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Bearing Witness to the Love

Valentine’s Day is approaching. It has a special meaning for me because it is also the anniversary of the day I launched the Alliance of Hope forum. I don’t think I originally planned it that way — it just happened. If you dig deep enough, through the hundreds of thousands of posts that now reside on our forum, you can still find my original post

“February 14, 2008

Hello, my name is Ronnie Walker

I am the person who created the website and this forum that links to it. My stepson Channing, took his life at the age of 21 in 1995. I created the website and this discussion forum because I wanted to support others who have lost loved ones to suicide. I hope that in some small way, this will be of help on your journey.

Ronnie Walker, MS, LCPC”

I had no idea that I had just begun a most amazing journey, or how many extraordinary people I would meet along the way. Over the last thirteen years, thousands of people have added their wisdom to the community, putting aside their own pain to reach out to others who needed encouragement and hope. There is so much love in the community – and continuing kindness expressed in both public and private messages.

I have sensed many changes in the survivor community and in attitudes towards suicide since my stepson Chan died 25 years ago. In decades past, a great many survivors hesitated to speak authentically about the loss of their loved one – lest they or their loved one, be judged negatively. Recently, more and more survivors are willing to talk about their loss. They are willing to discuss their loved one’s struggle with depression, physical or mental illness, economic or social challenges, and sometimes, the side effects they experienced from drugs.

When survivors share, it becomes clear that those who have passed are so much more than just those things that led them to end their lives.

As Valentine’s Day draws near, I invite you to view the Alliance of Hope Memorial Wall, where hundreds of dedications bear witness to the love that continues between the survivors and those who have passed. Together, we honor their spirit and heal ours.

With love,

Ronnie Walker MS, LCPC

This New Year

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ~ T.S. Eliot

And now here I am in the first day of another new year,
walking into the second where I’m missing your big brown eyes and how they smiled so contagiously.

I won’t say I enter this new year without you because you’re always with me.

Time is a trickster though with a necessity to keep track.
The ticks turn to miles and the miles log the distance from that doorway where we hugged the last time.

I can still feel that little hump in your shoulder, that gentle curve when you’d lean down to hug me.
It used to be a reach when you were younger.
I could feel the stretch in your back as you’d reach up to hug me.

Tick-tock through time you grew taller and that stretch turned to a downward hump.
A hump and a lean-over defined by a gentle curve.
Sometimes weightless with love, sometimes heavy with worries and sorrow.
I remember the day it was so heavy I could hardly hold you.

But it’s not your job to hold me.
Your job now is to be weightless and silly.
Riding shooting stars across the moon yelling, “Look, Mom, no hands.”
That’s what I wish for you in this new year . . . lots of shooting stars and more moons than you can count.
So off you go, unbound and forever safely tethered to my heart.

That’s what holds me . . . knowing that you are forever safely tethered to my heart.

Safely and always.

Happy new year, sweetie.

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Beyond a Chain of Pain – Continuing Bonds

I posted the other day about a friend of mine whose sister died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition earlier this year. Her grieving in many ways is so much like mine—a sudden, unexpected loss that tilted the axis of her world.

This Christmas season was hard for my friend. Her loneliness was compounded by COVID-induced social distancing. Like me, she told me that she had “lost her words” after her sister died. So, I sent her a poem that helped me process my grief.

Her response brought me to my knees—she said that she could only imagine that the pain of a 4th Christmas without my son must be as painful as the first.

Not only was this not accurate—it was so sad that she anticipated that she would forever experience heart-wrenching grief. I explained that I will always love and miss my son, but the past few holiday seasons were not as sad or angst-ridden as those first and second years.

I love Dr. Kenneth Doka’s thoughts on grief and shared a video of one of his lectures in another post. These concepts of “Chain of Pain”, “Moving On” and “Continuing Bonds” kept bouncing around in my head.

What is so wonderful about the Alliance of Hope (AOH) is that the entire organization encourages members to share that even suicide loss grief is not, as Dr. Doka defines, a “Chain of Pain” – that is, a future that contains a gaping hole in one’s heart forever. So many AOH members who are much further down the road on the suicide loss grief journey have shared their experiences of growth. Life may not be easy, but it is better.

The term “moving on” seems to be fixed in the western psyche. “Moving on” implies that we must forget about our loved ones and other losses, leaving them behind to “fix” our grief. Dr. Terri Daniel, a hospice chaplain and trained grief counselor, related that western psychiatric theories in the 20th century cultivated the idea that a person must “give up,” “separate,” and essentially forget a loved one after they died, or they would be “pathologically grieving.” This bias, along with a general avoidance or even acknowledgment of the “dark emotions” (grief, fear despair) created confusion and uncertainty in western society in general – and increased isolation and despair for those who are grieving.

Dr. Doka used the term “ameliorated grief” to describe the process of when an individual has worked on experiencing his or her feelings and is beginning to build a new life. I like Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s definition also:

“Reconciliation … occurs as you work to integrate the new reality of moving forward in life without the physical presence of the person who died. With reconciliation comes a renewed sense of energy and confidence, an ability to fully acknowledge the reality of the death, and a capacity to become re-involved in the activities of living…. Beyond an intellectual working through of the death, there is also an emotional and spiritual working through. What had been understood at the head level is now understood at the heart level.” ~ Understanding Your Suicide Grief, page 198.

