I had not spoken to my sister for the six months prior to her death. The separation itself was not ‘pretty.’ Her parting words to me were the most hurtful of all the things she had ever said to me in anger. I did not retaliate, I just separated for my own survival.
I spent the first three months after her death beating myself up, crying over the separation, and hating myself for not being a part of her life for those last six months. I kept thinking that if I had been, she would still be alive.
The truth I’ve come to know is that I was not powerful enough to change her decision. While I might have delayed what she did, I believe that once she decided to go down that path, I could not have stopped her.
I allowed my guilt to turn into regrets instead. Regrets for me are things that I might have done differently, while guilt is taking the blame for things I caused. I did not cause my sister’s death. It was her choice and her decision alone. If I could have stopped her I would. I don’t blame myself; I just regret my decisions and choices, but I have finally let myself off the hook.
Concentrate on all the good you brought to your loved one’s life. Try to remember all that you did for him or her instead of what you didn’t do or what you perceive as things you might have done differently. Don’t forget the love you gave and all the ways you helped. Allow, if you can, yourself to let go of the blame/guilt and replace it with regret. Guilt is such a soul-wrenching emotion and makes healing from this grief much more difficult.
I can hear you grumbling now: “Celebrate my accomplishments? What accomplishments? I haven’t accomplished anything since my loved one died by suicide.”
Oh, but you have! You’ve survived the horrible news of your loved one’s death. You’ve made it through the first few gut-wrenching days, weeks, months, or even years. You’re looking at your computer screen right now, which means you aren’t lying catatonic in bed, though you may wish you were.
Since your loved one died, I bet you’ve gotten out of bed, taken a shower, brushed your hair and teeth, maybe even run errands, or gone to work. Maybe you’ve set about the difficult business of dealing with your loved one’s belongings and estate. Maybe, through circumstances or choice, you’ve dealt with a big life change like moving, confronting a health problem, or welcoming a new child into the family. You may even have been the kind voice that helped another survivor feel less lonely.
On the Alliance of Hope forum, there is a sub-forum titled: “Accomplishments.” Survivors post there about the victories, big and small, they’ve achieved since the death of their loved one. If you still feel like you haven’t accomplished anything since your loved one died, maybe their words will inspire you.
Every Day Bravery
“I vacuumed today. It felt like an overwhelming task, but I did it.”
I remember waking up the morning after I found my friend’s lifeless body in her apartment. I had so much that I needed to do…but I didn’t want to do any of it. I wanted to hide under the covers and pretend that nothing that had happened the day before had been real. If I didn’t move, didn’t function, I could almost make myself believe it was all a bad dream.
But of course, I had to get up, that day and every day afterward. It takes a special kind of courage to get out of bed and face an “ordinary” day when you know your loved one won’t be able to share it with you. It’s no wonder our fellow Forum members list among their accomplishments things like getting out of bed, cleaning the house, going grocery shopping, and balancing the checkbook. When your heart is broken, there are no little things at all. They are accomplishments, and you should be proud of them.
Dealing with the Aftermath of Suicide
“I used to keep the closet so I wouldn’t see his clothes. Now I will close the closet, so I don’t have to see the emptiness. You can’t win with this.”
The sudden death of a loved one creates a lot of unfinished business. Members on the Forum often write about having to plan memorial services for their loved ones with very little time and even less money. They also write about dealing with their loved one’s belongings, coping with the police, medical examiners, and inquests, and trying to remember to take the time and energy to thank the people who helped out during their darkest days.
Members of this community also write about finding unique ways to memorialize their loved ones, such as keeping their loved one’s cremains in a special urn or getting a tattoo. One woman who lost her father to suicide wrote, “I’m very proud to have my daddy on my shoulder, and I dare someone to say something about it!”
Picking up the pieces your loved one left behind may be a necessity, but it’s also a huge accomplishment.
Reconnecting with the World
“I finally went to a support group last night.”
Some people naturally seek the support of others when they are sad or grieving, but many of us turn into little hermit crabs. Reaching out to the world when your heart is raw and aching can be so difficult, yet Forum members write of taking huge steps like returning to the comfort of a church family, holding a birthday party for a child in the family, going out to dinner with friends, and even attending support groups to find allies in healing.
If you have fought the urge to hibernate and reached out to another person instead, give yourself a pat on the back. That’s a huge accomplishment.
Major Life Changes
“He’s the best blessing God could have given me through this hellish nightmare and brightens my day and brings so much joy and happiness.”
Many grief experts suggest avoiding major life changes for at least a year after you’ve been bereaved, but we all know that life happens and that change sometimes comes along whether we want it or not. Survivors on the Forum note living through huge changes such as having a new baby, moving to a new house or apartment, leaving an old job and starting a new one, and even forming a new relationship after the death of a partner.
We all know that these things, even if positive, can be stressful enough when there is nothing else going on in your life. To weather a major life change shortly after a suicide takes an especially strong heart–and yes, it’s an accomplishment.
Helping Raise Awareness of Suicide and Suicide Survivors
“It pulled me back into my grief fully again…but I feel it was worth it if it made one family seek help or perhaps [made] one suicidal person aware of how much damage it would do their family if they died in that manner.”
Survivors come to the Forum to get help with their own grief and pain, but they almost invariably end up helping others heal as well. Some go a step further and raise awareness and funds for mission-driven nonprofits, like the Alliance of Hope. Others write books, articles, or blogs. Others give interviews to local reporters in hopes of preventing a tragedy like the one they experienced.
If you have reached out to a grieving, depressed, or suicidal person in any way, no matter how small the gesture may have seemed to you at the time, you can be assured you have had a positive impact on someone’s life.
And if you recognize yourself in any part of this article, you can be sure that you have accomplished many things since your loved one died. Take a moment to think about these accomplishments and, if you can, allow yourself a moment to celebrate them. It is still too soon to celebrate, at least be aware that you have shown grace, strength, and courage that will see you through this hard time.
My grandmother killed herself over a quarter-century ago, and yet, I remember it as if it were yesterday. The sights. The sounds. The horror. The grief. However, what I don’t remember were conversations about the grief. Maybe they were had, but not by me or with me. Instead, life forged ahead as if everything was “fine.”
“I’m fine” became my father’s mantra, whether he said it or not. After his mother’s death, my father seemed to “suck it up” and deal with his darkness the only way he knew how – by getting back to his routines, his work, and his life. Like many people in the aftermath of a loss, he believed he was too busy for grief; busy raising a family, building a business, and playing his part within a larger community. I think he believed he was doing us a favor by not delving into the darkness. So, he put his head down and focused on providing for his family and said, “everything is fine,” in the way he lived his life.
This determination carried him forward for a while, and to an outsider looking in, everything probably appeared fine. However, everything was not fine. The unprocessed suffering, guilt, grief, regret and anger over his mother’s suicide were growing louder in his soul. Indeed, everything was far from fine, and roughly two decades later, my father killed himself.
