suicide is not a joke. And in every circumstance, someone revealing suicidal thoughts is never something to neglect or change the subject from.
Real conversations save lives.
It seems obvious that a suicidal friend would know that you care about them, you love them, and you’re concerned. But more often than not, their head isn’t in a healthy place to recognize what many of us think to be obvious.
When Trina passed away, my husband was silent for a long time as he processed his emotions and experienced each one as they came. But I remember when he finally broke his silence, the first thing he said was, “If my mom had thought for even a split second about the pain she would be causing her boys (he and his two brothers), she never would have done it.”
And he was right, she wouldn’t have. My mother-in-law was the definition of “mama bear.” She loved her sons literally more than life itself, and she would have done absolutely anything in her power to take on their pain as her own.
But in her suicidal state of immense depression and pain she wasn’t aware of just how loved she was. It wasn’t obvious that people cared about her and were willing to help her.
I say all of this because sometimes it’s easy to have “pretty” conversations. Light-hearted, warm and well-meaning conversations that make us feel better about the situation at hand. But when it comes to suicide, making ourselves feel better does absolutely nothing.
Be honest, and be obvious. Tell your suicidal friend that you love them, and you’re worried about them. Tell them that you don’t want them to die. Literally say that, “I don’t want you to die.” Because that’s the honest truth.
When having these hard conversations, we so often turn things back to ourselves. “Don’t die, who am I going to hang out with?” seems comforting, but it’s not. It makes their very REAL struggle about you. But at the end of the day, they don’t really care who you’re going to hang out with and keep living your happy life with, because their life is painful.
Do NOT Say Nothing.
We’ve talked about how messy these conversations can be, because mental health and suicide are messy subjects. And that’s okay. It’s okay to not know what to say to a suicidal friend, but it’s not okay to say nothing at all. To say nothing at all is like saying that their life doesn’t matter, which we all know is not the case.
I get it, this is uncharted territory for a lot of us, and trust me, your friend gets it too. But be honest and be direct. Tell them, “I don’t know what to say.”
Don’t let their suicidal thoughts fall on empty ears. Hearing directly that you acknowledge what they’re telling you, and want to support them is so much better than awkwardly trying to come up with something inauthentic that YOU think will make them “feel better.”
In most cases, your role in supporting your suicidal friend starts with simply listening. But PLEASE hear me when I say that it does NOT end there.
Listen to what they tell you, don’t offer empty advice, and ask them who else knows.
In many cases, you may be the only one. But you CANNOT remain the only one. If your friend is suicidal, you are responsible for alerting others that they are in danger.
I know you’re thinking, “But Bri, they told me they’d never forgive me if I told a soul.” And you know what, that may be true. But what is more important to you? Their life, and the opportunity for them to live it out with those who love them, or whether or not one person in this great big world forgives you?
I promise you, they will be mad when you tell their mom, or their husband, or their sister or the police. But Y’all, their life is SO worth it. Better for them to be angry and alive, than for you to be quiet and them be dead.
As a pastor, my husband is a mandatory reporter, meaning, had my mother-in-law said to him what she said to her husband on that fateful morning, “I’m in so much pain, I just don’t want to live anymore,” he would have legally had to report it to the police. Maybe that sounds super harsh to some of you reading this, but think about this: Had he alerted the police of his mom’s suicidal claims, she may very likely still be here today.
When it comes to what to say to a suicidal friend, the most important thing to remember is that nothing from that moment on is about you. It’s not about what they’ll think of you, what you’d do without them, how you feel. It’s solely about hearing them, supporting them, and advocating for them in whatever fashion that looks like in your circumstance.
My prayer today is that you find confidence in what to say to a suicidal friend, and you’re equipped with the most appropriate next steps. Because we all have the power to save a live, we just need to know where to start.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, please know you are not alone. Suicide is completely preventable. There is hope. PLEASE reach out if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or fear that someone you love might be.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text “START” to 741-741.