Dr. Daniel first introduced me to the concept of “continuing bonds.” She explained that this concept was first written about in the late 1990s. The authors posited that many non-Western cultures continued to honor their loved ones through rituals and celebrations for many years after their deaths. These practices did not harm individuals psychologically, in fact, these rituals and commemorations appeared to be helpful. I find that rituals such as poems, lighting candles, an altar, music, help me to remember my son and my other departed loved ones—and have made the grief journey easier.

Dr. Doka, in ending his lecture, told a story about the grief support groups he facilitated. He always ended the series of meetings with the following exercise: “Imagine that it is a year from today, and I see you in the supermarket. I ask “How are you doing?” He then asked each participant to share their response. He said he was surprised at how optimistic people were. Most said, “I’m doing much better.”

So, what is your response? As for me, in 2022, “I’m doing much better” too.

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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One Upon a Time

On December 23, 2019, I wrote a story in my journal to try to give myself some peace. It was just that – my way of self-comfort – not meant as what really happened. I would like to share it now:

“Once upon a time, God spoke with an angel. He told the angel that he would go to earth as a baby to be born to a very broken mother. He told the angel his time would be short. His mission was to teach this very broken woman how to love and give of herself. The angel came into the world on March 9, 1998, at 10:16 p.m. The woman was scared. The man was filled with excitement. The mother had a rough start with her new baby. She struggled. The father was amazing and supported her and she learned she could depend on others.

As the angel grew, so did her love and adoration. They grew to know each other. They built a bond. She learned true, unconditional love.

The angel was not like others. He was picked on and bullied. This hurt the angel and he began to break down, but because he was an angel, he kept his pain hidden. When he did finally share his pain, the mother dismissed it as hormones.

The mother did not realize he was an angel, and that his time was short. The angel thought his time was up and tried to go back to Heaven. God said he still had work to do. So, the angel carried on. He taught the woman about mental illness and suicide and the woman learned compassion.

The angel moved out on his own. He became addicted to meth. This broke the mother’s heart. However, she now saw the things that had broken her as a child in a different light. She had been training for this her whole life. From this, she learned strength. The angel once again felt his time was up. God said no. The angel gave up meth and hoped to inspire friends. Eventually, he eventually seemed happy and he promised the woman he would never try to leave her again.

On August 11, 2019, he was called to return home. The angel did not understand. God told him his suffering was over. He had taught the important lessons, but he had one more to teach. That broken woman had to learn she couldn’t do it all on her own. She had to learn to prioritize. She had to learn to face a pain like no other, yet still, carry on.

As that angel ascended back to heaven, he sent one last message, “I love you, mom! You can do this! Share my story. Share what you know. Reach others. Honor my memory.”

Not a day goes by that her heart doesn’t ache. But that angel? He is with her always.”

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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The Possibility of Life after Death

The event that opened my eyes to the possibility of life after death was something that happened about four years after my son left this world. It was late summer, and I was on my way to work. It was foggy that morning. The visibility was only about 20 feet, and I was traveling on a country road. I was nervous but not terrified. I was more afraid of a deer jumping out of the fog than anything else. Unfortunately, that was not the case for the driver of the pick-up truck that came barreling out of the fog – on my side of the road, driving way too fast for the weather conditions.

I had a split second to decide to move off the road and take my chance that the ditch wasn’t as deep as it looked, or let the other driver hit me head-on. I chose the ditch, and it was even deeper than I thought. I remember looking out the side window – seeing only grass and mud in the bottom of the ditch – thinking “I’m going to roll over,” and praying for help. Then I heard my son’s voice say, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll help you.”

A feeling of utter peace came over me and the next thing I knew I was back on the road and stopped. I got out of my car, knees shaking so badly I could hardly stand, and walked around it to see how much damage had been done. I was amazed. Not a scratch! In fact, it didn’t look like it had ever been off the road. I remember getting back into the car, thanking Josh for helping me, and thanking God for answering my prayer for help. I still had about 20 miles to go to get to work, and the rest of the drive was uneventful. Or at least, I guess it was. I don’t remember it.

When I got to work and parked, one of my co-workers came over and asked me what had happened. I told him about my accident but couldn’t help but wonder how he knew something had happened. He pointed out that both my front tires were completely flat! Not only did my son keep me from being injured, he helped me get my car to where I could get the tires fixed.

This was a major turning point for me. I began reading everything I could find about life after death because, in that moment of panic, I became a believer. Could it have been my imagination? Feel free to believe that if you wish … but I know better.

Our loved ones watch over us and know when we need them the most.

Remembering with Name Hearts

Several years ago, one of our forum members, Brkn Mom, began to post “Name Hearts” on the Alliance of Hope forum. She used software that randomly displayed our loved one’s names – in different places and different sizes within a heart. I always looked forward to seeing my husband Jim’s name inside the heart whenever she posted one.