Everything could have been fine for my dad if only he would have stopped pretending that it was fine. There is simply nothing “fine” about avoidance, a-void-dance, dance around the void.
When a loved one dies, no matter how much you want everything to be fine – it is not. Rushing back to work does not make everything fine. Speeding back into the routines does not make everything fine. Jumping back into action does not make everything fine. Everything can be “fine” – someday, but not today. When death’s darkness casts its shadow upon your life, make sure you aren’t simply responding “I’m fine;” “It’s fine;” “Everything is fine,” to simply avoid facing the darkness. It can be “fine” again. It will be “fine” again. Repeating “everything is fine,” however, when it is not, is not how you will get there. Things will only return to “fine” when you are honest, real, face your darkness, work through your grief and share your pain.
Survivors face many challenges, including the attribution of ‘selfishness’ to the deceased by those who lack understanding.
A while back, a post on the Alliance of Hope Forum caught my attention. The gentleman who wrote it was angry at his “uncle by marriage” who had ended his life two days earlier. As he grappled with the death of his uncle, he expressed several of the most clichéd and negative assumptions about individuals who end their lives.
Here is his post:
“Two days ago, my uncle by marriage committed suicide. I wasn’t that close to him, but he always treated me with consideration. … He was a 62-year-old farmer, a pillar of church and community, and his wife found him hung in the barn. No one thought he had any problems. No sign of depression. No note.
I have some mixed feelings. I believe it was his choice to kill himself. Nobody knows how much pain the guy was in, and if that was his solution, then that solution was his to implement. On the other hand, I get the feeling it was like he was saying ‘**** you’ to one and all. Because of that, I say to him, ‘**** you right back at ya. You didn’t get to me with what you did and any suffering you incur because of it is rightly yours and has no claim on me.’
“He had a wife, kids, and grandchildren. I think it was a rotten thing for him to do this. It’s like he’s put the reputation of his family, heretofore a family the whole community looked up to, into question. In a way, it let the town down too. He chose this route.”
When I first read the post, it took my breath away.
I was startled by the lack of compassion for the man who had died, as well as the belief system that informed his nephew. And I was concerned about the impact the post might have on other members of the forum. But the post’s writer had invited “other opinions and observations” in his closing paragraph, and “wished everyone on the forum well” … so in I headed in with a response. Here is my response:
“Hello, I am sorry for the loss your family has experienced. A suicide leaves a family and community grappling with complex emotions. Your uncle was a loved and respected man who contributed to others throughout his life. Many will be saddened by his death and may experience turbulent emotions: shock, disbelief, grief, guilt, fear, blame, and anger.
The Alliance of Hope website provides substantial information about suicide. I hope that you will share it with anyone who may benefit from the comfort and education it provides.
Suicide is a shocking event. It leaves loss survivors – no matter how peripheral – with mixed feelings just like the ones you have expressed. Many times people speak of the ‘choice’ the departed made, just as you did. As a mental health clinician and survivor, I believe most people who die by suicide have fallen into a state of such despair that they are not capable of rational ‘choice’ as we regularly define it.
Suicide is not the result of a character flaw. Sometimes individuals have experienced and fought despair for decades – with or without communicating about it. Most people who end their lives do not intend to leave behind a wake of suffering.
Interviews with people who have attempted and survived show that the vast majority who attempt reach a point of hopelessness. Their normal critical thinking ability is severely compromised. Many feel that their death will relieve a burden on their family.
The loss of a loved one by suicide shatters the lives of survivors. They need all the support and love they can get from family and community. Hopefully, you can help those surrounding your aunt recognize that this was a tragic death due to an illness – no different than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. Hopefully, you and those who love your aunt will take a stand against the stigma which is born of hundreds of centuries of misinformation and misunderstanding of mental illness.
Lastly, I want to address your thoughts about afterlife following a suicide. Truthfully, I do not know what happens after we leave this earth, but I tend to agree with Father Charles Rubey, founder of the Catholic Charities LOSS Program (Loving Outreach to Suicide Survivors.) In response to the concern of a mother for the soul of her son, he expressed substantial doubt that a loving God would penalize anyone who had already been through hell on earth.”
Survivors face many challenges, one of which is the attribution of ‘selfishness’ to the deceased by those who lack understanding.
Thoughtless comments, like those in the post above, cut deeply, especially to those newly bereaved and raw with pain. In the beginning, all I could do was walk away from similar comments, about my stepson. As time passed and I grew stronger, I was able to take a stand and educate. I was able to speak against the centuries-old assumptions about selfishness and damnation. I hope you can too.
And oh – before I close – this gentleman didn’t stay long on our forum, but to his benefit, he did come back with a gracious response. He wrote: “Thank you for recognizing the context in which this mourning is occurring. I’ll check the info sites you’ve listed on suicide and since knowledge is power, it should help round out my perspective.”
I wanted to share a coping strategy I have found helpful. It is something my sister and I have done for years when times are stressful, or we’re overwhelmed. We have continued to do it since my mother died. Now we focus more on dealing with loss and the nature of her death, but it has proven to be helpful for us throughout our lives. We often call it “flip the script.” It is easy to do with someone who knows and understands you.
We both have bad anxiety, so sometimes our fears are not completely rational, but this always calms us both. We begin by saying our fears or things we’re very stressed about, and the worst-case scenarios that could result.
I’ll share mine to protect her privacy:
I fear I’ll always struggle with the last image of my mother, and it will eventually lead me to lose it.
I fear I’ll be a terrible mother since I don’t have one to guide me and wasn’t raised by a functional one.
I fear I’m too young to be buying a second house and I’m in over my head and I’m going to put myself in financial turmoil.
I fear I’m behind at work and that I have forgotten to send out something important since I’ve been so swamped and it will lead to me getting written up or fired.
Okay, now my sister will flip the script for me, and tell me how my worries could have positive outcomes that are also reasonable and rational. For example, she might tell me:
You’re doing EMDR. It is going to help. With therapy and time, you will be able to remember and see mom in a happy way. Also, you are taking care of your mental health so you will not lose your mind.
You will learn from experience and from mom’s mistakes. You will break the generational trend. You will also be a good mother since you’re strong and you’ll have your sisters to help you; we’ll learn from each other.
You’ve already owned your first home for over 2 years and have done well with it. You’ve done your research before making this decision. You’ve been saving and are taking your time. There’s no rush; when you find the right one you’ll be ready. Plus, you’re investing in your future.
Work has been crazy for us both and everyone in our field. It’s a crazy time of year and people understand. You’re feeling anxious because it’s near mom’s one-year mark and you’re overwhelmed. But you know what you’re doing and typically don’t mess up. Your boss also knows you’re a good employee and would not fire you over one mistake. You’re just doubting yourself. Don’t worry.
Just having her flip these for me and show me a positive outcome when I am feeling very anxious is so helpful. When anxiety strikes it is really hard to believe everything will work out and it’s very easy to get in your own head. Since losing our mother our anxiety has increased, but we’ve maintained this practice. It helps even if you must do it 5 times a day some days. I encourage it. Sometimes we all need someone’s help to flip the script.
