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.”
Louise was normally a confident passenger, happy to sleep while I was driving long distances. But on this occasion, she couldn’t settle and sat watching the road ahead anxiously. It was 2 AM and we were driving a strange hire car in the dark on unfamiliar Sicilian motorways, returning to our holiday villa a couple of hours south after a long, happy but tiring day trip to Mount Etna and the chic resort of Taormina. I was tired, feeling unwell, and driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Louise was alert to the risk of an accident. Three months before she took her life, her will to live – her instinctive desire for survival – was strong. This was not somebody who treated life carelessly. She valued it and did not want to die.
Before I met Louise, my attitudes towards mental illness and suicide were probably typical of those of the population at large; they were signs of weakness, a deficiency in character. I probably even fell back on the tired old cliché that sufferers simply needed to exercise a degree of resolve and ‘pull themselves together.’ While many people were enduring ‘real’ physical ailments, I could find within myself little patience or understanding for something as complex and intangible as a troubled mind. Only the vulnerable and needy experienced mental ill-health. Suicide was a form of cowardice.
Nothing, I now know, could be further from the truth. Louise was as far removed from my antediluvian stereotype as it is possible to be. Independent, resourceful, and a natural optimist, she loved life with a passion that puts most of us to shame and lived it every day with a glorious, inspiring sense of hope, opportunity, generosity, and vigor. Louise was, quite simply, the happiest person that I have ever met. She would frequently cuddle up to me at night and simply declare ‘I’m so happy.’ The light in her eyes did not lie.
But neither did it tell the whole story. For reasons unknown to all but those closest to her, Louise suffered periodically from anxiety and depression throughout her adult life. At the age of barely 18, she demonstrated remarkable insight and maturity when describing something of this state of mind in a school leavers’ booklet so acutely that it was instantly recognizable to me when it was brought to my attention after her death, 22 years later.
To battle a debilitating darkness of mind for a lifetime is extraordinarily exhausting and requires incredible bravery just to summon up the strength and the will to keep going. I saw the daily struggle during those periods when Louise was unwell, when her head was, as she described it, so full of a cacophony of destructive and doubting thoughts that it was impossible for her to escape, to switch off.
I saw how much energy this consumed, how it corroded self-belief and led to uncertainty, indecision, and restlessness. I saw and admired Louise’s openness and honesty in confronting the illness and the way in which she sought to take responsibility for it and identified and pursued means of throwing it off. I came to understand how little a part reason or logic could play in soothing such troubles, the futility of rationalization.
I came to learn that mental illness is as real, insidious, and dangerous as any other one that sufferers have no more control over than they would cancer or multiple sclerosis.
And I came to be in awe of Louise’s resilience and fortitude, not only in enduring the illness but fighting back, never allowing it to define or limit her. To be the person that Louise was, to achieve what she did both professionally and personally, even had she been always completely well, would have made her very special. But to do it all despite the recurring illness made her quite remarkable.
That same bravery followed Louise right to the very end. I know, both from conversations beforehand and the content of her farewell letter, that Louise saw what she was doing as a pragmatic answer to her mental torment. In her muddled thinking at the time, she also looked upon it as a means of releasing me from the stress and challenge of a wife with mental illness.
Louise had enough spirit and tenacity to fight the darkness hard, right up to the very last moments. As that episode in Sicily illustrated, her survival instincts remained strong. She didn’t want to die and had no comforting vision or expectation of an afterlife to fall back on – her Christianity always focused on the grace in this life. But having identified what seemed to be a practical solution she acted on it for her sake and, as she thought, for mine.
Here I must split my mind in two. There is no romance or redemption in suicide. It is always messy and tragically wasteful. It leaves loved ones with unique emotional scars. I still cannot easily fully describe what I witnessed. Not because I lack the words but because I am afraid of setting the tightly held memory free to roam. Even though I understand why Louise was driven to take her life, where the bleakness of thought and outlook had led her, and that I understand it was not an act of free will because of the malign power exerted by the illness, I am still taunted by the cruel needlessness of it.
Nevertheless, it is possible, even while loathing the act and the shattering consequences, to recognize the logic that sat behind Louise’s decision and the incredible courage, generosity, and determination it must have taken to arrive at this point and then follow her thought processes through.
We tend not to think of suicide as a rational act. Even here I have talked of Louise’s confusion and muddled thinking. But rationality is the luxury of a healthy mind. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid the grip of darkness are in no real position to sit in judgment on what makes sense from deep within it. Oblivion must appear to be at the very least a viable alternative to life when you are so tortured, know that you have been tortured in the past, and believe that you will go on to experience the same torture over and over again in the future.
Within the context of her illness as it was affecting her at that moment in time, Louise’s desire for escape from the pain was no different to that of somebody with a severe disability who seeks a form of assisted dying.
The tragedy came in the temporary nature of that pain, the certainty of eventual respite if she had only been able to hold on a little longer.