When she stopped doing them, I asked her if she would mind if I took them over because they meant so much to me and to so many other members. And so now I post a new name heart for our community every day. 

The hearts are important to me – and to a lot of forum members. Seeing our loved one’s names matters. Why does it matter?  I believe it is another way of remembering them.

Remembering has always been important to me. Remembering is why I still hang the Christmas ornaments from my pets that passed 30 years ago. Those ornaments bring me back to the days when they were with me. They reconnect my heart to my memories. So many memories are tucked away in our brains. I love it when an object or song brings us back to a happier time. I will often just sit for a moment with a special memory and savor it.

Ornaments, mementos, songs, special recipes, traditions, and seeing their names are as valuable as having photos. All those things bring back memories. Sometimes memories bring smiles – sometimes they bring tears, but those memories are ours and we wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.

I believe that seeing our loved one’s name every day is a way to say to the world that they were here, and they are loved and missed. It is a way of acknowledging that they are in our thoughts, hearts, and lives – and that they still matter. My husband lives in my heart and thoughts every day, but speaking about him, seeing his name, knowing that he isn’t forgotten is as important to me 5 years after his death as it was in the early days.

The hearts are random. I hit refresh and every name shows up in a different way. Sometimes a name pops up large as if to say “Hi. I’m still with you!” Often when I post the daily name heart, someone will see their loved one’s name front and center and reply that they were having a difficult day and it is almost like they are being sent a sign. Sometimes a member will write that their loved one showed up large on an important day, birthday, or anniversary. Coincidence or sign, it is special.

Members also say the hearts are healing. PurpleKingsMumma wrote: “Doing this for all of us is like a stitch on the gaping hole that is our broken heart.”

I recently saw this poem that hits home: “We are the rememberers. The people left behind to keep the one who is gone from us alive in heart and mind. The people left to cherish and preserve a legacy. Yes, we are the rememberers … and we will always be.” In a small way, the name hearts help to cherish and preserve that legacy.

Integrating Suicide Loss – What That Means for Me

I read somewhere, during the first year following my son’s suicide, that it takes an average of X years to fully integrate a suicide loss. I intentionally plugged in the letter X because we’re all on different timelines; suicide is not one size fits all.

For a time, I thought I knew what integration meant. I thought it meant that I would get back to who I was in terms of being fully functional. I thought it meant that I would once again operate at the level prior to my son’s death. I thought it meant that I could enjoy life again without survivor’s guilt and with a good night’s sleep. I thought it meant I would no longer need to rely on individual counseling or group therapy.

I was wrong. Integration of a loved one’s suicide does not guarantee well-being. Integration guarantees nothing, nor is it easily recognizable. Integration of a suicide loss for me is unique to me, just as integration of your suicide loss is unique to you. Integration isn’t something that you look for, but rather something that will find its way to you.

For me, integration turned out to be more about feeling, and less about thinking.

For the first two years or so, I spoke to my son every night but no matter what I said, no matter how I started my monologue, it always led back to the same place – I’m sorry, I wish things were different, I’m sorry, I wish it had been me instead of you, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

So why did I talk to my son every night? Because the moment the umbilical cord was cut, my son was his own person, physically detached and completely autonomous. After he died, he was still detached, no longer existing, but autonomous just the same. And since I spoke to him in life, it made sense to continue to do so, even in death. Especially in death.

Gradually as more and more time passed, I continued to speak to my son at night, but I’d forget from time to time and this made me feel guilty. Guilty that I wasn’t saying the same thing over and over again every night to someone who may never hear me, and who can never respond. Guilty that I may be forgetting my son as cares of the day come to preoccupy my mind. Guilty for beginning to feel less guilt.

I started talking to my son tonight, more than four years out.

I hadn’t talked to him in a while and I started my monologue the same way I always do. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry … and then it hit me. I don’t feel the need to check in with my son every night because he is no longer detached. He is a part of me, but not in the same, natured and nurtured way in which he was in life; this is difficult to explain but I’ll do my best.

We often hear that death changes us, but how many of us stop to think that it’s the one we lost who is effecting that change? I mean actively as opposed to passively. Just because our loved ones are no longer here with us does not mean that they no longer have an impact on our lives, that they can no longer play an active role in shaping who we are, that they are not, in effect, acting through us.

I’ve become a more compassionate person as a result of losing my son, but I neither give myself nor death, credit for that, instead I give it to my son. I am more self-aware than I’ve ever been before and again, the credit goes to my son. I strive to make a difference in the lives of other survivors, thanks yet again to my son.

For me, integration means acknowledging that my son is acting through me by helping me to make a difference in this world, however small, however fleeting. Would I rather he be here, autonomous and breathing? Absolutely, but that will never happen. So, what is the next best thing for me? Allowing him to have an impact on my life, allowing him to actively shape who I am, in effect, allowing him to act through me. This is how integration found me.