In those awful first few weeks, the Alliance of Hope gave me a way to say how devastated I was feeling, to tell the story, to voice my anguish. My ‘real-life’ support system (family, friends, and community) is great, but I just never felt comfortable showing them how broken I felt. I was – and still am – inconsolable. Here, on the Alliance of Hope Forum, I found other voices that commiserate and are painfully honest, but also encouraging.
This space has allowed me to vent, to work through questions with others, and to get out of my own head, engaging with other survivors and hopefully giving back the support I have received. At the four-month mark, I’ve seen so many new members join. I’ve read so many stories of unimaginable heartbreak, perseverance, and hope.
As sad as it is to learn how startlingly prevalent suicide is in such a deeply personalized way, my newest healing revelations have come from seeing myself and my lost loved one mirrored in so many others. Connecting with others whose background, age, and other traits may be different but whose suicide loss is an eerily similar journey has helped me to quiet my own guilty replays, paralyzing regrets, and unanswerable questions.
The path to acceptance has gotten a bit easier now that I can see so clearly how many others share this same tragic road. Not just the sadness and grief, but the confusion, betrayal, frustration, longing that goes along with loving and losing someone who ended their own life, suffered from depression and/or addiction, or maybe just had a really hard time with life.
I can’t blame my guy now that I know he wasn’t the only infuriating irresistible mix of sensitive, giving, loving, impulsive, delusional, and destructive. I can’t blame myself knowing that other parents, girlfriends, siblings, friends, and others were ultimately unable to avoid the same terrible outcome despite their efforts.
I just wanted to say thanks to everyone for telling their stories, sharing their pain, baring their souls. It helps.
I have decided it is okay for me to be happy. I am going to apologize to my husband for my mistakes and I am going to let the anger and guilt go. I am sure I will have to tell myself this daily, but I know that I do not want to be unhappy, sad, and tired forever.
Most importantly, I am going to forgive myself. I have decided to go to the cemetery and have a long conversation with him. My kids deserve more – and I am beginning to think I do also. I look back on the last year and a half at my own destructive behaviors such as not eating or sleeping. Smoking and drinking too much. At the rate I am going, my health is going to fail, and my kids may be without another parent.
Also, the suicidal thoughts that creep in scare me. What if one day I give up and give in? I am going to try to think positively and I know this will not happen overnight, but if I can think of one small positive thought and then another and another, maybe it will become a frame of mind.
I am also joining a grief support group. Although I cannot imagine I will find more support there than here. This forum is a Godsend! The group will get me out of the house for something besides work. So, it is a small step towards where I want to be.
I have spent the last year of my life holding on to these negative emotions – I think because I feel disloyal somehow or that I don’t deserve the good times because it was my fault.
In December, many of us celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza, which are very happy times for the celebrants. Families come together, exchange gifts, and eat all different types of food. Years ago, I spent the holiday with my family in Ireland. My cousin shared with me that many Christmases ago the main meal was ruined because there was too much celebrating and she forgot that the meal was in the oven!
One of the key elements of this season is the giving of gifts. I believe survivors deserve a special gift during this season. By this, I mean that survivors should give themselves the gift of deciding that it’s acceptable to experience joy and happiness in the future. That is not something that is going to happen during the immediate and intense aftermath of losing a loved one to suicide.
In the initial stages of grief, one must deal with immense pain, but further on – at some point – survivors can give themselves permission to experience joy, happiness, and pleasure in the future. There is no set timetable for this and no “right” way to do it. It is just a decision that can be made at some point.
Sometimes there are obstacles to making this decision.
Wanting to stay connected: Some hold onto the pain because they think the pain is the last connection to their loved one. Survivors are always going to remember their loved ones and that is also the role of rituals. Rituals provide survivors with an exercise to remember loved ones who found life too painful to continue living.
Fear of Forgetting: Still another reason people hold on to pain is a fear of forgetting their loved ones. Again, that is the role of the ritual. Loved ones will always be a part of the lives of the people who loved them. I have never heard of survivors who have forgotten their loved ones. They do a lot of storytelling about these loved ones and the stories bring up the happier days when these loved ones were a part of a family and a circle of friends.
Guilt: Some survivors feel as if they have no right to experience joy or pleasure because their loved one took their life. This is a very normal reaction, however, survivors need to realize that although their loved ones died, they are alive and they have the right to have good times and to laugh. Survivors might not like the prospect of living a life without their loved one, but the alternative is to spend the rest of one’s life in the shadows, grieving their loss.
The grief journey is never over but there are opportunities in life that may be transformative or bring joy. For that to happen, survivors must be willing to be open to new situations. There is risk in such endeavors, yet very often the risk pays off. The first step is to make the decision to recreate one’s life and redirect one’s life into the world of renewed happiness and renewed pleasure – albeit different that it might be.
As always, I want to assure each member of the LOSS family of my thoughts and prayers during my regularly scheduled quiet time. I encourage all of you to do the same for each other – and especially for those who are recently bereaved and who find these holidays so very painful.
Even the most loving relationships can have complicated moments. The grief you might feel when a tumultuous relationship suddenly becomes one-sided has its own set of complications.
Most relationships aren’t perfect. There are bound to be disagreements, confusion and conflict even with those who are closest to you. We want to believe all of these complications will be resolved before we die, but the truth is that there are no guarantees. Death can come at any moment, and some interpersonal issues will never be resolved.
Even in happy, loving relationships with no significant issues, grief is a complicated emotional mess. But when the relationship itself was chaotic or dysfunctional, the grief of having unfinished business can be tormenting for the one who survives.
WHAT IS A LOSS?
Losing someone means not only the end of their physical body, but the end of their continuing presence on earth. Though you will carry part of them with you forever, their advice, perspective and support are gone.
Grief has been described as love that has nowhere to go. When you love someone who is gone, that love goes inward and is expressed as grief. Love and hate are passionate emotions that live in close proximity to one another. A complicated relationship embodies this love-hate paradox. When love-hate has nowhere to go, it also moves inward, creating a very troubling and intense kind of grief.
WHAT DO WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY ‘COMPLICATED’?
Even the best of relationships are challenging. Even between individuals who have cared for each other for decades, personality differences and preferences complicate all relationships. When the relationship included trauma, estrangement or strife of any kind, death gets even more emotionally arduous.
The emotional reaction you will have to a death is impossible to prepare for. There’s no way to gauge how your grief will manifest, no matter how expected the death was. However, it’s likely grief will be more tormenting if you didn’t know where you stood with the person prior to death. Unfinished business is the most haunting factor in grief.
Romantic relationships fall easily into the category of complicated relationships. One of the most common obituary-writing challenges is how to include a divorced spouse in the life story in a respectful and discreet manner. Those that had on-and-off-again relationships, or endured abuse at the hands of a partner may also experience an inner conflict when the other party dies.
