Why “You are loved” & “please reach out” are crappy things to post after someone has died by suicide

Content warning: discussions of suicide, depression, mood disorders and more in that vein. No graphic depictions.

There’s a lot of well-meaning people out there posting in response to the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, who both died by suicide this week. We are easily devastated in our culture when popular, well-loved, well-known folks choose to remove themselves from the planet. It’s OK to be hurt, sad and angry. I feel it, too.

I’ve been able to tell, sort of, who in my feeds has not experienced depression, suicide ideation, and the spectrum of emotions and/or mood disorders along those lines, because I see a lot of these posts:

“You are loved.”
“If you need someone to reach out to, I’m here.”
“Please reach out if you’re having these thoughts.”

I get what you’re going for here, and the intention is genuine and very needed. However, may I suggest some alternative deployments of that intention?

By no means are all experiences in this end of the world the same, but I’d like to share what it feels like on the inside looking out for many of us who swim in the dark waters. I’m also including thoughts and experiences that friends shared on my original Facebook post about this subject. I’m by no means a mental health professional, here, either, just someone who’s been working with my own depression and anxiety for 20+ years, so that’s my lens.

  1. Often the person who is struggling can’t reach out. When I drop down, I drop out. A common experience in my depressive episodes, until 5 years ago, was a disastrous cocktail of not knowing that what I was experiencing was abnormal (I thought I just couldn’t handle life like everyone else does) and extreme shame about that. I didn’t know to send out a flare or reach out, mostly, and when I did, I’d downplay my symptoms to my friends. I was in therapy for years and didn’t report symptoms, too, because I honestly didn’t know that other people didn’t experience the world the way I did.
  2. Therefore, it’s up to you to notice when something is off — when you haven’t heard from someone in a while, or when you see them posting things that give you a red-flag-tingle. Does that feel awkward? Yep. Do you fear it sounds like you’re overreacting? Sure. But what’s the worst that can happen if you poke the person who’s hurting? More on potential downsides in a second, but the point here is, community care is on you, not the people needing the care.

Here’s a real world example of what that that could look like. I was having a real hard time in early May with the aftermath of several #MeToo revelations in progressive political communities, and had been coming down off my own experience sharing my complicated story on This American Life. I took to Twitter to emote, and just wanted to curl up and hide. Then @Atrios sent me a direct message:

This did so much for me in that moment — it took the sharp edges off what I was feeling. I was still feeling hurt, but a tiny bit of the despair was aleviated. What was it about this? Duncan was human here. He said he didn’t know what to say, but he noticed my posts, made a couple funnies, and most importantly, he didn’t put it on me to relieve him of his concern with that second message. This is a good model to follow.

3. That’s the main point I want to hit with how you decide to reach out. Make sure the person knows that your worry is not their problem. This is NOT about you. I’m always reminded of the Silk Ring Theory of comfort here — comfort the afflicted person, and then share your own hurts and needs with people less affected by the situation than you are.

4. Ditch the passive voice. Seriously. Saying “You are loved” is not only impersonal — “no one in particular, but someone might have nice feelings for you!” — but it can hit that craptastic note I mentioned above. People suffering an acute emotional crisis might feel their pain is causing loved ones’ pain, and that hurts even more. Vicious cycle stuff. And ideation often isn’t the result of feeling unloved, it’s an acute and dangerous response to wanting to relieve yourself from extreme pain, and feeling like you have no other way to do so. (This doesn’t account for people with disorders that involve voices telling them to do harmful things, and other illnesses that inspire suicide ideation, I know.) In my experience, I didn’t want to stay on the planet if being here meant pain, plain and simple.

An except from my comic on depression. Click the image to go read it.

5. Consider putting preemptive systems into place with your close homies. Don’t wait for your peeps who struggle with emotional wellness to do this, either. Start now. One big thing that’s changed a lot of circumstances for me is a texting system my heterosexual life partner, Cyn, and I started doing a couple years ago. We both happily live on our own, and at various times in our life, we’re either single or non-traditionally partnered. Both of us fear having a New York death (where something happens to you and no one finds you for days and your pets have eaten your face), and Cyn was having particularly acute anxiety after losing a friend to sudden death in the night. We agreed that we’d text each other every single morning, and that there were agreed-upon sets of actions we’d take if we didn’t hear from one another. We’ve done it every day since, and having that structure has shifted a lot for me. Both the task itself and knowing that someone who loves me and gets me without judgement will both notice and take action if I’m not OK gives me a welcome toehold on reality.

And the system’s original intention works, by the way — there was one time my technology was messing up, and I hadn’t heard from Cyn by our agreed-upon time. I started texting and calling her friends at work by noon or so, and was ready to call her neighbors to check on her. I finally got one of her messages that was like, “Um, settle down, I’m in a meeting…” We laughed ourselves silly. It feels good to know people are going to show up. Overreacting with burden-free, guilt-free, shame-free love can be OK.

6. Lastly, for my fellow swimmers of the dark waters: Oh man, I’m with you. I’m so with you. This world is just… I don’t even know what to say about it right now. If it’s helpful, my friends and I built a free little tool to help folks reach out and share difficult stuff; it’s called The Weather Report. What I like most about it is that it has a place for you to say what you do and don’t need right now. Yesssssssss.

Deanna Zandt makes things that connect with people. Bug her on Twitter: @deanna.

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