To be clear, I am not writing this as a professional. I have been in retirement for a while now. However, I did work as a suicide and bereavement counselor for years. I try to stay on top of the research and best practices for my own interest and my counseling practice at Weaver Tarot. I am writing this as a concerned witch with some experience.
Suicide is an increasing problem effecting all genders, cultures, and ages. Men over 65 are at the greatest risk. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-29 year olds globally. Someone dies from suicide every forty seconds; a rate expected to rise to every twenty seconds by 2020. These figures don’t include suicide attempts, or people who live with suicidal thoughts. The cost and pain of suicide is silent, stretches wide, and grows by the day.
Suicide touches every community regardless of belief.
Not talking about suicide is one of the biggest problems of tackling suicide.
I am not going to bring belief into this piece. Arguing over belief when it comes to suicide won’t help anyone. I do know however that a lot of witches work in the mental health field and a lot of witches work as tarot readers and spiritual counselors. In my time as a tarot reader and spiritual counselor, I have had clients raise the issue of suicide several times. As such, I think it is important to have a resource on suicide no matter what your beliefs are.
I am going to talk about what can be done to help those considering suicide and the bereaved by suicide. There are further online resources for those who have survived an attempt and for their carers.
While this piece does not cover my personal beliefs, I will share this much; I don’t judge people who suicide or attempt suicide. When it comes to suicide, judgement only helps in discerning whether a person needs to go to hospital or not. Beyond that, judgment just isn’t helpful when dealing with suicide. This goes for the bereaved and carers, too. Grief and self-care are highly unique and personal topics.
First. Suicide. Some facts.
- In order to help the suicidal and the grieving it is important to have some understanding of suicide.
- Suicide doesn’t discriminate; any and everyone can be affected.
- Suicide rates are climbing.
- Most people will consider suicide at some stage. This is not to normalize suicide. Suicide is still relatively rare, accounting for less than 2% of deaths globally per year. But it does stress the importance of being educated on the subject of suicide. There is a chance you will encounter it at some stage, even if it is just in passing. Knowing how to approach it can help you and the person talking about it.
- Therapy helps.
- Listening helps.
- Judgement doesn’t help.
- Having access to suicide lines and mental health services helps.
- It is important to know these numbers and not shy away from providing them.
- Having non-judgemental support from friends and family helps.
Two. Warning signs.
Suicide usually comes with warning signs. This is not to say it is your fault if you don’t notice the signs (some people are very good at hiding the signs that they are thinking of suicide). But being educated about the signs will help.
What you can see: they may have less energy, a drop in hygiene, changes in sleeping patterns, eating and weight differences. They may appear to get sick more often, and it’s likely that they will have less interest in life in general, including a lowered sex drive. They may also seek access to guns or pills. You may hear them offering unusual goodbyes.
What you can experience: It is possible they may have emotional outbursts, display increased risk-taking and a lack of self-preservation (this may escalate to breaking the law.) Increased drug abuse, social withdrawal, and self-harm. They may start putting affairs in order (e.g., writing a will, sharing out personal effects, closing bank accounts, transferring the title of cars and houses etc.) Writing a suicide note is a significant warning sign.
What you can hear: They may openly talk about suicide and death, they may even talk about their plans to die. Guilt and hopelessness are major themes for people who feel suicidal (e.g., ‘It’s all my fault. It would be easier for people if I wasn’t here. I’ve tried everything, nothing works. I can’t change anything. It’s all out of my control. This is just the way it has to be.’) They will often feel acutely alone (‘No one cares about me. No one understands. I’ll always be alone.’) They will often talk about there being no future for them. (‘There’s no point trying anymore. Nothing will ever get better. There’s nothing to look forward to anymore.’) They can feel irreparably damaged. (‘I am broken. I can’t be fixed. I am a bad person. Something is wrong with me. I’ll never be the same again. I can’t go back to how I was.’) And they might talk about needing escape. (‘I can’t do this anymore. I just want to stop feeling this way. I can’t turn off my feelings and I need out.’)
The dominant feelings suicidal people feel include: sadness, anger, shame, worthlessness, hopelessness, disconnection, isolation, desperation, and powerlessness. But the suicidal can also appear numb.
Life events can also be warning signs. Some such events are: losing a loved one to suicide, a death of a loved one (even if it’s not suicide), financial stressors, and previous self-harm and suicide attempts. They may also appear to grow more comfortable with the idea of suicide.
Three. Assessing the risk of suicide.
I am going to be blunt, this isn’t easy for a few reasons: one, it can be hard to talk about; two, if people are feeling suicidal they may not want to talk; three, people can feel resentful about being ‘assessed’; and four, it can be very hard to put aside your own concerns to focus entirely on them. So, I am going to talk very briefly about how I approach assessing risk after I have given you the basics.