But intimate relationships aren’t the only source of conflicted grief. Children whose parents deteriorated due to Alzheimer’s or dementia also face complex feelings at the time of death. Seeing a change in a loved one’s personality affects the way grieving people process the loss, causing many to focus on ‘good’ years rather than the later ones. Family or friends that often quarreled or experienced times of estrangement may also experience difficulty in accepting and processing the loss.
THE GRIEVING PROCESS
When things get really tough with another person, many people share the same knee-jerk reaction. Wishing the other person would die, or simply go away, is a natural response to prolonged frustration and anger. You probably don’t really wish them harm; you just want the pain they bring you to end.
But when this person dies, this insincere wish takes on a more ominous meaning. First of all, it’s important to remember that simply wishing someone would go away does not contribute to their death. Regretting ever making that wish does not mean you took the deceased person for granted for the whole relationship, or that you are a bad person. It simply reflects the turmoil of one point in time.
Even if you know this on a cognitive level, it’s difficult to shake these feelings when you’re grieving. Other feelings that might loom around the loss are anger, guilt and dissonance between the grief you expected and the grief you actually feel. Though you may have prepared yourself for this moment, it might be marginally more or less difficult than you expected.
Another surprising reaction many people have is complete and total ambivalence to the death. It might not hit you that the person is really dead for some time. But it’s also possible that you feel so torn over the death that you can’t determine how you feel about it. Not being able to pinpoint your feelings makes them harder to handle.
STRATEGIES FOR PROCESSING COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIPS
There are endless ways to grieve, and this holds true in complicated relationships too. Here are some strategies to unravel your complicated feelings when someone passes away:
Name the difficult emotion you are experiencing.
No matter how ugly it sounds, it’s not conquerable until identified accurately and honestly.
Determine how emotionally invested you are in the death.
It’s okay if this death doesn’t cause a grief reaction. You don’t need to manufacture pain in the absence of grief.
You may be more devastated by this loss than you ever imagined. Be honest about how much it hurts.
Remember both the good and bad times as accurately as possible.
Relationships come in all shades of gray. Look back over the history of the relationship with a critical eye. Remember the person’s good qualities, and the reasons for the relationship. Then recall the times the relationship was complicated or tumultuous in as good of detail. There are reasons you are feeling conflicted about this death, and they’re worth exploring. Did you react as well as you could have under the circumstances? Are there things about yourself that you can improve on going forward?
Forgive yourself, and the other person.
Agree to let go of the unfinished business you have with the deceased person. Your relationship with them will continue long after the death, but you should embark on this grief journey with as clean a slate as possible.
ACCEPT YOUR FEELINGS
While you can process your feelings any way that makes grief easier on you, it’s important to accept the reality of how you feel about the loss. When someone with whom you had a complicated relationship dies, you could feel a wide range of emotions, including ones that are difficult to accept, like relief and guilt.
No grief is easy to navigate. Start with honesty and compassion for both yourself and the deceased person as you begin to make sense of the world without them in it.
October is here. I find myself wondering how summer went by so fast. There is a crispness in the air now that lines the edges of even the warmest days. Trees in my yard have started to turn. Flowers are wilting … and up the street, one of my neighbors has orange lights strung through his yard.
Each year, many of my neighbors decorate for Halloween. Back in the day, when I was young, we simply put a pumpkin out. Things are more elaborate now. Last year, I’m told that Americans spent over eight billion dollars on Halloween decorations alone, not counting costumes and candy. Many look forward to October 31st, planning costumes for themselves, their children, or their pets, but those who are grieving often feel an added ache of loneliness. Their loved one is not there to help, to participate, and to enjoy.
Over the years, at support groups, I’ve heard many newly bereaved survivors say they are disturbed by some of the particularly grotesque decorations that pop up in stores and around their neighborhoods. I can understand that. Three years ago, that neighbor who is now working on the orange lights built a real graveyard in his yard … with grave robbers, half-finished … looking like they left in a hurry. Ten years before that, my new next-door neighbors, unaware that my stepson had hanged himself the year before, installed a dummy hanging with a rope around his neck, off the front of their roof. (To their credit, when my daughter mentioned our loss, they immediately took it down.)
For newer survivors especially, Halloween is often a holiday to be “endured.”
New survivors have little emotional resilience and are in no mood for a party, especially one involving blood, gravestones, or gore. They struggle with intense emotions, often feeling suffocated by their feelings. Generalized anxiety is frequently high for new survivors. They have experienced real-life horror and are often haunted by their dreams. Many are troubled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
It will not always be that way. Things do get easier with time, but in the beginning, each landmark day brings a deepened awareness of one’s loss.
On another note, I was recently told by an Irish friend, that Halloween has its origins in Ireland’s Celtic past: that it was an important fire festival, celebrated on the evening of October 31st, and into the next day when flames of old fires had to be extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by druids. In many respects, it was a festival like our modern New Year’s Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new.
Today Halloween doesn’t carry that connotation. Our culture focuses on candy and costumes, which for the most part, results in a lot of fun. There is no reason, however, that we as a survivor community can’t hold in our awareness that we are rekindling our fire and that of others around us… and moving into the “new.”
The month of September is known as National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s a time when a lot of attention is placed on suicide and mental illness by news outlets and other organizations. There are typically, an abundance of articles about:
reaching out for help if one is depressed,
reaching out to help those who are depressed,
and recognizing “signs” that someone is suicidal.
This month – for the third year in a row – we are launching our “Suicide is Complicated” campaign on social media. Our intention is twofold: 1) to increase public awareness of the complexities surrounding suicide and suicide prevention, and 2) to increase support and understanding for suicide loss survivors.
Survivors empathize with the intention of the slogan, but say the blanket assertion is vastly oversimplified, and often lands like a secondary wound — leaving them feeling guilty and judged. Typical comments are like these below:
“Suicide is Preventable” adds another layer of guilt. If it is preventable, why couldn’t I prevent it? It makes me physically sick to my stomach. It really does.” Purplekingsmomma.
“My husband’s suicide was a complete shock! No signs whatsoever! How can one prevent it if they had no idea it was even an issue?” ~Marybeth975
“I hate the blanket statement that suicide is preventable! For whom? Cause it’s certainly not everyone – obviously. … This was never ever on my radar. My dad never tried anything like this, he never talked about anything like this, there were no signs. One day he just was gone. How in the heck was I to prevent that?” ~Brokn13
Suicide loss survivors have a direct and deeply personal experience with suicide that alters their perspective forever. The profound trauma of their loss, recollections of events prior to and following the suicide, and the knowledge they gain from other survivors leads them to realize the complexity of trying to prevent someone from ending his or her life. Suicide is complicated.
Survivors know this is a very challenging issue. There is no one size fits all solution to prevent suicide and it can’t be summed up in a soundbite.
Please consider joining us this month, on Facebook or Instagram, and sharing our posts with others, if they resonate with you. Let’s work together to increase public awareness about the complexity of suicide and suicide loss.
“Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol’ dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!” Chris Stevens (Northern Exposure)
In the aftermath of loss, many survivors enter despair so painful and intense that they lose all hope for a day or two … or more. For most survivors, this does not represent inherent or latent mental illness, but the depth of the trauma and loss they have incurred.
On the Alliance of Hope forum, we see many posts from survivors who have begun to have suicidal thoughts themselves:
“This emotional pain is so severe it takes my breath away and leaves me feeling that I too would be happier dead.”
“A shrink, the suicide hotline, my friends and family, and this forum are keeping me alive while every nerve ending is screaming GO TO HIM.”
“I’m tired of the senselessness, of the waste, of the pain. I want to rail at all of this, but I don’t know who to yell at. And sometimes, I just want to be done with it all. Sometimes, I just want God to take me home.”
Sometimes people weather the initial loss of their loved one but are swept low by a second or third trauma that comes their way soon after the first. This happened to me 26 years ago. Within a few months after the death of my stepson, my husband told me he was leaving our marriage. This had not been on the horizon before the suicide. With no warning, family, social and economic structures slipped from under my feet. I could not eat. I could not sleep. I could not see a future of anything but loneliness and despair. The pain I already felt exploded geometrically and I began to think about how to end my life.
This had never happened to me before. As a counselor, I knew I needed help and asked for it. I created a circle of support: a psychiatrist, a counselor, an acupuncturist, and friends to be with each evening after work so that I was not alone in an empty house.
I was committed to life getting better. Some part of me was choosing to do things that might make life better. The rest of me was scared senseless.
In the well-known book Seven Choices, Elizabeth Harper Neeld describes points of decision in the grief journey that follows traumatic loss. She describes a journey that takes place over months and years, noting that at various points we must choose to suffer and endure, to look honestly, to act, and to engage in the conflicts that arise in order to gain freedom from the domination of grief.
Choosing to move toward freedom from the domination of grief does not mean that we love or miss the deceased any less. It means that slowly, we have mustered our courage and moved back into the world. Most survivors will tell you that little by little, they moved back with greater wisdom, courage, and compassion for the pain and discomfort of others.
It is important to know that with time, the pain does diminish and transform. Survivors take ground, inch by inch – in incremental steps forward. The loss does become integrated into who we are. It becomes a part of who we are, and it influences us in ways we never expect.
If you are feeling alone, please reach out. If you are feeling hopeless, please reach out. One of the most remarkable things about suicide loss survivors is their compassion and willingness to support others who are going through traumatic loss. Find the courage to connect with others at a local support group or tap into the strength of the community on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors, at any time of the day or night.
Please know, you are not alone. Thousands have experienced suicide loss. They have fought their way back into life and you can do that too. New survivors often say they have “joined the club no one wants to join” … and that is understandable. Yet, in truth, the survivor community is one of the most compassionate and wise communities around. In the aftermath of loss, those things that commonly divide us fall aside. They become inconsequential. We connect with kindness, guided by our humanity.
“Life is still a gift,” I told my kids after my husband killed himself. “It’s still worth it. We’re still here.”
I said this aloud – to them, to myself, to the cosmos. I wasn’t always sure I believed it, but I said it. And generally, not long after saying it, I collapsed on the floor in some corner of the house and cried out my eyeballs into shriveled, puffy things resembling dried figs. Then I peeled myself off the floor and said it again: “Life is still a gift. It is.”
Losing a loved one to suicide hurts like hell: there’s an obvious truth if there ever was one. But there are other truths, some hard, some hopeful. If you’ve suffered such a loss yourself, you know too much of these truths already. There’s no knowing just a little. To lose someone to suicide is to comprehend its aftermath — its endless, agonizing, and messy emotional aftereffects — from the inside out, and to understand, from the first shattering moment you hear the news, that everything you thought you understood about living and loving has been irreparably altered. The result is a profound loss of innocence. There is no going back.
I was in grade school when my homeroom teacher sat inside her garaged car while it idled, killing herself. What I recall most vividly is the sight of another teacher, an older woman with springy gray hair, crying in our classroom with a face crushed by grief. This was Lesson One. I learned from suicide: that it wounds those left behind.
A year or so later, when I was 11, my father attempted suicide with sleeping pills, sending him into a nine-day coma and a six-month stay in a pure talk therapy program (no meds, not ever) at the Institute of Living in Hartford.
Lesson Two. I could lose anyone this way, even the people who mattered most. As a kid, staring at my father’s unconscious, bloated form in I.C.U., I learned that life is capricious. That it could take sudden turns into darkness, no matter the light that surrounds us. I realized at that moment that love, whether my father’s or mine or anyone else’s, might not be enough to bind us all together in this world. I saw that pain can be insidious enough to pry someone suddenly away, even a kind and ebullient genius like my father.
My mother told me this wasn’t my fault. It was nothing I did. It wasn’t a failure to love on my part or anyone’s, including their father’s. I did my best to believe her.
When he returned home, it felt like a miracle – to me, to all of us. And so it was. Lesson Three. Sometimes the darkness abates.
Lesson Four. Sometimes it doesn’t. It didn’t in 1991 when a good friend of mine shot himself. It didn’t in 1992 when my sister – another kind and ebullient genius — swallowed fatal mouthfuls of psych drugs after too many years of struggling with neurological and emotional problems, far too many hospital stays, far too many meds.
And it didn’t in 2011. That’s when my husband, Chris, the father of my three children and my rock for more than 20 years — a grounded, giving man with a dazzling intellect and a deep core of goodness – lost his mind over six months of insomnia, anxiety, and depression. After three brief hospital stays and a few failed tries at medication, he leaped to his death from the roof of a parking garage a mile from our home.
Everyone asked why. I had no answers. All I could say to baffled friends, crushed by the grief I first glimpsed as a child, was this: I don’t know. This can’t be understood. He lost himself; he couldn’t bring himself back; nothing worked. No matter how I tried or what I said or how hard I loved him, he just got sicker, drifting further and further away.
Lesson Five. You can’t love someone back to wholeness.
All I could say to my children was what my mother had told me: This wasn’t their fault. It was nothing they did. It wasn’t a failure to love on theirs or anyone’s part, including their father’s. He loved them, I explained. He didn’t make some rational “decision” to leave us. Instead, he was dragged into a deep and enveloping hole that was too dark to see and too powerful to escape.
Lesson Six. Suicide makes no sense. Not the pain that leads to it. Not the act itself.
There never is. I knew that much, and I knew I couldn’t try to explain it to my children. What I tried hard to explain instead is the need to push forward in the wake of such a loss, even if pushing forward just meant getting up out of bed the next morning. Precisely because suicide is senseless, we can’t take the act itself as a refutation of life. We can’t give it that power.
Chris’s death didn’t negate life – not his own, not ours in his absence. It didn’t mean we couldn’t go on. It meant the opposite: It meant we had to.