I’m Taking Him with Me

Until five weeks ago, I was suffering depression without ease, since my son’s passing eight months ago. I was torn between continuing my journey and remaining where Keeghan’s journey had ended. I was suffering anxiety over the issue and discussed that with my psychologist. I explained it as feeling like one hand being held stationary where Keeghan’s journey ended and the other hand being pulled in the other direction, trying to continue my journey and stretching me in-between. Of course, this was not possible and led to more confusion for myself.

My psychologist paused for a moment, then asked what I thought of taking Keeghan with me on my journey. This clicked with me instantly. After only a couple of affirmations to this effect, I felt a tranquility wash over me. Since that day, depression has taken a back seat in my life, but I know it’s still lurking, so I remain vigilant.

Sunday 18th of August was the first birthday since my son’s passing. He would have been 19. The week leading up to it was terrible and I returned to the darkness. The day dawned and I went to watch the sunrise, a cup of tea in hand. I spoke to Keeghan, wishing him a happy birthday and letting him know I was getting a tattoo that day to celebrate it.

The tattoo is both an affirmation of taking him on my journey and a proclamation of my love for him. Since yesterday I have felt so peaceful. A major block to my forward progress has been removed.

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Relationships with the Dead Have a Life of Their Own

In November, it will be 39 years since my father died by suicide. He is still with me as much as he ever was, and paradoxically, he is also more absent than ever. My emotional relationship with him has changed and evolved more during the time since he died than it did when he was alive, and I daresay that I understand him better than I understand any other human being I have ever known. And at long last –actually, beginning about 18 years ago –my understanding has given me peace. It almost makes me weep to talk about that, for during the first decade after he died, I had no peace at all over his death, and during the second decade, although I gained ground consistently, I had no idea where I was headed.

Those two decades, more than anything that came before or after, landed me where I am today –truly made me who I am, both for better and for worse. I am not a fatalist –for any number of things, the smallest happenstance, might have turned me this way or that, even toward my own demise or exaltation –but everything unfolded in a way that makes sense, at least now it does, looking back at the thousand subtleties in the push and pull of navigating my life. My father’s presence in my life (even if the most tangible force behind it was his absence) contributed something vital every step of the way, and he still is conjured up at times in a way that makes it difficult for me to separate the symbolic from the thing itself.

Three years ago, my now 18-year-old grandson came to Boston for a visit, and one night, I taught him how to play cribbage –and even without a mention, my father was there. His presence at such moments, it seems to me, is neither complicated nor magical, for it is easily explained by the power of memory. My dad taught me to play cribbage a year or two before I was old enough even to understand the game very well, and I’ve sat across the dining room table from him hundreds of times, watching him shuffle the deck in a kitchen soaked in the smell of Paladin Black Cherry pipe tobacco. The last time I saw him alive, I played a game of cribbage with him, sitting in the hallway of a psychiatric hospital, with the whisking of paper slippers passing next to us and more fear and uncertainty hanging in the air between us than I could bear.

Yet, even though merely saying the word “cribbage”connects me with him –and even as a dozen other sights and sounds and smells and tastes bring him into view –my memories of him are becoming fixed, and those that are lost are lost forever. I can remember clearly only a few things he once said, and I can no longer hear the sound of his voice. Sometimes when my mother tells a story about him –even though I am a character in the scene –I have no recollection of it whatsoever. I remember the oddest incidents –seeing them almost dreamlike in my mind’s eye –but I do not recall him at my high school graduation nor during the birth of my first son (and he was surely there for both events). If I were to write down more than a few lines in an attempt to describe any sustained interaction I ever had with him, I would wonder which parts of my tale actually happened and which I was embellishing to fill in the gaps.

This is the nature of memory, and it operates the same for my memories both of the living and the dead. Similarly, the nature of intimate relationships –both with the living and the dead –is that they continue always changing and evolving. Even as the reality of my father as a living person slips further and further into the past, his influence in my life –which is now almost exclusively a very positive influence –continues to grow. For me, the strength of my relationship with him –the concreteness of his “presence” in my life –comes partly from the fact that my work for the past 18 years in suicide prevention and suicide grief support has been devoted to him. But even that has evolved remarkably: My work used to be motivated by my need for redemption and now it is being driven by my desire to change the status quo, to focusing on my intention to create something meaningful in every moment, in every task, in every connection.

In the end, all that has occurred which keeps me connected to him (who is gone) has come full circle and caused me to be more meaningfully connected to everything unfolding in front of me (which is right here, right now).

They Live On …

“People you love never die. … They live in your mind, the way they always lived inside you. You keep their light alive. If you remember them well enough, they can still guide you, like the shine of long-extinguished stars could guide ships in unfamiliar waters.” ~Matt Haig, H

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I am present to the love I feel for friends and family – those who are alive and those who have passed. And I am grateful for the love they extend to me. Quite honestly, I don’t know how I could manage without it.

The love I feel towards those dear ones who have passed has never lessened. I still feel connected to them – not in this physical life, but through memories, thoughts, dreams, and signs.

When I read posts on our forum, I know I am not alone in this feeling, for beneath all the shock and pain, there is an undying love and connectedness expressed for those who have died.