The four things you need to assess are: INTENTION, PLAN, MEANS, AND TIME FRAME.
The people at highest risk will not only have the intention to kill themselves but have mapped out all the details.
How to assess: ASK.
ASK THEM IF THEY HAVE ALREADY DONE SOMETHING TO HURT OR KILL THEMSELVES. Many risk assessments miss this. It is not infrequent that people seek support either by phone or face-to-face to have someone to talk to as they pass. If they have done something to hurt themselves, call the emergency services.
Once you have checked this, proceed to asking:
- Do you intend to take your life?
- Do you have a plan as to how you want to take your life?
- Do you have access to the means to carry out your plan? (Pills, gun, noose, car keys etc.)
- When do you plan to kill yourself? (Some people choose specific anniversaries, or want to do it after a particular event etc.)
If they are at risk it is important you don’t leave them alone, but instead contact emergency services or take the person to hospital. Trust your gut and if in doubt, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
These are some of my personal tips on how to approach a risk assessment conversation.
- Open the conversation by affirming your care for them e.g., ‘I’ve been worried about you lately.’ ‘I’ve noticed some changes lately and I wanted to check in and see how you are and if you are thinking of killing yourself?’
- Yes, you can be that direct; in fact it is necessary. Voicing the question ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ is one of the most important questions you can ask if you are worried about someone. Some people find asking this question scary and think it can plant the idea of suicide. It won’t.
- Be upfront. People aren’t stupid and they know what you are doing. An example of what I might say to them is, “Look, I care about you and I want to be here for you. I am happy to talk about whatever you need to talk about for as long as you need, but I am worried about you. I am not judging you in any way, but can you answer some questions before we continue chatting?” And if they ask you “Will you call the hospital/ambulance if I tell you?” Don’t lie. The last thing you want to do is undermine the person’s trust in you. I used to say something like, “If you are at risk I would like to keep talking and if needed, go to hospital together. But we can talk about that further before taking any action. I won’t do anything without telling you and talking to you about how you’d like that to happen. We are in this together.” In essence, you are cultivating a partnership.
- You don’t need to rush a risk assessment.
- If someone answers in the affirmative that they intend to kill themselves or they have a plan etc., this can be terrifying. Don’t panic. Thank them for being honest and acknowledge how hard it can be to talk honestly about this. Assure them that you won’t act without talking it over with them first.
- If they get angry and defensive with you don’t take it personally. Anger, hopelessness, isolation, pushing people away etc., are common themes with suicidal people.
- If they throw the defeating ‘You have no idea what it’s like for me,’ at you, try not to react because they are right. We never really know what someone is going through but that doesn’t stop us trying to help. That is why humans employ compassion and empathy. Affirm that you don’t know what it’s like for them, but tell them that you’d like to.
- Expect to be wrong. Expect them to correct you. Listen to them and confirm that you hear them.
- You can try and assess risk covertly, that is place the above risk assessment questions in casual conversation. But this can be a difficult task when you’re emotional and not used to facing this topic. I don’t advise assessing risk covertly. By assessing risk covertly, you run the risk of not getting a clear picture compared to a straight forward risk assessment.
- If you don’t feel capable of doing a risk assessment, suggest the person call a suicide help line or mental health team.
- If they won’t talk to you, ask them if there is someone they would feel more comfortable talking with. If you are genuinely concerned, call the emergency services. But what if they get angry, stop talking to me, it ruins our relationship etc.? Firstly, hopefully when they recover, they will see that you called the emergency services out of love. Secondly, at least they will be alive to be angry at you. This may just be the cost you have to accept. (In my experience, after a period of time, most people understand why you called for help.) ‘What if calling the emergency services makes them commit suicide?’ You cannot make anyone commit suicide. If calling for help provokes this reaction, they need help anyway.
- Another tip you may or may not find helpful is pets. Talking about pets, suggesting they play with pets etc., seemed to help a lot in my experience. Animals often deescalated the situation and helped with easing communication and provided a reason to live.
- Don’t keep secrets and don’t agree to keep secrets. Explain simply that everything they say will stay between the two of you unless you believe they are at risk of harming themselves. It is better to be honest with them and keep boundaries firm. This promotes trust and safety. In that moment and in the future, they will have experienced you as: honest, keeping your word, someone they know where they stand with, someone who is caring, and someone who will act in their best interest even when they can’t do so.
- You don’t have to deal with this on your own. Encourage them to speak to their family and other close friends as well as a professional.