Saying this to my three kids was one thing. Acting on it was another. Trying to model faith in life while simultaneously expelling bulk quantities of saline from facial orifices was a trick and a half. But in the days that followed, with the help of family, friends, and neighbors bringing warm hugs and plates of ziti to our door, we found ourselves in the business of living. Laughter struck at the strangest, sweetest times. Happiness snuck in over the transom.
Early on, I worried about the increased suicide risk for survivors – and here I was a repeat. But a wise friend reminded me gently that I had learned another lesson from suicide – a lesson filled with hope that fixed me securely in this beautiful world with my beautiful children, embracing what gifts might come. I had learned that the answer to suicide isn’t more suicide. It’s more life.
Lesson Seven. Light is the only cure for darkness; living is the only cure for death.
So my children and I continue to live, continue to love, continue to laugh. We all continue to grieve, in our different ways. Their father’s death wounded us all. He was torn from us abruptly, insidiously. His darkness never abated, and it made no sense. Those lessons all hold and always will.
But the only way forward is forward. The only path out is through. As we walk it, as we stumble, we find new blessings and make new friends.
Lesson Eight. Life is still the only game in town. And it still brings joy.
Grief is a normal reaction to losing something or someone that we love. It’s not a pleasant emotion. We hurt. We cry. We get angry. But eventually, we also heal.
Sometimes, grief transforms itself into something far more ominous: depression. Depression is a mental health problem that hijacks your brain and imitates your voice to fill your head with doubt, confusion, and lies – the same lies that our loved ones probably believed when they took their own lives.
If you’ve slipped into depression, watch out for these seven lies. Don’t take them at face value. They are not your mind talking but an illness that preys on the psyche just as cancer preys on the body.
Whenever these lies slink into your mind, fight them. Drag them into the light of reason and watch them crumble. Talk to loved ones who understand and who will support you. Reach out to your clergy, a therapist, a counselor, or a doctor. Don’t for one moment give in to the following, vicious untruths:
You have always felt this way. Depression has no memory of the time before it existed. As far as it is concerned, this is your “normal” state. But you know better. Seek out happy memories. Look at pictures that make you smile or wear a favorite piece of clothing or jewelry that you bought when you were feeling particularly good. If you can’t remember better times, ask others to remind you.
You will always feel this way. Again, depression has no concept of a time when it will not exist. Fight this lie by doing small things that bring you pleasure – working in your garden, taking your dog for a walk, listening to music you love, or taking a relaxing bath or shower. These small acts of self-kindness will not cure your depression, but they will remind you that happiness is possible and is probably closer than you imagine it to be.
Things can only get worse. Depression delights in terrifying us with catastrophic thoughts. Don’t get dragged in by this trick. Someone you love very deeply has just died by suicide. That’s probably one of the worst events you will ever go through in your life. If you lived through the event, trust that, slowly, your life will improve.
You are worthless. This is a lie that we suicide survivors tend to believe wholeheartedly. After all, the depressed voice says, if we’d only been a better [friend, lover, parent, brother, child, etc.] our loved ones would still be alive. Baloney. The song, “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical Les Misérables says it best: “There are dreams that cannot be, and there are storms we cannot weather.” Sometimes, no matter how much you love someone and how much you do for them, you cannot give them the will to live. It’s tragic, it’s terrible, but it’s not your fault.
Everybody would be better off if you were gone. Almost everyone who dies by suicide believes some version of this lie. “My friends won’t have to worry about me anymore.” “I won’t be an embarrassment to my family.” “I’d be doing everyone in my life a favor.” I have yet to meet a suicide survivor, however, who felt as if their loved one had done them a “favor” by ending their lives. Did your loved one do you a favor? Of course not.
This pain is unbearable. Yes, the pain of losing a loved one to suicide is horrific, but it is not unbearable. You are bearing it, in fact, at this very minute, and you will continue to do so with the help of those who love you and care about you.
The only way to end the pain is suicide. When you buy into this, you are stepping into a phenomenon known as “the suicidal trance.” From that moment on, you have tunnel vision … and at the end of that tunnel is relief from all your pain. But the tunnel vision is a lie. You do not need to end your life to end your pain. There are other options available. If you can’t think of any, call someone you trust and ask for help. Together, the two of you can probably come up with many solutions that don’t involve suicide.
We’ve always been taught to believe what our senses tell us, but when we are depressed, our senses and our thought processes are unreliable. Reach out to those you can trust until your depression lifts, and you can once again see clearly.
As I was reading through posts here on the Alliance of Hope Forum, I was also sipping my morning coffee. I wasn’t paying much attention to the words on my mug until a minute ago. As you may have guessed, it reads what the title of this post says. This week has been pretty tough at times but looking at the message on my mug this morning reminded me that … Yes, I do have this!
When my therapist suggests a tough activity to help me … I’ve got this.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the tasks that need to be done … I’ve got this.
When I’m faced with decisions I would typically make with my husband but have to now do solo … I’ve got this.
When I’m wondering just how I’m going to get out of bed every day … I’ve got this.
When my emotions rise to the surface and all I want to do is cry … I’ve got this – (and I cry).
When I struggle to find the right words to express how I truly feel … I’ve got this.
When my heart bursts all over again because I miss him so much … I’ve got this.
When boundaries need to be set for my own healing … I’ve got this.
When I feel like I want to give up for the day, but I push on through … I’ve got this.
I could go on. But I think you get the gist.
My coworker and friend gave me this mug to remind me that “I’ve got this.” But I’m not the only one. What can you share for which someone might tell you “You’ve got this!” We all have something. We are all survivors and I firmly believe that … You’ve Got this!
Loss to suicide creates complex emotional and neurological responses. Among those, shock and confusion are often the first things felt, but many survivors find long-held beliefs about themselves and the world – about everything – drawn into question.
If something like this can happen, what else can happen? Will I lose someone else to suicide? Am I safe? Can I survive this? What will my life be like now? Who will love me? How will my children handle this? Where is my loved one now? Questions on top of questions tumble through the mind – and answers are elusive.
The existing support one had in their life prior to the loss, may be inadequate for enduring the aftermath of suicide. All these questions and emotions make it easy for fear to take over our thoughts. And stress can affect the body in physical manifestations. Fear becomes anxiety; anxiety becomes panic. Panic sometimes devolves into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Fear is “normal” after this kind of loss. Just hearing one survivor say that to another brings a sense of comfort to both. “Someone understands me.” “I’m not alone.” “Maybe I can get through this.”
Connection is a basic human need.
When times are good, we connect with others on a relaxed, sometimes shallow basis. However, when tragedy enters our lives, we need specialized care and real coping tools we can use to deal with the far-reaching consequences left with us.
If we do not have a deeper connection, if we do not find people who can relate to what we are going through, we have only our tumble of thoughts and questions. These go around and around inside the mind with nowhere to go and no resolution. Isolation keeps survivors “stuck” and devoid of healing.
Why is it sometimes hard to find support?