I see this love reflected on the Alliance of Hope Memorial Wall, where dedications reflect the love and bonds that continue between survivors and those who have passed. Our loved ones had talents, made contributions, and touched many lives. The shock and pain surrounding their manner of death does not negate who they were, nor the love we felt for them.

I am grateful that much has changed – and continues to change, in the landscape that surrounds grief. In decades past, the bereaved were often encouraged to cut bonds and “move forward.” Grief theorists saw holding onto a relationship with the deceased as pathological. Yet, theory had little to do with how people really processed their grief. 

We now recognize that deep bonds are not severed by death. Our loved ones are still beloved members of our families and communities, though they exist in a different form. While their physical bodies are no longer present, their essence continues to inform and enrich our daily lives.

This Valentine’s Day, as always, I send my love to the Alliance of Hope community. I am so grateful for the love and kindness expressed here. I invite you to visit the Alliance of Hope Memorial Wall, and add a memorial for your loved one, if so inclined. 

His Essence Is Still With Me

I find myself posting quite often that I “lost” my son to suicide. I also find myself posting often about my firm belief that Tandi is with me. I’ve been wrestling for a while with the idea that those two seem to be mutually exclusive.

Did I lose my son or is he with me? It seemed to me that both couldn’t be true – that either one or the other must be true, but not both.

As I’ve struggled with this seeming inconsistency, I have begun to realize that both are indeed true. I lost Tandi in the sense that his physical presence is no longer with me. But his physical presence, his body if you will, doesn’t describe the essence of who he is.

If I were to describe him, I could describe him physical: 5’3″, brown skin, dark hair, dark eyes, athlete, hunter, skier, etc. I could easily come up with an accurate description of who he was physically, and we have a ga-jillion pictures as proof of that description. But I’d be describing who he was, not who he is.

I could also describe him as the essence of who he is: loving, great sense of humor, kind and gentle, a peacemaker with friends and family, etc. Who he was is indeed “lost” to me. But who he is – the essence of him – his personality, his spirit, his soul – is not lost. Who he is constitutes the intangibles that make him Tandi, whose things I can’t physically touch and feel but are clearly there.

As hard as it is to accept and find peace with losing who Tandi was, I’m thankful that I will never, ever lose who he is. May each member here never lose the essence of who your loved one is.

About the Author

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From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Remembering Loved Ones During the Holidays

As long as there are rituals these loved ones will always be a part of our families and part of a family system. They are gone but not forgotten.

As we enter the month of November, we begin the holiday season. For grieving people, this is a very painful time of year because a loved one has died. When a loved one has died from suicide the family system has been permanently altered by a seemingly senseless act that with the proper intervention might have been prevented.

I am a firm believer that families that grieve together stand a better chance of coming to grips with the grief as compared to family members who go off and grieve on their own. With the holidays approaching, I suggest that families gather together and have some type of ritual to remember that loved one who found life so painful that they could no longer endure the pain of mental anguish. The ritual is a vehicle whereby a loved one can remain a part of a family, albeit in a different type of presence.

Their presence is more mystical than physical, but they are present all the same. They remain a part of a family system even though they have gone to the hereafter. They still have a name and are loved by the survivors and have been a part of a family so why shouldn’t they have a part in family festivities? Will there be tears as they are remembered? Probably yes. Tears are OK. Will these tears ruin the festivities for the rest of the participants? I hope not. The alternative is to fake it through and not mention this loved one’s name even though this name is on every person’s mind and this person is very much missed.

I suggest that families confront the issue head on and then get on with the festivities. Address the missing person directly and have some tears and then move on with the celebration. To avoid this loved one can lead to guilt and remorse that this cherished name and person was avoided and ignored. That is too high a price to pay along with the normal guilt and remorse that oftentimes accompanies a death from suicide.

Some family members might choose not to participate. That is OK. It might be too much for them to endure. They should not be penalized because they avoided the ritual. It is important to remember that people grieve differently.

Overall, I am a firm believer that as we remember our loved ones through rituals they continue to be a part of a family system. Remember that a tragedy worse than losing a loved one to suicide is if these loved ones were to be forgotten. As long as there are rituals these loved ones will always be a part of our families and part of a family system. They are gone but not forgotten.

It takes some creativity to get a ritual together. The ritual can be very simple as a toast before a meal and wishing this loved one peace and goodwill. The person’s picture can be displayed in a prominent place of honor. A candle can be lit in memory of this loved one. A song can be sung or played in memory of this person. A prayer can be offered or a scripture passage can be recited…. The important point is that these loved ones are remembered during these holiday times. Will the gatherings be ruined by such a ritual? I don’t think so. The first few holidays without this loved one take on a very different tone and are very painful. Every succeeding holiday is different because this loved one is missing. The ultimate goal is to be able to remember this loved one without going to pieces. This takes time and a lot of practice. The rituals help in the practice and allow family members to develop a comfort level with this missing person.”

