“But your life is great. What do you have to be sad about? You’re so fortunate. Look around at everything you have. There are children starving in Africa…”
In other words, “Your problem isn’t real. Get over it.”
Even with the best of underlying intentions, this approach is a slap in the face to someone who bared their soul in a very real, very raw human moment. It’s like someone running up to you on the battlefield with a gaping wound, and you tell them it shouldn’t be there, so suck it up and shake it off.
“When you feel like giving up, just remember the reason why you held on for so long.”
It might suddenly feel like this person is standing on a ledge and you need to talk them down. But that’s not what’s happening. You don’t need to know how to solve the problem or rush to figuring out how. That’s not what the person is asking you to do.
They need SUPPORT, not a solution.
Coming from the same solution-oriented mindset, some people also might ask, “Are you on any medication/have you been taking your meds?” This might be an appropriate question from a medical professional. But not from a friend or loved one. Asking this could again make them feel marginalized, or insulted as if their pain is just something they shouldn’t have, that could be eased like a case of the sniffles.
When someone finally confides in another person that they’ve been feeling suicidal, that is likely a HUGE step for them. They’ve gotten to this point because they’ve been suffering in silence. It takes strength and courage to be so vulnerable and open up to tell someone they’ve been hurting so much. Honor and receive this as the gift that it is.
What You Should Say
Take the opposite approach and begin by listening to and acknowledging what they’ve shared. Instead of the, “But you shouldn’t feel this way” routine, after hearing them out you can say, “Yeah, I get that. It totally makes sense why you feel this way. I can’t imagine how hard that’s been.”
Do your best not to jump into your head because you’re uncomfortable with what they’re bringing to you. Just allow it to be. The shared experience of a person’s emotional pain is in itself one of the greatest healing forces. Take a deep breath, and know that their feelings don’t have to change right now, and you don’t have to be some hero that changes or ‘fixes’ them.
“At the end of the day, the fact that we have the courage to still be standing is reason enough to celebrate.” — Meredith Grey, Grey’s Anatomy
You don’t need to give solutions, talk them down, or tell them how much their parents would be impacted by the decision to kill themselves. Stick with their emotional reality and experience. Be curious about it. Your job is to hold space, embrace, listen, relate (if you can), and support.
If you have been in a similar place, be honest about that. Share your experiences and struggles. If you haven’t been in a similar place, you should be honest about that too – “Wow, I can’t imagine what that must feel like. It hurts me just to know you’re hurting so much.”
What matters the most is CARING and empathy.
Here are some healthier things you could say:
1. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it had gotten this far… I would love to hear more about how you’ve been feeling lately if you’re willing to share with me?”
2. “Thank you for telling me, I am so glad you’re my friend. I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you in whatever way you need me…”
3. “I love you and I am a resource to you. Please lean on me in any way that you may need to. I want to help you through this.”