One of our readers wrote in to ask the following question:
A few of my friends have histories of suicidal ideation and attempts, and I worry that bringing up death preparedness could trigger them in some way. Obviously I don’t want to make my friends feel uncomfortable or anxious about something they have a hard relationship with (death), but is there a way to talk about death with them in a sensitive and meaningful way?
Another reader wrote in, speaking from the opposite side of the equation:
I’ve had history of suicidal thoughts and actions, and although I haven’t experienced these in awhile, every time I bring up death with my friends who know of my history, they get this terrified look on their faces, like “Oh God, is this happening again?” How do I explain that I now have a healthy, not weird at all attitude towards death and my impending mortality?
Does bringing up death preparedness push someone over the edge? If you talk about something, does it make it more likely to happen? Should you just not talk about death with certain people? First things first: if you, or someone you care about, is actively suicidal, do something about that NOW. Get help in your local community. Reach out to your friend. Don’t wait. If you’re not sure how to help or get help, click here for more resources.
There’s a reason we need our whole death-positive movement: people are uncomfortable with death. In refusing to talk about death, we help sustain a culture that cannot tolerate grief – individually or collectively. Fear of grief, fear of loss, fear of being consumed by emotion bigger than us – these are the engines behind our death avoidance. Add into that discomfort the fear of someone we love killing themselves, it’s no wonder people get exceptionally twitchy around the combination of death education and prior suicidality.
Let’s take each of these writer’s questions in turn.
First, how do you bring up death-preparedness with those who might be triggered because of their past suicidal ideation?
I’m curious as to when, where, and why you’re having these conversations about death. Is it only with these people (because you know their history, and feel it’s an important topic), or is it a part of your life you share with most people? If death education and preparedness is something you share with most people, you might say – “I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about death preparedness, wills, advanced directives, what I want done with my body after I die. It’s important to me. And I’ve hesitated to talk about it with you. I don’t want to avoid death talk with you, but I also don’t want to bring up death in a weird way, or stumble around it because of your experience with being suicidal in the past. Would you be willing to talk about this together?”
(Important note: if your friend is currently suicidal, that’s your topic of conversation, not what to do about advanced directives.)
I’m a big fan of consent: if you’re unsure how something might impact another person, ask first. Don’t be afraid to address your concerns. Asking permission shows your respect for the other person’s heart, mind, and their control over when and where these topics are brought up. Bringing up the topic – addressing your concerns around suicidality, instead of managing those anxieties – helps your friend know that you’re okay with listening to difficult and often complex situations. You don’t have to do these conversations perfectly – you just need to show that you’re willing to go there.
Don’t let the suicidal elephant in the room be the thing you talk around. Address it. Make it clear that the topic of death-education can be tabled if your friend feels overwhelmed. If, and only if, you get a go ahead from your friend, then you’re welcome to talk about death education and preparedness. Move forward gently, and be willing to renegotiate and discuss how it’s going for both of you.
So what if you’re the one with the history of suicidal ideation, and bringing up death preparation makes people in freak out? How can you help them calm down and listen?
People are uncomfortable talking about death to begin with. People you love might have the added concern about your safety, no matter how long ago your suicidality was a relevant concern. If you’re in a place in your life where suicidal ideation is no longer present, then my answer is largely the same as above: address the weirdness rather than manage the weirdness. Be proactive when opening the topic. You might say something like, “death preparation is important to me. We’re all going to die, and having advanced directives, clear communication, and wills help everyone. I’ve noticed that when I talk about these things, you seem scared that I’m suicidal. Is that accurate?”
Asking directly lets you find out what your listener’s actual fears are, so that you can address them. Addressing those concerns is not the same as agreeing to not bring the topic up: “I recognize that my past history makes some people nervous about who I am now, and what I find important. I’m going to continue to care for myself and follow the things that interest me. If you have concerns about my safety, I’m happy to hear them. I also need you to trust that I have support systems in place, and the self care I need. My interest in death preparedness and education is not an indication of my relative safety or suicidality.”
You get to have interests. You get to have interests that make others uncomfortable. Death is uncomfortable for a lot of people, which is why we have such a messed up cultural emotional system in the first place. PLEASE talk about death. Please talk about death preparedness. And, do so with respect and acknowledgment for other peoples’ concerns about you. Just don’t let their concerns silence you. Don’t let their concerns stay underground and unexpressed and without dialogue – that’s always where things get messy.
(Important note, again: if you’re actively suicidal, that has to be addressed, and discussions about how to help people in your life accept your interests is not one bit relevant right now.)
In both situations, what we’re really talking about is creating an invitation to discuss uncomfortable things. Bringing both suicidality and death preparation out into the open, where we are no longer scared to talk about either issue, is important and powerful work. By addressing the weirdness and discomfort, we begin to make it safer to talk about these things. We bring everyone into the conversation, even and especially when they feel scared, overwhelmed, or nervous. And that’s good for both death-positive culture AND for decreasing the isolation of those who feel suicidal. Open, direct discussion is a sign of deep emotional intelligence, uncomfortable as it may be. Be brave. Be proactive. Go forth and discuss.
Megan Devine is the author of the audio book, Everything is Not Okay: practical tools to help you stay in your heart & not lose your mind. She’s a licensed clinical counselor, writer, widow, and sought after speaker. Her Writing Your Grief courses have connected grieving people all around the world, helping them speak the truth about their pain. Click the link to join the next session. You can find more of her writing, and sign up for her weekly letter, at www.refugeingrief.com.