The answer to that question is two-fold. It can be difficult for a survivor to ask for help because suicide is different. Stigma, shame, and isolation are connected to suicide (unfairly), and this history lingers in communities of all sizes. Not knowing what is needed or how to find it makes it difficult to take the first step.
For similar reasons, it can be difficult for other people to offer support to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. Their associations with the word “suicide” and lack of experience with this type of situation place them in a new and frightening position. There are those who react in hostile ways (casting blame or shame) and those who intuitively share what compassion they can. Some just practice avoidance.
People who have experienced this type of loss often know how to listen and when to share something that helped them. So, a support group or a conversation adds understanding and helps lower the fear threshold.
Counselors or other health professionals who have experienced this kind of loss themselves or who have training in working with this population can bring an enormous sense of relief to survivors, who still must do their own grief work but who now have a guide.
There are some things that can quiet suicide-related fear.
Basic self-care, setting aside time to grieve, and examining what happened with an objective eye are all helpful. As survivors work on these things, they develop a narrative to understand how they helped and how little control they had.
Focus on what can be controlled now. Staying within the present moment is one way to survive intense waves of grief. Learning about treatments for PTSD and “complicated grief,” can help. Knowing that feelings can change over time can help with the development of a plan for survival.
Take time for escape, too.
Try new experiences, offer support to others, volunteer. Make small goals a part of the day. One way to do this is to use a journal and look back often to note any progress made. Make patience a priority.
And lastly, one of the most helpful ways to conquer fear is to find a way to remember a loved one’s life. Requesting help with practical things can bring opportunities to hear memories from others and organizing a simple candle-lighting or inviting friends to a “favorite recipes” meal might give everyone a chance to heal.
On August 3, 2012, my significant other of 18 years, Dave, went for a motorcycle ride. He stopped at the local taproom for a beer on the way home. When he got home, he came through the house, said hello, and went to his man cave (the garage), to have another beer and listen to the rest of the San Francisco Giants baseball game. I went out to the garage during the 8th inning to ask him what he had eaten that day, wondering if I should make something for a late dinner.
As I was leaving the garage, he laughed and asked what I was wearing – telling me it looked like a tablecloth. It was a lightweight blue plaid summer dress that I wore around the house when it was hot. I playfully got indignant and said he was wearing a tablecloth. That was the last conversation we would ever have.
I was laying on the couch watching the Olympics and reading a murder mystery novel when he came into the house and went upstairs. I assumed he was going to get ready for bed, maybe take a shower, and then come downstairs to eat. I didn’t hear the shower and peeked up the stairs at one point and saw the bathroom light was off. At this point, I assumed he had laid down on the bed and fallen asleep. I wish I had gone upstairs to give him a hard time about not saying good night.
I laid back down on the couch, reading and pretending to watch TV. When I heard a loud bang, I thought one of our planters had fallen on the front porch.
I got up and looked outside and all the planters were still hanging. Dave is a light sleeper, so I went upstairs to ask him if he had heard the noise. When I entered the bedroom, I smelled the gun powder smell and was confused but thought maybe some neighbor kids had thrown a firecracker in the front yard.
I sat down on the bed next to him and it was wet. I can’t remember whether I turned the lamp on first with my left hand or put my right hand on his chest to shake him awake. I think it was simultaneous. Everything happened at once. The light went on. I saw blood on my hand and realized he had shot himself. Everything is a blur after that. I know I screamed and ran downstairs to the phone and dialed 911.
It felt like it took forever for someone to get there. The 911 operator told me to go back upstairs, check if he was breathing, get a towel to place over the gunshot wound, clear his breathing passageway, and do chest compressions. I did whatever she said. I kept telling her I can’t do this and someone needs to get here soon. But it took forever, so I stayed and did what she told me to do. It was horrible. No one should ever have to see anything like that. I knew he was gone. But I kept thinking if they get here soon enough, they can save him.
I don’t understand any of this. I’ve read other posts where people say there was no sign of depression or suicide warnings. And I believe you.
In his 42 years of life, not one relative or friend recalls suicide ever being a thought. In our 18 years together, we went through some rough times, but we were finally in a great place. We had finally figured things out and accepted each other’s faults and appreciated each other’s quirks. We were actively planning for our future. Trips to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to see family. A group hockey game in the fall. (We did one or two every year and had 75 people last year). Work on our house. The garden (His motto was I grow it – you clean it – you cook it – I eat it).
We were going to spend the rest of our lives together. Everything is wrong now. I can’t imagine having Thanksgiving without him smoking a small turkey and me doing a stuffed turkey in the oven (imagine 30 lbs. of turkey for two people). Christmas morning will be completely wrong. Hockey games without him next to me in a Pavelski jersey is just not right.
If he were here, he’d ask me: “Is someone was feeling lonely?” I would say yes, I’m lonely and I miss you.
I was pregnant with her at the time and because of that, I never fully dealt with my grief. Over the past two months, I’ve known two people who died by suicide. One was the young daughter of a wonderful friend. This has brought up a flurry of untouched emotions and grief that I buried when he died so long ago. I’ve decided that it’s time to deal with these emotions and work through them, whether by talking to others on the Alliance of Hope Forum or helping others through their grief.
I wrote this essay, to share with my friend after she has had some time to absorb the shock of her loss. After reading so many posts on the forum, I felt this would be the perfect place to share my thoughts. Thank you for reading!
My Journey of Loss
Losing a loved one to suicide is the most painful, gut-wrenching experience anyone can ever go through. You look around and wonder how everyone is carrying on with life as normal when it feels like the world has stopped turning. Not only have you suddenly and unexpectedly lost someone you loved and cherished, but you must also come to grips with the fact that their death was a deliberate choice that they made, even though they knew it would hurt you.
This realization rips you in two – you are grieving the loss of your beloved while simultaneously battling feelings of intense anger and betrayal.
“Why?” is a question that plays on repeat over and over in your head and nothing in the note or their final words or actions can answer it. So, you vacillate between blaming yourself and desperately trying to believe the well-meaning people who tell you that there was nothing you could have done. For a moment that thought gives you peace, but the “should have, could have, would have” is just around the corner waiting to take hold.
You replay every single moment of their life, trying to pinpoint the moment when they made the decision to end it. Trying to understand how you couldn’t have seen the pain behind their eyes and smile. Trying to understand why they didn’t reach out for help. Desperately trying to understand how your deep and unending love was not enough to make them want to live.
The sudden, bitter anger that you feel confuses you. You’ve been taught that when people die, you should feel sadness and grief, not anger. But this isn’t like any other death. This person chose to leave you knowing they would take a huge part of your heart with them.
You scream: WHY did they do this, knowing how much it was going to hurt me?! Why didn’t they ask me for help? Why wasn’t my love enough?! Where was God when this was happening?!
And the next minute you feel deep, immeasurable sorrow for how sad and lonely they must have been to have taken such drastic action. And you can’t help but wonder if you had given them more love, reassurance, and support if that would have made a difference…if there was anything you could have done to make them choose to live.
