“I don’t know if I’m even going to get up tomorrow.” Has a friend ever confided something similar? Or that they’re struggling with suicidal thoughts? It’s unnerving. How do I help a friend who talks about suicide?
Questions flood your head: I wonder what’s wrong? Would it feel meaningful if I said “I care about you and I’m sorry”? What do I do?
Not knowing our place, we fear we’ll make it worse and believe there must be someone more fitting to help.
Yet, here we are.
To shed light on the “do’s and don’ts,” I interviewed a friend who battled suicidal thoughts and Ron Deal, a licensed family and marriage therapist, for their insights.
Can I even help someone with suicidal thoughts?
There are two ways to think about a friend who talks about suicide or all people really with suicidal thoughts.
- People who want to die.
- People who don’t know how to live.
According to Deal, those who want to die will die. Ultimately, there’s nothing anyone can do short of pulling the gun out of their hand.
Conversely, people who don’t know how to live are desperately looking for a reason to do so. That’s something we can help with.
What’s true of both is there’s a pain in their life they can’t see around. They don’t know how to “do that pain” anymore, Deal says.
Knowing this, how can we respond and offer help to a friend who talks about suicide?
1. Show up
Not knowing what to do, we often do very little. But doing nothing isn’t helpful.
“The power of presence is the right answer,” Deals says. “You may not know yet what that means logistically, but finding a way to ‘show up’ is what’s important.”
For my friend who battled suicidal thoughts, her parents’ presence made all the difference.
“When I was talking to my mom, I told her how I was feeling and how I didn’t feel like I had a lot of hope,” she says. “She sat with me and listened. She told me ’it was okay’ and ‘we’re going to get through it together’ and that she had struggled with those things before too. It made me think, ‘OK, she knows there’s a way out. I’m not trapped by my emotions.’ She was there for me. So was my dad. He gave me a big hug and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
Presence is more than physical nearness. It’s whatever communicates, I haven’t forgotten you. I care about you. This can be done in small ways like sending a “text hug.” When texting a friend who’s hurting Deal often writes: Consider yourself hugged.
“That’s presence,” he says. “It tells them, ‘You may be halfway around the world, but I’m with you.’”
2. Don’t judge
“I’m convinced the vast majority of people who get a divorce never wanted a divorce, and that includes people who filed the paperwork,” Deal says. “They just don’t know how to do life as is. It’s their last resort. Suicide is similar.”
The agony of pain blinds us. When we can’t see other options, it’s natural to seek escape through the only door we recognize. For some, they see the only escape as suicide. Because of this, judging someone’s pain never helps. Especially if you’re trying to help a friend who talks about suicide.
“Just because you don’t understand their pain doesn’t make it stupid,” he says. “Telling someone, for example, they don’t have enough faith is stupid. So set aside the judgement and go give them a verbal or physical hug.”
“I was scared people would think it was stupid I was having these problems,” my friend shared. “But when I found out they weren’t disappointed and it was a normal thing to feel, it helped me move forward.”
3. Help carry their burden
If you’re like me, you probably wish you had the superpower to remove pain. But seeing as we don’t, showing up helps carry the burden.
But what does that mean? Christians often quote Galatians 6:2, 5, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ … For each will have to bear his own load.”
“Hold up!” you say. “You’re saying we’re supposed to bear others’ burdens, but let them shoulder their load? Isn’t that contradictory?”
No, because burdens and loads are separate things.
“Loads are like backpacks,” Deal explains. “We all carry our own daily responsibilities, the stuff we can manage. Burdens are like a truck full of rocks. We can’t carry it on our own. So when we hear of someone who’s suicidal, assume there is a burden too big to carry, a truck of rocks, that we can help alleviate with our presence.”
Aside from her parents’ constant listening, my friend says another practical way they lifted her burden was through setting her up with a counselor. Her parents’ willingness to let someone else help blessed her greatly.
Even a simple word, a compliment, or a meal can help lighten the burden for a friend who talks about suicide. This must be an ongoing response.
4. Respect their feelings
It’s easy to fail in this, but we must resist the urge to fix their pain with clichés. Rather, be willing to ask questions.
“Have enough respect for the size of their pain that you don’t try to throw a platitude on it to fix it,” Deals says. “People are dying for someone to know their pain. Don’t be afraid you will make them feel bad; they already feel bad. You are not going to make it worse.”
You should also respect their preference about who to invite into the conversation. He suggests this rule of thumb when trying to help a friend with suicidal thoughts: If you wonder if you should include Pastor John, or Susie Sue, ASK YOUR FRIEND. But be alert. If you sense they’re not thinking logically, do what you think best.
5. Ask clarifying questions
If a statement that makes you wonder whether or not your friend is really contemplating suicide, it’s helpful to be armed with these questions:
- Are you thinking of harming yourself?— This won’t plant suicidal thoughts in their head if they aren’t already there. It will simply give you a sense of where their mind is going.
- How would you do it?—This is standard suicide-hotline protocol. If they respond, “I sleep with a loaded shotgun under my pillow,” you’ll realize the severity of the situation. On the other hand, if they say something vague such as, “I have no idea,” you know they aren’t immediately lethal.
- What would it take for you to use that shotgun?—If they’re on the cusp, don’t leave their presence. Tell them, “I care for you so much that I feel the need to get you to someone so you’re safe.” Now’s the time to head to the ER or call the police.
These questions can also be useful in other situations.
“Those are not bad questions for parents to know when they come across a child who’s distressed and upset and you feel the need to ask,” Deal says. “In the throes of teenage confusion and being hurt by friends … it’s taken less than that for some people to do something really harmful to themselves.”
6. Pray with a friend who talks about suicide
Burdened by feelings of shame, some think, “I can’t talk to God about this, because he’s going to be mad at me.”
If someone struggling with suicidal thoughts conveys this sentiment, defy that lie by praying with them out loud about their struggle. Remind them God can handle it. Christ himself prayed in the garden before His death, because the anguish overwhelmed Him (Matthew 26:36-56).
Encourage them to keep the conversation with God going, and remind them of your continual prayers.
7. Take care of yourself, too
Your own emotions can run the gamut: anxiety, compassion fatigue, adopting the “Messiah Complex”… These emotions show you care, but they aren’t healthy to sit in. In the midst of loving a friend who talks about suicide, remember these truths to keep you balanced:
- You are not their savior. Christ is.
- The Body of Christ is meant to surround you when you need help. Reach out to them.
- You don’t have to do this alone. Get perspective from friends.
Ultimately, as both my friend and Ron shared, your presence is what matters most.
“At the end of the day, you, not something you do, are the strongest support you have to offer,” Deal says. “Do not underestimate the power of just showing up.”
Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Lauren Miller serves on staff with FamilyLife as a writer in Little Rock, Arkansas, though she’ll always be a California girl. She graduated from Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute where the Lord first planted in her a love for family and marriage ministry. As a single, she loves serving the youth at her church, watching British dramas, and reading a good book in her free time.