When Someone You Know Talks About Suicide

The first duty of love is to listen.
– Paul Tillich, United States theologian (born in Germany) (1886-1965)

Perhaps the world’s greatest need is for people to listen to each other.

Everyone agrees that love is a wonderful thing, that everyone should be loved and have someone to love. However, it’s rare to find places where people actually teach what love is, how to create it, how to express it, how to recognize it in others, how to enhance it once it exists and how to make it last. These are all teachable skills, but in general they are not skills that we teach.

No loving friend or relative is more loving than when they listen to us. When we go through our most critical crises, more than anything else we need someone to listen to us as we think out loud. We need someone who will pay attention when we say things that sound stupid after they reach open air. We need a backboard for our thoughts.

One of the best ways to cope with crises is to talk about them. People who find their way to psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists pay others to listen to them. These experts, more than anything else they do, get paid to listen. Most often they guide their patients to solutions by reviewing with them what they have said, then allowing them to reach their own conclusions and solutions themselves. The best healing is always self-healing.

Modern society has a greater need than ever before for social science professionals, as we can see by watching lists of them expand in every city and town. Perhaps the need for them has increased so dramatically because we don’t have enough close friends who will listen to us with love.

We tend to have many casual friends and hangers-on, workmates and neighbours who are with us when we host a good party but may disappear at the slightest whiff of trouble. Those who have gone through a divorce will often attest that their friends treated them as if they had a social disease when their separation or divorce was announced. Find yourself broke and you will likely also find yourself lonely, as if whatever you have was contagious.

The statistics regarding suicide and murder-suicides within families have increased shockingly. Reviewing these cases after the fact, the most common characteristic described of the perpetrators is that they were “loners.” They were loners for a reason, that reason mostly being because they had no one who would listen to them and act as support when they most needed it. That may seem oversimplified, but it’s at the core of almost every social problem.

Imagine this: a workmate comes to you to confess that he plans to kill himself on the weekend. What would you do? Most people would drag out the platitudes they have heard before, that someone loves them, that more people care about them than they realize, they they should think of who would be hurt if they ended their life. Yet what these people need most is to be taken somewhere quiet and allowed to talk, talk endlessly and without restrictions. Maybe with lots of coffee.

They need to know that there is someone they can count on who will listen. They need to know that between them and the cold dark earth is someone who cares. They may not have the skills to know how to find and develop such a friendship or even the nerve to tell anyone else about how welcoming death seems to them.

They need to know that someone cares. Often that caring can be shown by someone who will listen to them. It’s a kind of love, a love for others of your own kind.

Few people talk about dying or about wishing their life was over or about killing someone unless they have a critical problem. If you hear something like that, it may be your chance to save a life. Or many lives. It may seem like a huge burden to adopt, but you become the appointed one.

The last thing someone who is having trouble coping with his personal problems needs is to feel alone, to feel that no one matters, to feel that he won’t be missed. To feel that there is no one in his life who will listen while he blathers on about something just to keep his mind away from the terrible tragedy he is trying to avoid.

Someone needs you to listen. Now. Everyone feels more secure with their life when they know that someone will stand between them and tragedy and listen.

It’s one good way to show someone you love how much you love them. Just listen and encourage them to talk about anything they want. That’s love. It may transform you in the process.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, striving to make the social necessities of life more clear so that we can address them.
Learn more at http://billallin.com


2 thoughts on “When Someone You Know Talks About Suicide

  1. My daughter recently ended a two-year relationship with a young man. Last night she met him for coffee, which turned into drinks and an argument. He mentioned that the previous weekend he had gotten intoxicated and was ‘playing chicken’ with cars because he wanted to die – because of her.

    My daughter is distressed and doesn’t know what to do and I, quite frankly, don’t know what to tell her. I recommended that she call the suicide prevention hotline to get some advice, and they told her to keep talking to him. That doesn’t feel right, because I am concerned enough about the feelings or responsibility she seems to now be engaging with regards to this man’s moods.

    Any advice?

  2. Hi Ruth,

    This is a psychology question you are asking of a sociologist. However, it
    happens that suicide is a critical problem for sociologists. I have a reply.

    People who threaten suicide seldom intend to follow through. The people who
    are truly suicidal usually do the deed without involving anyone else ahead
    of time. So the likelihood of your daughter’s ex-boyfriend committing
    suicide is small, almost neglible.

    Those who threaten suicide do so for attention, so the conventional thinking
    goes. This is not true. Being “dumped” gives them a feeling of not just
    rejection, but of being useless, of being unlovable. The attention seeking
    devices they use are to show the formerly significant other that they are
    important, if only for being obnoxious jerks.

    If your daughter wants to help this guy, even if just to get him off her
    back, she will have to coach him toward getting a new girl. At this point it
    would be unwise of her to demonstrate that she can get a new guy by giving
    his name (if one exists) to the ex. This is akin to slapping the ex in the
    face and kicking him when he is down. The guy needs to believe that he will
    be happier with a new girl with whom he is more compatible.

    He will be happier with a new relationship than he is nursing a failed one.
    Build him up while letting him down. Your daughter and her ex were bound for
    tragedy eventually, so she should lead him to believe. It’s not a matter of
    love, but of not having the same goals in life.

    Use a court order for him to stay away from her only as a last resort. These
    fail more often than not and they could result in the kind of unpleasant
    results I am certain you fear now.

    This guy needs to feel good about finding a new girlfriend. Your daughter
    can show that she is a caring person by helping him in that direction. With
    her he was bound to have bad times, but with a new girl he could be very
    happy. Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that he
    believes it long enough to go looking again.

    He is an emotional cripple, though he no doubt believes he is of sound mind.
    Your daughter can’t help him to be whole, so she must help him to find
    someone else, or at least to be happy about living the good life as a single
    guy looking for a new girl.

    Just avoiding him may work, but odds are good that he will just get worse
    until someone intervenes. Your daughter is the best person for that, if she
    is willing.

    Coffee turning into drinks was a bad idea. If your daughter is not mature
    enough to understand that then she has a real problem.

    She should not introduce this guy to other girls. Just encourage him to look
    himself, offering him the carrot of a girl who is more compatible with him,
    one who sill share the same goals and wishes for the future as he has. (Or
    that he should have.)

    Maybe he simply doesn’t know how to meet new girls. If your daughter has
    ideas about that, she can share them with him.

    The coffee, then drinks, made her part of the problem. Now she needs to
    become part of the solution before things get worse.

    Bill Allin ( http://billallin.com )

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