Written by Sarah Fitchett in memory of Ben Fitchett – Forever 14.
I write in the first person about my loss as these are my feelings, but it doesn’t mean that I am excluding the feelings of Peter (Husband) and Sam (Ben’s twin). We are grateful as a family for all the support we have had and still have.
As a parent bereaved by suicide six years ago when we lost Ben, one of our 14-year twins, these are my reflections on how you can support someone who has been bereaved in this way.
Talking to someone who has just lost a loved one is already difficult – knowing what to say to someone bereaved by suicide is possibly even harder. You may be conscious of not wanting to say the “wrong thing” or “upset them”. Most of the time you may just want to avoid “bumping” into them and having to offer condolences or even ask “How are you?”
At the time of my bereavement I was devastated and lost and scared to face the reality of Ben’s death and how I would ever be able to live without him. It is hard to get the right support – whether it is professional or from friends.
Unfortunately, we have lost friends along the way because their ‘support’ or ‘advice’ was actually unhelpful and hurtful.
Here are some of things that I’ve learnt from my experiences. These insights might help you to support someone, like me, who has been bereaved by suicide:
Don’t avoid us. You might feel scared and cross the road or dive down a different aisle in the supermarket – we have probably already seen you. We might feel hyperalert when vulnerable and outdoors, and we may feel quite sensitive to your actions.
Try not to keep looking down at the floor hoping our eyes don’t meet. We know you may be hurting too. We have shared so much together in our lives and we now share this pain too, albeit at different levels.
Saying “I know how you feel” isn’t helpful. Unless you have experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide then you don’t know how we feel. We don’t want you to feel the magnitude of pain that is the loss of a child to suicide. You may know how it feels to be bereaved, but that’s not necessarily the same, and that’s OK.
We don’t “get over it”. Equally, it’s not comforting to hear that “time is a great healer”. One of the worst things someone has said to me is that “at least you still have another child” – this is not a comfort.
Word choice is important. Reword what you might say. Something I found comforting to hear was; “I understand that you will feel broken and lost, and it is going to be hard for you”. My close friends who helped me said things like “I won’t insult you by saying I understand how you are feeling” but “I am here for you” and they were. We have journeyed together – I will be eternally grateful for that.
We need to talk about our loss. It makes it real and it helps us to feel the reality of death. This means we are able to navigate the grieving process.
Ask us: “How are you?” Whether you get the truth or not, the question reassures us that we aren’t invisible. We might tell you that we are fine – but that is ok. It’s not your duty to fix our pain, but asking shows kindness.
Please do not judge us if we don’t appear to be grieving. Don’t judge us for having to do the shopping, for taking our other child to school, or for experiencing it differently to other family members – it doesn’t mean we care any less or that we are “over it”.
Words are not always needed. Friends, family and community are extremely important at this time and they are your life and your stability. The belonging that is needed at this awful time. Your care, help, prayers, food, cards, company and flowers are appreciated so much more than words could ever express.
Share your memories and photos with me. I want to hear them and see them. Again, the tears may fall, but that is the level of love I feel for what I am seeing, hearing and the level of loss I feel through Ben’s death. Photos and memories are all we have left of him.
Remembering and acknowledging anniversaries and birthdays helps us too. We know memories live on and that they are still important to Ben’s friends. We treasure friends who still make the journey to put flowers on anniversaries. It means our loved one touched your lives and remains very much a part of it, despite not being here. This is not an expectation though, so if you don’t do it that is also fine.
Tell us about what your sons and daughters are doing. We might cry, not because we are hurt or finding it painful, but because we may be imagining those we’ve lost alongside your children as they move through different milestones.
Ask about our other children. They are alive, and we are so proud of them. They are not less important than our memories. We need to celebrate their achievements, their milestones, and not overshadow them with our grief memories.
Invite us to things. But don’t feel guilty, upset or angry if we decline the invite, drop out at the last minute, leave early or struggle. The last thing we want to do is hurt you by giving out the impression that we don’t want to join you or celebrate with you. It is exhausting managing the grief and there are some days that all we can do is remember to breathe.
Noise, chaos and rushing about are challenging. Grief can have effects on our mental and physical health. For me, when I’m affected, my brain feels fogged and overwhelmed, or I may forget things more easily. I occasionally need to leave and find a quiet place where my brain can recover. It might even be whilst we are having a conversation and I’m struggling to focus. If I recharge and recover, I can come back with a clearer head.
Look out for us. Ask us how we are and if you notice worrying signs do not be afraid to ask us about suicide. You might save a life by doing this.
Say the word suicide. You won’t make a suicide happen but it normalises the word in our communities and will reduce the stigma that suicide has connected to it. We know that suicide was their mode of death so it cannot hurt us anymore than when we found out that our loved ones had died.
As I said at the beginning of this article, these are my experiences and feelings around the loss of Ben. I know that others may feel differently and that grief, particularly for those bereaved by suicide, is unique to each individual. But I’ve shared this in the hope that it might provide help and advice for someone who knows a friend, family member or colleague bereaved in this way.