Your best gift to someone in pain

In honour of World Suicide Prevention Day

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, and if there’s one thing I’ve consistently seen with suicide, it’s that it’s incredibly hard to talk about.

Which is a shame, because one of the most important keys to preventing suicide is being able to talk about wanting to die and whatever the person in that headspace is struggling with. 

And that last bit is really the key: talking about suicide really often comes down to making space for someone to talk about their personal struggle and suffering.

So in the next few lines I’ll share about honestly engaging with the suffering of someone else. 

And the first thing to remember? Your best gift to a suffering person is your self.

See, the thing about suffering and pain is that it’s isolating. When things feel horrible, it’s easy to lose sight of all else except how bad things feel, and that in turns leaves us feeling profoundly alone like almost nothing else can.

And, I don’t know if you know, but isolation is a major risk factor for suicide as well. No surprise, right? When people feel at their most alone, they become more likely to feel uninterested in continuing to stay alive. 

Think about that for a minute. Survival is one of the most powerful human instincts — it’s literally a driver for innovation. And yet that instinct is broken by a deep sense of isolation. That alone may offer an insight into how terrible isolation is. 

So how do we break isolation before it breaks those we love? By being there

The challenge, I think, is we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We feel like there’s got to be something we can say that’ll change things. Like there’s got to be some kind of answer. 

And, sure, maybe there is, even. But if focusing on that leaves us staying away, then what’s the use? Perhaps we (and our struggling loved ones) are better off not chasing any big aims — beyond simply being present, being there, being in the moment with them. 

In practice, that’ll look like several things:
- a lot of listening
- gentle questions about what’s going on
- paying attention to what they say and don’t say
- letting them show emotion, whether it’s crying or anger or whatever — without attacking those emotions
- helping they’ve got basics: food, groceries, etc.… 

You get the idea. I’m sure you can imagine more. The thing, though, isn’t necessarily doing all of this perfectly. What’s important is doing what you’re able to and holding yourself responsible to give your best self, while knowing you ultimately can’t make anything happen or make them do anything. And, you know, that’s okay. 

In closing I’ll share something I recently read and found deeply moving, and probably unforgettable, that captures all this from the angle of someone freshly in the middle of tragedy:

Our son, Wiley, recently died. Our culture is trained to give people space around an event like this. It’s considered rude to ask what happened and why and so the only words left are “I’m so sorry”. We are grieving intensely, but one of the best things we can do is share our story with you. If you can handle it, please ask us about our son’s life and his death. We heal in small bits while talking about it. — All That Remains, by Dr Jessica Brandes

Let’s be people who make space for others to heal in small bits.