Excerpted from:”From the desk of Father Rubey, Obelisk Newsletter, Nov 2005. Father Charles Rubey is the Founder and Director of the LOSS Program, The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Light Will Return to My Life

Hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all the darkness. ~Desmond Tutu

In many survivor groups across the world, December ushers in a special ceremony of remembrance and hope. Survivors gather together during this darkest time of the year, light candles, and recite a communal prayer or affirmation. Each phrase is punctuated with the sentence: “Light will return to my life.

During the years I facilitated support groups here in Chicago, we gathered in a circle and repeated this ceremony. Members brought photos of loved ones and passed them around. It felt very special to see the images of loved ones — faces filled with intelligence, compassion, humor, and warmth. Many were strikingly handsome, surrounded by family — with never a hint of how things would end. Sharing photos always brought group members closer together.

Sometimes new members would tell the rest of us that they had little hope light would ever return to their lives, and we understood how they felt. In the immediate weeks and months following loss, it is often difficult to believe in anything, much less that “light will return to one’s life.”

Newly bereaved survivors struggle – many in the battles of their lives – with debilitating emotions. Some report a surreal quality to their first holiday season after loss. They say they feel profoundly disconnected from the rest of the world, which is immersed in decorating, partying, and buying presents.

I believe it is particularly important at this time of the year for our survivor community to reassure the newest members that the pain does diminish and transform and that those who have died do not stop being a part of our families. Those who have died are still loved as strongly as ever. We consciously and unconsciously find new ways to relate to them and carry their spirits with us as we complete the journeys of our own lives.

Carl Jung once wrote: “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” It would be hard to find a survivor of suicide loss who has not been immersed in darkness at some point. It is in touching the darkness that we come to know more about Life and Light.

Recently, I read an anonymous quote: “I stopped looking for the light. Decided to become it instead.” How simple and how profound. I believe that is what most survivors do eventually. While they may not acknowledge or even recognize that’s what they are doing, a close look at any group of loss survivors reveals their profound compassion and courage to reach out to others in pain. 

As the year comes to a close, I want to wish everyone a peaceful holiday season. I pray that light will return to your lives in the coming months and years and that each of you will become a source of light and inspiration for others.

The Journey: I Let Something Go

My son had been home for a visit the month before he died. After he died, I found a food bag/wrapper in my car. I hadn’t seen it before, but as soon as I did, I realized he had originally left it there as a joke. We had a lot of those private family jokes. Of course, discovering it when I did took the fun out of it. It served as a reminder that we really did have those interactions. If I had found it sooner, I would have laughed, texted him and thrown it away.

So, this small bag with the empty wrapper took on a lot of meaning for me. I left it in a special container in the car (thank goodness I don’t have to explain that here!) and it became known as my “memorial garbage.” My husband was especially careful that nothing happened to it during a car wash or servicing and I had to physically check that it was still there myself afterward for a long time. My close friends knew about it.

This weekend, we were cleaning some things out of my car and I realized that the story of my memorial garbage was more interesting and important to me than the actual garbage. I know that John would not have been pleased with me keeping any garbage in my car. I can see the look he would have given me! I looked at it and I knew I could let it go. My husband reassured me that I could keep it if I wanted -but I didn’t want to. I was ready to keep the story and not the thing. I could feel my son is pleased with me and I’m okay with it.

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The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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A Visitation Dream: My Dad or Just My Mind?

Normally my dreams are very traumatic as they show vivid replays of what might have happened on that fateful night three months ago when I lost my dad to suicide. Last night was different.

I have been struggling the past few days to the point that I got in touch with my bereavement support worker. She arranged to come and see me yesterday and the flood gates completely opened. I let so many things out that I have not spoken about to her yet and then at the end of the hour and a quarter, although tired I actually felt some relief.

Around 6:15 this morning I had a dream that I was back at my dad’s house in South Africa. It had been cleaned thoroughly and everything of Dad’s was back in its place. A few things were in a different place, but nevertheless it was all tidy and calm. As I was saying my final goodbyes (like I did on the final day I visited the house), my dad came through the door. I burst into tears and he just held me (just like he did when I last said goodbye to him at the airport after our final visit to see him). He kept saying ‘my little girl’ (as he did whenever I was upset) and kept holding me tightly.

Then my partner shouted to tell me people were coming in cars on to the farm. I came outside and it was police cars with lights flashing and the people who got out were shining flashlights towards us and the house. I walked onto the driveway and collapsed crying on the floor. I looked across back towards the house and the doorway. Dad was sitting in a chair by his outside table. He looked so relaxed and calm, not smiling but peaceful somehow.

My tears felt like they were then put on for the police as I knew dad was there–like it was his and my secret. I knew he was there, but no one else could see him. I woke up after that and began sobbing uncontrollably because it was so real. The comfort I felt when dad held me, made me feel safe–though I knew it was a dream because I kept saying to dad in my dream that it was. He gave me the ‘daddy hugs’ I have been longing for and I could feel how calm and peaceful he was.