- Finally, you can’t save anyone if they are determined. It is not your fault. Just the same as you can’t blame yourself for their death, you can’t tout yourself as a savior. The person either saves themselves… or kills themselves. All you can do is try and help them choose to stay alive. You are not superman.
Four. Correcting myths about suicide.
- Talking about suicide will not put the idea in their head.
- It is not your fault they are suicidal.
- If people are talking about suicide that doesn’t mean they won’t commit suicide.
- It is possible to recover from feeling suicidal.
- Only people with mental health problems will commit suicide (10% of people who commit suicide have no record of mental health problems.)
- Suicide is selfish. (Many people commit suicide because they believe it will relieve the burden on their friends and family.)
- All mentions of suicide should be taken seriously.
Five. Unhelpful reactions and what not to say.
- ‘Your life isn’t that bad.’ Suicide doesn’t discriminate in response to context. Even if their life appears good on the outside, you may not be aware of all the facts, or they may not feel connected to their life and therefore they may not be able to experience all the good in their life.
- ‘Suicide is selfish.’ This just makes them feel guiltier.
- ‘Suicide is cowardly.’ And this just adds to the shame.
- ‘You don’t really want to kill yourself, you just think you do.’ This invalidates their whole experience and makes them feel more alone.
- ‘But you have so much to live for.’ Despite how full their life may appear, this may not be how they are feeling about their life.
- ‘It could be so much worse. People have it so much worse than you.’ This can make them feel even more defective for not being able to cope.
- ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’ This statement is overused to the point it is cliché. Plus, part of the reason they feel suicidal may be because their problems don’t feel temporary. In fact, it is often the case that whatever is troubling them is that their problems or issues feel overwhelming and permanent. This can change with therapy and time. Also, this statement still frames suicide and a solution.
- ‘You will go to Hell if you kill yourself.’ One, they have probably already thought of this. Two, regardless what a person believes, their desire to die will remain the same irrespective of their afterlife beliefs, but now they just feel more stressed about it.
- Don’t call them names e.g., crazy, insane, stupid etc.
- Don’t criticize them for feeling suicidal. (This comes back to setting aside your own beliefs and judgement.)
- Avoid lecturing, preaching, telling them what to do, and giving advice. It’s unlikely they will absorb much of what you are saying, and now is not the time for problem solving.
- Don’t ignore or abandon them. If you really can’t be there, make sure someone else can be there with them. Never say things like: ‘I can’t take this.’ or ‘This is too much.’ It reinforces the sense of being a burden.
- Don’t manipulate them or push them to be a certain way. (‘I’ll only talk to you when you stop being stupid/talking about killing yourself.’)
- Don’t dramatize or escalate the situation.
- Don’t try and simplify the situation, or take a black and white approach e.g., ‘You just need medication.’
- Don’t get angry. They don’t see suicide as abandoning you. Often they see suicide as removing a burden or a problem for people.
If you feel like you might have already said the wrong thing and you wish to make amends, simply be honest, apologize, and offer to be there for them. No one is perfect and it is hard to remember everything that is written here. It is better to reach out and try and support the person as opposed to staying away for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Six. Supporting those bereaved by suicide.
- Show up.
- Ask them what they need. Keep asking. Their needs will change. Let them guide you.
- Don’t avoid asking about or talking about the death.
- Don’t avoid the terms dead, death, suicide etc.
- Don’t avoid saying the deceased’s name.
- Don’t judge.
- Bring food.
- Distraction is helpful and necessary at times, whether this is movies, going on walks, bringing them new books, whatever it is they enjoy.
- Keep inviting them to social gatherings even if they refuse. This may go on for years.
- Keep calling even if they don’t answer. Don’t harass them but stay in touch and don’t give up. Again, this may last for a few years.
- Try and understand their pain from their perspective.
- Try not to take any rejection personally. Keep showing up and respect them if they send you away. Their anger will fade.
- Don’t play at being a professional. Don’t give them advice or tell them how it should be. Just be you. That’s all you need to do. Just be you.
- Don’t let your support wane over time. There is often a peak of support immediately after someone dies and then it fades away. I can tell you from my experience as a counselor that this really, really hurts people.
- This is why caring for yourself and setting boundaries is so important; supporting the bereaved is a long journey. Pace yourself.
- Encourage them to get help in either one-on-one therapy or suicide bereavement support groups. Offer to go with them even if it is just to drive them there.
- Keep an eye out for suicide warning signs.
- I repeat. Show up. Keep showing up. Good friendships last a lifetime and are extremely rare. Good friendships are worth their weight in gold. A few years of taking the initiative and supporting your loved ones is a small investment in order to help someone you love and maintain a close friendship.
