When Suicide Leaves You at a Loss for Words

By Melissa d’Arabian (pictured above with her mother in 1972)

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day was November 17—a day for people affected by suicide to find comfort and gain understanding as they share stories of healing and hope. We asked celebrity chef, New York Times best-selling author and suicide loss survivor Melissa d’Arabian to share her thoughts about how all of us can better support those who have experienced the loss of a friend or loved one to suicide.

The question I get most about losing someone to suicide: what should I say?

I lost my mom to suicide in 1989, so nearly 30 years of people saying things to me should, theoretically, make me an expert on coming up with the one perfect thing to say to a survivor of suicide loss.

There’s lots of great stuff out there on what not to say. For example, let’s remove the phrase “committed suicide” from the vernacular, and instead use “died by suicide.” This removes blame from the conversation.

Likewise, I can tell you from personal experience that in that first decade of grieving, people asking whether I “had an idea” that Mom was thinking of killing herself was not helpful to anyone. In fact, it was very painful. It made me question if I wasn’t somehow guilty of not being a good daughter.

I know they were just processing their own shock, but I wish they had chosen someone not in the inner circle of deep grief — the closest family and friends — to serve as a sounding board for the questions and frustrations that can come from suicide loss.

I hesitate to dwell on what not to say, because we should talk about suicide. Silence is part of the problem. So, what should we say?

The first thing I would remind us all is that nothing we say can possibly bring back the loved one who is gone, but we can’t let the fact that we can’t fix it stop us from showing up anyway. Reaching out to someone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide is hard and can feel awkward, because we know the limits of our own words. We can’t let that stop us. We can do hard and awkward things — and it’s worth it, because we all want to know we aren’t alone.

Perhaps the simplest, most loving thing anyone said to me in my grief was: I see you. I see your pain. I see your love. I see your anguish. And I am in your corner. Even if no one could fully understand my exact experience and the depth of my grief, feeling seen made me feel less alone.

And more, someone who knew my Mom would say: I see your Mom. I see her pain. I see her anguish.  And I will always be in her corner.

What made me feel most comforted but is harder and harder to come by these days as the number of people who knew Mom is dwindling is simply this: “I see your Mom, and remember who she was, not just how she died. I remember how funny she was and how she made that weird olive-cheese dip for every single dinner party she hosted.”

The more random the memory, the more I loved to hear it, because her quirkiness, her uniqueness always brings a smile to my face. Hearing these memories reminds me that her life mattered to someone other than me, and that it isn’t defined by how she died.

Any time is the perfect time to reach out to someone in pain — and lots of people are — and let them know they matter.

Don’t know what to say? Try texting a simple note: “I see you. And I am in your corner.”

If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Melissa d’Arabian is a celebrity chef, television host, New York Times best-selling author, and mom of four. She is a go-to expert on affordable and healthy family home cooking. She also lends her time and voice to promoting mental health issue and ending suicide, after losing her own mom to suicide in 1989. Stay in touch with Melissa on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Pinterest as well as on her website, www.MelissadArabian.net.