Now I don’t know whether this was dad visiting me–to let me know he is at peace and give this broken heart and mind some comfort, or whether it was my own mind trying to put things into some kind of order. Either way, although I have felt extremely sad today, I do feel like I have mourned my dad and not just focused on what he did. I feel more peaceful. This gives me hope that my mind is working to protect me and not against me right now.

Survivor Experience: Twelve Seagulls

It was April and a little boy died. His spirit went to Heaven and from there he watched his mom. She was very sad.

The little boy thought and thought and then he had an idea. He went to brother seagull and asked him if he could borrow his seagull body to go fly and visit his mom. Brother seagull agreed and the little boy flew down, down, down and found his mom taking a walk.

He called to her “mom, mom!” But his mom didn’t recognize him. His voice was a seagull voice. She looked up, then went on her way. She was still very sad. The little boy kept coming back day after day calling “mom, mom!” and each time his mom looked up to the sky, saw a seagull and then went on.

After some time, the mom wondered why she kept seeing seagulls. She had never noticed them before. They were beautiful, their white wings against the sky. Their calls sounded very sad to her. As sad as she felt. Seeing the seagulls made her feel a little better though. She felt comforted.

The mom thought of her little boy each time she saw one, so one day the mom said “God-if a seagull is the spirit of my little boy let me see a dozen of them! Then I will believe.” God went to the little boy and told him what his mom had asked for. The little boy again asked brother seagull if he could borrow his seagull body and if eleven of his brothers could go with him to visit his mom.

They all agreed and the next day when his mom took her walk they flew down and said hello. They circled above her and the little boy called “mom, mom!”. This time when his mom looked up she saw in amazement all the seagulls. 12 of them! And she smiled! The little boy still comes sometimes to visit his mom. She smiles every time she sees him. She is not so sad anymore.

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The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Peace After a Loss

In a recent article, Eckhart Tolle relates being told by a grieving father: “My sons drowned in the sea ten months ago. I did surrender, but when I felt the peace and calm coming over me, it felt wrong. It was not right to feel peace and calm with such a loss.”

Eckhart Tolle responded compassionately, “The natural way of healing after the death of a loved one is suffering at first, then there is a deepening. In that deepening, you go to a place where there is no death. And the fact that you felt that means you went deep enough, to the place where there is no death. Conditioned as your mind is by society, the contemporary world that you live in, which knows nothing about that dimension -your mind then tells you that there is something wrong with this. But that’s a conditioned thought by the culture you live in. So instead we can recognize when this happens, when that thought comes -recognize it as a conditioned thought that is not true.”

Read the rest of Eckhart Tolle’s response.

Beyond Surviving

November 29, 1999. Alan and I had been seeing each other for a year. We were in love. We were planning a life together. But this night, just before we went to sleep, he said he felt a kind of terror inside.

He had just graduated from law school and had been hired by one of the top law firms in Los Angeles. But he hated the job. His passion was for helping people in need–especially children, and the law firm wasn’t giving him any satisfaction. I told him that he should start looking for general counsel positions in some of the non-profit organizations working on the causes he cared about.

That Tuesday night, I got home early and waited for Alan to get home to have dinner. But he didn’t call and he didn’t come over. My repeated phone calls to his office and cell phone went unanswered.

Just after 9:00 PM, the phone rang. It was his roommate: “Danny, Alan has hurt himself very, very badly. The paramedics are here. I’ll call you as soon as I know what hospital we are going to.”

Five minutes later, the phone rang again. It was Alan’s roommate once more. “Danny, I have some bad news. We’re not going to the hospital. Alan’s passed away.”

A friend drove me over to Alan’s apartment. There were EMTs and police there. I was in a state of total shock. I didn’t go into Alan’s room. They explained to me that he had suffocated himself. As I saw them roll the gurney in to take Alan’s body away, I started yelling, “I don’t want to see him in a bag. I don’t want to see him in a bag.” I went into another room and closed the door. I could hear the banging of the folding legs of the gurney. I heard the wheel squeaking as they rolled Alan past the door of the room I was in. It made me sick.

I didn’t go to the wake. I didn’t want to see Alan embalmed. I didn’t want to see that beautiful face with make-up caked all over it.

The first week was hell. Hours seemed to take months to pass. All I had any motivation to do was calculate the math for the time I had left on earth to endure the pain. I’m 39 years old. I just made it through a week. If I live to be 80, I need to do this 2,132 more times. I guess I can do that.

Friends sent me books about suicide. Night Falls Fast by Kay Jamison was especially helpful.

I once heard a minister say that when we are most broken, we are closest to God. One of the things that got me through the days was a paranormal sense of perception. I could see synchronicities that either never existed before or that I never noticed. It seemed like Alan was present–speaking to me. I was walking one day with a friend who was also grieving the loss of his partner. He stopped as we were walking and reached down into the gutter. He picked up a medal that had an angel on one side and an inscription on the other that said, “Angels shall guard thee.” He said I should have it. I wore it around my neck for the next seven years. Not more than a few weeks after he gave it to me, I was driving to the marina to meet Alan’s mother who had flown in for a visit. Driving down the 405, a rainbow appeared–the first I had ever seen in twenty years of living in Los Angeles. Alan loved rainbows. I told his mother the story of the medallion and showed it to her. Her jaw dropped. She opened her purse and pulled out a medallion identical to it–not close, but identical–that a friend had just given her.