In between bouts of anger and sadness, you miss the person you loved – their laugh, their smile, every single thing about them.
You want them back so desperately, you bargain with God. You’d give up anything for just one more second, one more “I love you,” one more hug. The desperation you feel is unlike anything you’ve ever known.
It’s a vicious cycle that plays on repeat for days, weeks, and months on end.
You feel that it’s never going to stop, that you will surely lose your mind on a rollercoaster of grief. Sometimes you even wonder if your life is worth living without your loved one.
As time crawls by, the edges of your emotions slowly soften.
The sadness isn’t so strong, the anger isn’t so bitter, the grief not so palpable. You still ask “Why?“ each and every day, but it isn’t so desperate and frantic. One day, you catch yourself laughing and wonder where that small bubble of happiness came from. It seems odd to experience any joy when your heart is still hurting so much. You will probably feel guilty experiencing any happiness at all when your loved one is gone.
Just when you think the worst is over, the holidays, their birthday, or the anniversary of their death comes along, knocking the wind out of you.
A few weeks before the anniversary, something imperceptibly shifts inside of you. Sadness, tension, and anger slowly bubble to the surface, where freshly scabbed wounds rip open. You remember exactly how you felt the day they died as if it were yesterday. It feels as though you are starting the grief process all over again. You wonder if other people remember your loved one on important occasions and holidays. If they don’t, you wonder how they could possibly forget something so important.
And then, as the years go by, your grief slowly subsides.
Never a day goes by when you don’t think about your beloved, pray they come to you in a dream, and explain why they decided to end their life. You look for signs of your loved one everywhere you go – a butterfly landing on your shoulder, a song on the radio, a star shining brightly in the midnight sky – anything to give you just a glimpse of their beautiful soul.
And in this deep, aching loss, you are forever changed.
Hi, my name is Paul McMickle. I served with a Special Forces team in Viet Nam. When we returned, ten of my twelve team members killed themselves. I almost joined them. Here is my story.
In 1965, I was drafted into the U.S. Army – just after completing my 2nd year of college. I had been the president of student government and editor of the school paper, as well as the principal anti-war organizer on my college campus. I was also a member of the American Friends Service Committee, a pacifist organization. I had volunteered in JFK’s Presidential Campaign and marched with Dr. King during the Civil Rights movement.
Near the completion of Basic Training, I volunteered for Special Forces duty to avoid being shipped immediately to Vietnam as part of an Infantry Company. Eventually, I was sent to Viet Nam and served 2 ½ tours with a team of extraordinary and courageous men. We didn’t see eye-to-eye politically, but they were dedicated and reliable under any circumstance –career soldiers.
Why did I serve more than the one required tour?
Dr. King was assassinated four days before I was to return to the States. When that happened, I vowed to stay in Vietnam until my term of service was complete. I was NEVER going to return to the United States. When I extended my tour of duty, so did the rest of my team. They said it was to look out for ME, as I was the “new kid” and they were already seasoned, multi-tour veterans. I believed it since they saved my life too many times to mention.
When my time was finally up, I discovered the county I planned to live in – Japan – had worse winters than Chicago – and I didn’t know the language – so I returned to Chicago.
I had a difficult time reintegrating into civilian life.
Only 48 hours elapsed between the time I left Vietnam and the time I landed in Chicago. Nightmares and cold sweats lasted for over a decade. Emergency fire and police sirens sent me diving for cover and looking for a bunker – the sound was identical to the ones that blasted when our base was under attack.
Then the suicides began. Each year after returning, when I’d get word of a reunion of our team, it would also include the name of one of my comrades who had died by suicide. It was always a shock. I couldn’t imagine what was going through their minds that they could do such a thing. I concluded it must have had something to do with their personal lives. I never connected it to their military service.
By the 7th year, when the 7th team member’s name was on the reunion notice as a death by suicide, I concluded that perhaps there was a connection to what we had experienced while in the military. By this time, I was floundering in my career. I had several failed relationships. I was drinking heavily, but no matter how much alcohol I consumed, it only dulled the pain temporarily.
By year 10, with the 10th of our 12-member team now dead by suicide, I stopped communication with the remaining survivor, because it was starting to look like I’d be number eleven. I surmised that if all those brave, courageous, and much stronger than me Special Forces soldiers couldn’t find a way to cope, then I didn’t stand a chance, and given how out of place I felt trying to fit back into regular life, suicide was now making sense.
Four packs of cigarettes and nearly a fifth of alcohol consumed daily no longer numbed the pain. One day, I found myself sitting in the window of my 52nd story apartment trying to decide in which direction to jump to minimize any damage to passers-by.
Thankfully, I climbed back in. Just before making my “final decision,” I recalled something I heard about a personal development seminar and thought: “maybe I’ll give it one more try… then, if THAT doesn’t work, I’m out of here!”
I did the seminar and it helped more than I could have anticipated. I discovered where I had “collapsed” the things that happened, both while in Vietnam and after, with all the stories and interpretations and meanings I had added to what happened. For example, what happened was, I participated in a war that I was opposed to. What I made that mean was that I was an unprincipled liar, a killer, and no good. I also thought I could NEVER be a “good person” again. When my friends died, I felt guilty, because I was still alive, and they weren’t, and (more meaning I added), they were much more of a contribution to the planet than I was – which then even further justified my own thoughts of suicide.
In the seminar, I also saw that I had a “choice” – not about what happened, but about how I was going to respond to what happened, along with the fact that my past didn’t have to dictate my future. I shed the thought: “I’ll never be OK again and I should just end it.” A bit unbelievable I know, but what I’d been seeking to resolve for over a decade occurred in a single seminar.
I’m now clear that “what happened” is: 10 of my team members died by suicide! And, it doesn’t mean that they were weak, or crazy, or that I too had to follow in their footsteps.
To honor them, and the huge contribution they were to me, I decided to live and dedicate my life to serving others, whether in my career pursuits or in community activities. Some of those pursuits include the following:
Volunteering with the organization Landmark Education. The seminar was a life-saver for me 30 years ago.
Volunteering in public school systems in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, New York, and the Cook County Jail.
Adopting a teenage son (as a single parent) and raising him to adulthood.
Supporting initiatives and laws to benefit the active-duty military, veterans, and their families.
Working in political campaigns at all levels of government.
Being elected twice to the Chicago Public Schools Local School Council.
Consulting with and supporting The Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors.
Earning my private pilot’s license.
And … I quit smoking – cold turkey!
In closing, while my relationship to those whose deaths I grieved wasn’t one of family in the traditional sense, our bond was profoundly close. We depended on each other to survive our time in combat. They were much more instrumental in saving MY life than me in theirs.
I know first-hand that no one can replace your lost loved ones. You will never stop missing and loving them. I also want you to know that in addition to grief, there is a future that awaits you that is unimaginable now. Survivors can heal and live a fulfilled life, despite the loss. And you can and will make a difference for others, both those you currently know, and those you’ve yet to meet.