Dear Annie: My friend’s dad took his own life out of the blue a few months ago. The family knew he’d been suffering from depression, but nobody even suspected he was seriously contemplating suicide.
My friend keeps saying he’s fine, but I’m worried he’s not coping. Ever since the funeral he just seems to be trying to “carry on as normal” and he just won’t talk about it at all. We’re both at university.
My own dad died a couple of years back from a heart attack, so I know what it’s like to lose your dad. I’ve tried to get my friend to open up, but he just keeps changing the subject. What can I do to help?” – TC
Annie says: I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. I can hear how concerned you are for him and I imagine it has also triggered something for you about your own experience of grief. It can be a curiously challenging feeling when someone close to us goes through something similar, as it resonates so personally and yet of course what they are going through is totally unique to them.
What’s more, particularly in the early stages of grief, the bereaved person wants and needs their experience to be totally distinct and different to everyone else’s – almost as though they are the only person to have ever experienced it. Little comfort comes from knowing other people have experienced the same thing, as it can feel like it diminishes what they are going through.
The effect on the supporting friend is that at a time when they feel they are best placed to help, they can find themselves not needed. I wonder if this is partly what you are feeling, which I imagine is frustrating.
We need to also remember that your friend’s father took his own life – and grieving for someone who has died by suicide is a very different experience, as it comes with a whole extra layer of complex feelings and responses. So this really needs to be acknowledged, if you can find a way to do this with your friend that will really help him feel your understanding.
I would also really encourage you to give yourself time and space to process all that will be coming up about your own experience of grief. It is not very long ago that your own father died and being confronted with someone you love going through something similar will open up old wounds and these feelings need seeing to as much as your friend needs support.
In fact, I would say that you will be able to support your friend and be fully present to him only when you have given some attention to your own needs.