I began to heal slowly. I let myself have my process, and I let myself heal according to my own schedule, and no one else’s. I didn’t pay attention to people who would say, “Aren’t you ready to move beyond that?” I knew I’d be ready when I was ready and not a moment sooner. I was kind to myself and I gave myself all of the patience in the world.

Two years after Alan died, I decided to launch a huge fundraising event to take suicide out of the closet and put it on the map. I had already invented the AIDSRides and the Breast Cancer 3-Days–events which had raised hundreds of millions of dollars for those causes. The new event was called, “Out of the Darkness,” and it would be a 26-mile walk through the night to raise money for suicide prevention. You had to raise a minimum of $1000 in order to go. 1200 people walked and netted 1.3 million dollars for the cause.

One year after Alan died, I met the kindest, sweetest, gentlest man I have ever known. Jimmy and I have been together now for eight and a half years, and six months ago, through the miracle of surrogacy, we had triplets–three beautiful babies, two girls and a boy–Annalisa, Sage, and Rider.I think fondly of Alan, but my heart has healed. The days of thinking my life was over have given way to the knowledge that my life has just begun.

I am filled with a sense of one powerful, singular truth, which is, if you just stay in the world, have patience and have faith, anything is possible–absolutely anything. God’s imagination is infinitely more powerful than our own, and if we just stay here, we will get to watch her play with it, and the most unthinkably beautiful things will unfold in our lives.

Just before our children were born, my friend who gave me the medallion that I’d worn around my neck for seven years gave me three beautiful little silver crosses, one for each of our kids. Now I wear them around my neck. Angels still guard me, but Jimmy and I have three little angels to guard on our own.

My Morning Cup of Latte

It’s 5:00 am and I’m wide awake ready to start my day. This was my routine for years. As a woman who juggled a busy career and a family, I claimed the early morning quiet hours to be mine. The corner of the couch, my book and a cup of tea greeted me each day at the same time.

My husband who, by the way was never a morning person, teased me relentlessly about losing out on another hour of sleep each day before shuffling off to drop kids at school and head to work. I told him he should try it. That having an hour of no stress and just quiet time seemed to prepare me for my day. We both had careers in management and shared the stressful demands that came with it. Add in five kids to boot and you had what often times felt like a mixing bowl with the beaters on full speed and only dry ingredients. Years later my husband finally decided to try my “early morning rise and relax” therapeutic approach to life. The next thing I knew every morning at 5:00 am he would roll over and ask “are you ready? Let’s go, I’ll make the coffee.”

Our routine quickly became what would I would describe as one of my most beautiful times in my life. Reading a book at 5:00 am gave way to early morning discussions and opening up to each other. For the first time in years we got to know one another, every morning on the corner of the couch over a cup of coffee. We talked politics, our managing styles and challenges at work, kids, church, family and sometimes his depression.

One day he thanked me and confessed that he had never been a morning person and now after all this time he found that inner peace I often spoke of and explained that it really did help him prepare for his day. He was an amazing leader, passionate, visionary, inspiring and always wore a big smile. His hobby was restoring old cars and over the years we had what felt like a local car dealership with and endless variety of vehicles in various stages of restoration waiting their turn to shine again. Once finished he would sell that one and start the next.

We had all kind of adventures over the years, some with positive outcomes and others less desirable. Challenge seemed to be the norm in our family so we just learned to embrace the ever shaking ground beneath us and kept going. His worked moved us all over the U.S. and we never stayed in one place beyond 1-3 years. Our kids learned to be adaptable. Okay maybe more like tired of it but it was what it was.

I would describe him as someone who bored quickly. He was in need of something different and new all the time. This, in and of itself, was tricky as a spouse because about the time I thought he was finally satisfied, he was looking for his next fix.

He was a great dad although he second guessed himself much of the time. We were a blended family and our children were very young when we married. Our story isn’t perfect but certainly qualified for unusual. Our children meshed like biological children. We never used the term “step” and always referred to each other as dad, mom, sister or brother. Most people who knew us couldn’t even tell we were blended. Behind the scenes of course there were many of the challenges of working through the demands of “Ex’s” and the all too tiring push and pull of getting kids to the other parent and then back again. Stress, stress and more stress.

My inner dark thoughts and feelings bring me back to reality where I am still angry and sad. Still, as I look back it amazes me how much of the good I can focus on. It’s a beautiful story but I know behind it all a thread that once bound us all together has simply been pulled out, unraveling everything. Here I want to memorialize his beautiful soul, forget the wrongdoing, the disagreements, the imperfections and focus on just the happy parts of what was our lovely and sometimes dysfunctional life.

I still get up every morning and sit on the edge of the couch. I rarely read but in the quiet I whisper to him all the things I would say as if he were sitting there. Sometimes I feel like he’s actually there and it brings me peace. He was my morning cup of latte.

About the Author

From Our Forum

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The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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