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When Loss No Longer Defines Us

Yesterday, I came across a quote by Jan McDaniel, whose husband Ron, ended his life after close to 30 years of marriage.  Reading it, I was struck by how powerfully she summed up the trajectory … and the possibility of the survivor journey. Jan wrote: 

“I knew that my husband’s suicide did not define him. But I realized this week that I had been letting it define me. It doesn’t have to. And, suddenly, it doesn’t anymore.” ~Jan McDonald

In the beginning, when grief is new and hearts are raw, it is difficult for most survivors to envision a future that will not be defined by the pain of loss.  The traumatic nature of suicide shatters the foundations on which we stand. It pulls us out of life as we have known it.

I have often felt that suicide is like a grenade going off in the middle of a family or community, leaving everyone wounded. Powerful, highly functional people are brought to their knees, wondering if the person they knew themselves to be, will ever return.

I believe that in the very beginning, although we call people “survivors” they are really “victims,” in the truest sense of the definition.  (Victim: One who is harmed by or made to suffer from an act, circumstance, agency, or condition.”) 

Did our loved ones intend that we be injured by their actions or that we suffer because of their deaths? Most likely not. Most people who end their life have no idea of the pain left behind. They are not thinking clearly. They are in too much pain themselves.       

In my work with survivors, I have come to see that consciously shifting from “victim” to “survivor” is an important step in the journey of those left behind. (To survive: “to remain alive or in existence; to carry on despite hardships or trauma; persevere; to remain functional or usable; to cope with a trauma or setback; to persevere after.”)

There is a gravitational force around suicide that pulls others along. In the aftermath, it is common to ask ourselves if we want to go on. Surviving the suicide of a loved one is an enormous task. It requires energy and commitment and the ability to choose to suffer and endure, hoping, but not knowing if anything is on the other side of pain. 

The vast majority of people who experience loss to suicide, do survive and more importantly, go beyond just surviving. They suffer … they endure … they engage with the challenges and conflicts … and they turn a corner. Back into life. Still loving … still missing the one who is gone, but stronger and wiser and able to contribute in ways never envisioned before the loss. 

There is no doubt that in the beginning, losing a loved one to suicide consumes us. It blocks out all else. We define ourselves in terms of our relationship to the event of loss. We think about it. We talk about it.  We dream about it. We see no end to the pain … and yet all the while, we are moving forward incrementally. There does come a day, when most of us discover that some healing has occurred. First a little … then more. And we discover that on the course of this journey we have grown. We have gone beyond just surviving, arriving at a place where the loss no longer defines us. It is a part of who we are. It will always be a part of who we are, but it does not define us.  

The Alliance of Hope website contains many stories from survivors who want to provide hope to those newer in grief. You can read some them in our Beyond Surviving section.