Self-care is important. Be realistic in what you can offer in terms of support and be upfront about it. Set boundaries and keep them. It is not your job to be superman. That is why we have emergency services and help lines. Get support, whether it is through your social circles or professional help. Keep your routines: sleep, exercise, relaxation, healthy diet, hygiene, work etc. And remember, a lot of suicide hotlines and support groups are also there to support carers. You are not alone. You are not to blame.
Eight. Overall suggestions.
Show up and be present, even if it is to sit in silence watching television. Showing up and being present is perhaps the most helpful thing you can do for someone feeling suicidal, for someone caring for someone who is suicidal, and for the bereaved.
Let them know you care. Say it directly.
Acknowledge their pain. Avoid minimizing or dismissing their pain. Take everything they say seriously. If you don’t understand something, ask. A nice opening to questions is: ‘Can you help me understand because I really want to be here for you.’
Don’t try and problem solve or ‘fix’. Active and compassionate listening while offering realistic hope is usually the best approach. Often when people are suicidal they are not able to absorb much information much less able to solve complex problems. Remind them that things will get better over time and that solutions can be found through therapy. Remind them that you will be there, that this is not a journey they need to take alone.
Let them know you have noticed a change (without judging it as good or bad.) Sometimes letting them know you have noticed a change helps communicate care.
Be honest, even if it hurts or feels counter-intuitive. Trust is vital.
Blame does not help. This includes self-blame. No matter if you are suicidal, bereaved, a carer, or a friend. I repeat, blame does not help.
Ask. Ask them what they need in terms of day to day basics. Ask them what they need to feel less alone. What helps them feel less alone might be different to what helps you feel less alone.
Help them seek professional help.
Don’t avoid them, even if you feel afraid. Get support yourself if you need it.
Your role as a support person and friend is not to cheer them up, but rather to be there with them in the moment. Trying to cheer someone up won’t work and can make them feel more alone. A better option is to acknowledge their pain and remind them that they aren’t alone.
Don’t judge. Be empathetic. Be compassionate. Listen. Show up. Keep showing up. Don’t take their reactions personally. Be open-minded.
Nine. If you’re feeling suicidal.
If you are feeling suicidal in this moment, find someone to talk to, either a trusted friend and/or family member, or a professional.
Remember, suicidal feelings often arise in response to feeling overwhelmed. Things will get better. I promise. If witches know one thing it is that change is inevitable. Nature teaches us this. These suicidal feelings will dissipate. Even though you are feeling suicidal you don’t have to act on them. Now is not the time to try and solve everything. Now is the time to care for yourself and let others care for you, too. And in the end, no matter what, know that you are loved. Even if you can’t feel that love right now, it is there. I promise.
Suicide doesn’t discriminate on belief. Do I believe that people who commit suicide are punished in the afterlife? No. Given the pain I’ve seen suicidal people in, no God or Goddess would punish them. They have been through enough.
Judgement, questions of right and wrong, and blame have no place in the discussion of suicide. Rather, education, courage, open mindedness, empathy, and communication are the way to approach suicide.
I haven’t seen suicide discussed in witchcraft circles, but then I haven’t seen it discussed anywhere much. Thankfully, that trend is changing.
Given how skilled witches are in holding space and offering the gifts of presence, attention, and active listening, and given how community minded witches tend to be, perhaps with further education witches could do more to help the suicidal and raise awareness in a loving way.
Although witchcraft was not the focus of this article, I do hope it helps people understand suicide better and provides a useful resource. I will try to update it if new research comes out. However, be sure to supplement this article with the phone numbers and resources from your local emergency departments, mental health teams, and suicide lines in your local area.
You are not alone. Things will get better. Support is out there. Be present and listen. You’ve got this. You are loved.
Letters to a new witch: Spirituality, science, religion, abuse, awakenings, and healings. (Trigger warnings.)To be clear, I am not writing this as a professional. I have been in retirement for a while now. However, I did work as a suicide and bereavement counselor for years. I try to stay on top of the research and best practices for my own interest and my counseling practice at Weaver Tarot. […]
To be clear, I am not writing this as a professional. I have been in retirement for a while now. However, I did work as a suicide and bereavement counselor for years. I try to stay on top of the research and best practices for my own interest and my counseling practice at Weaver Tarot. […]
Love and Magick: A look at love spells and how to bring love and magick together in a healthy and powerful way.To be clear, I am not writing this as a professional. I have been in retirement for a while now. However, I did work as a suicide and bereavement counselor for years. I try to stay on top of the research and best practices for my own interest and my counseling practice at Weaver Tarot. […]
Protection in Witchcraft: A look at the philosophy, psychology, and methods of keeping safe and growing strong.