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Addressing Our Pain Is Difficult, But Worth It
Losing a Parent, Losing a Sibling, Tips from Survivors

Addressing Our Pain Is Difficult, But Worth It

When my youngest brother Brendan died by suicide in 2022, I was absolutely crushed. Not just because I was grieving for him and the loss to our family, but because death by suicide was something we had experienced before. Brendan was the third member of our family to intentionally end his life. My father, Sean, died by suicide when I was a senior in college in 1989. My cousin Vinny died in 2013 after a struggle with schizophrenia.

While each of those losses was difficult in their unique ways, Brendan’s death was the breaking point for me. I was forced to look at our family objectively to understand what was happening. What I was aware of from as young of an age as I could remember was the culture of secrecy in our family and the promotion of putting on a brave face in times of difficulty. What I didn’t realize until I started dealing with these deaths in therapy was the detrimental impact of this secrecy on all of us. 

I have spent 34 years as a social work professional. I have done therapy with youth who experienced trauma and with families experiencing domestic violence. I was an investigator for child protection for 15 years and spent another eight years in homelessness and mental health.

Of all people, I should have known better. I certainly promoted the importance of being open about asking for help and not succumbing to the social stigma of mental health in our society. And because I was so adamant about it, people listened. Yet, I couldn’t do the same for myself. I felt like my “do as I say, not as I do” perspective worked for me because I was still compartmentalizing the guilt and shame of my father’s suicide as a 21-year-old, and it had worked this long, so I thought I could continue. 

Given the circumstances of my father’s death, I blamed myself for his suicide, and the guilt was indescribable. I spent a week in shock, and then I decided that I needed to shove all those feelings so far down into that black hole of shame that they would never see the light again. It worked for a while. I was active and laughed a lot, had a busy social life, and was successful professionally. And the longer I presented this way, no one could understand the damage that had been done. To give you an idea of my level of shame, I only shared the truth about my father’s death with about ten people over about 25 years, and that included family.

I did such a good job that it only came to the surface on a handful of occasions, like when my roommate Betsy found me sobbing while listening to “Everybody Hurts” by REM on repeat one night. Then, the next day, I shoved it right back down. It was easier. Neater. I was more productive. I didn’t have to worry that anyone would consider how awful a person I was for my part in my father’s death. It worked for a long time … until it didn’t any longer. 

Luckily, I had a therapist who was astute enough to recognize that I had a lot more going on than just my marriage struggles (which ended in divorce). She opened the door for me to address not only the impact my father’s suicide had on me but also the family of origin issues caused by two alcoholic parents who were not able to stop drinking. I was able to talk to her about things I couldn’t deal with before because they were too overwhelming.  Because I began addressing these issues before my brother Brendan’s death in 2022, I had a little more insight and language to use at the time. Being able to address the myriad of feelings related to suicide before Brendan’s death saved me from what I’m sure would have been a breakdown of some sort.  

Therapy continues for me every other week, and there are times when it is still hard. Sometimes I leave that therapeutic space with a weight off my chest and sometimes I walk away wondering if I will carry these deaths with me the rest of my life. I probably will, and that’s okay because I am managing now instead of wondering what is going to pop up to trigger me. I am no longer waiting for it to stop hurting – I took a proactive step to address it, and I haven’t given up.  

I also found that addressing issues in therapy can be a mixed bag, though. While there has been growth and healing for me, I am also more aware of things I could have dodged in my avoidant decades. While not always authentic, life was easier in some ways when I compartmentalized. I now see the hurt in others more. I now worry about my kids in a different way – one of my sons doesn’t talk when it comes to stress, and the other is more impulsive. I worry about them differently because of my experiences, and there are moments when I worry about risks that aren’t there. So, life is not necessarily easier, but it’s clearer. 

I am now able to be aware of how I am feeling and accept it, instead of having another drink to drown the feeling out. Maybe most beneficial is I learned that therapy doesn’t mean I must wait a week to address something, because my communication with friends and family has changed. I can now use them to support me when I previously avoided it, being too ashamed to be open with them. This is a change they appreciate also, as they had no idea how to talk to me about suicide before, and we have learned together. Having open conversations with a small number of friends and family I trust, is therapeutic in itself. 

I’m a work in progress. Or, as my friend Ted Lasso would say, I am a work in “progmess.” I’m far from perfect, but I was imperfect before these deaths happened also. I am sure I’ll have some aftermath of these deaths stay with me, but I am in a much better place now that I took the risk of walking with someone else to address these issues. My communication is better. My relationships with those I love have improved. My scars and flaws are no longer something I hide but something that I can acknowledge. And now that I am in a better place, I can now be there for others.  

I have a harm reduction perspective on surviving the suicide of a loved one. I am aware that not everyone is ready to begin therapy and open their wounds. It’s too scary, and the future is unknown. I also know that there are times when we just need to get through the day, regardless of what we need to do to get there. No judgment. But, at some point, I needed to address what I was avoiding. I hope that you get to that place when you are ready. If you are struggling, don’t wait as long as I did. When you are truly ready, jump in with two feet. You deserve it.