But regardless of how wrong and misguided we – who are well – can see the act to have been, it was a far braver and more selfless thing than I or most of us would ever be capable of. The easy option would have been to continue to try to muddle through but, as always, Louise went a step beyond, to do what she thought was necessary and right. And typically, even during her distress, she was thinking of others, applying herself to what, in her mind, was the best outcome for me and attempting in her last moments to protect me from its immediate impact.
Louise was not, therefore, guilty of weakness, cowardice, or selfishness. On the contrary, she was the strongest and most giving person I have ever been privileged to know. Her determination in her long battle against mental illness and her monumental courage to follow through with such a drastic solution are testament to her remarkable character. Louise died in the way she lived: courageously, practically, and imbued with love and generosity of spirit. Her only fault, it turned out, was that ultimately, she was too brave.
To live a life of meaning is to know that nothing is ever set in stone.
Stones – they can be used to build bridges or be a source of destruction. They can trip us up, placing obstacles in our path, or be the foundation of a new beginning. They can be collected as remembrances of new places we visit and memories we make. They can be polished, smooth, turned into ornaments. They can be rough and jagged, worn down by the elements. They can weigh us down if we try to carry too many of them on our own, a truth we know all too well.
And …they can mark a final resting place. An eloquent monument for a loved one we’ve lost, whose death didn’t have to be. Mother Theresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
We who loved you are the ripples. The continuing legacy to that stone your life cast. And it is in those ripples that we must find you and carry you forward. This headstone will stand for eternity. It is heavy like grief yet strong like the human spirit, it will not wither. Neither is it left untouched by passing storms. It is not where we find you, but where we instead honor you. It is where we come to remember, to cry, to talk, and to feel as if we are with you. As we strive to move forward in a world without you, one where so many others know the same pain that you felt, suffering in silence, and feeling alone, I offer you one last promise:
Your life and death won’t be for nothing nor be without meaning. No stone will be left unturned. No matter how deeply rooted they are in shame or stigma. If even one life can be saved from telling our story, then the ripples of your legacy, your life, and even your loss will be without end.
“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.
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.
August has arrived. After last winter’s cold weather and all the time we spent indoors during the pandemic, summer seemed a welcome friend. Yet it arrived with record-breaking temperatures in so many places. My heart goes out to all who are struggling with the effects of dangerous heat waves.
My father always called this hottest time of the year, the “Dog Days of Summer.” I noticed that Wikipedia refers to it as “the sultry days of summer.” Hmmm …
The term “dog days” originates back with the Romans, who assumed that when the bright star Sirius (known as the “Dog Star”) moved into a heavenly position closer to our planet, it resulted in a hotter summer.
I think the Dog Days are a good time to appreciate and acknowledge all the dogs, cats, and other animals who share our journeys. They accept us at our lowest, listen without judgment, and provide immense comfort. I’ve lost count of the times Alliance of Hope community forum members have posted about their pets, but it’s clear from those posts, that animal friends bring healing equal to – and often more powerful than – any other healing modality. Here are some of their posts:
Our pets bring comfort:
“Since his suicide 6 weeks ago, she has been such a blessing. I feel without her I would be totally alone …. Thank you, God, for my four-footed blessing.”
“When I cry, he licks the tears from my face. He holds his paws around my neck as if he is hugging me.”
“I started telling my troubles to my new horse. I would throw my arms around his big neck and just let it all out. I soak his mane with my tears. …. My dogs also seemed to know that I was so sad. My Borzoi would stand up and put her arms around my neck. Animals know when we need that hug or that listening ear that never judges us or tells us it is time to stop feeling the grief. They just listen and let us hug them and cry.
Our pets grieve with us:
“The funeral for my nephew was held by a creek. All day long their dog had been running around the whole farm area. When the service started, he was still running but as the cremains fell into the spring head and washed over the moss-covered rocks, his running ceased. He came to the creek, stuck his nose in the water to sniff, then lay down on a large rock and stared at the spring head. He stayed fixed and staring and whining, eyes full of pain, until it was over, and we all left.”
And we grieve for them when they cross over:
“My beloved dog went to sleep on Friday and never woke up. I am absolutely heartbroken. I have been through so much with her. She saw me through his suicide, and then the death of my other dog. I feel utterly bereft, all these memories keep hitting me all the time, no respite.”
To be posted VERY LOW on the refrigerator door – nose height.
Dear Dogs and Cats,
The dishes with the paw print are yours and contain your food. The other dishes are mine and contain my food. Please note, placing a paw print in the middle of my plate and food does not stake a claim for it becoming your food and dish, nor do I find that aesthetically pleasing in the slightest.
The stairway was not designed by NASCAR and is not a racetrack. Beating me to the bottom is not the object. Tripping me doesn’t help because I fall faster than you can run.
I cannot buy anything bigger than a king-sized bed. I am sorry about this. Do not think I will continue sleeping on the couch to ensure your comfort. Dogs and cats can curl up in a ball when they sleep. It is not necessary to sleep perpendicular to each other – stretched out to the fullest extent possible. I also know that sticking tails straight out and having tongues hanging out the other end to maximize space is nothing but sarcasm.
For the last time, there is not a secret exit from the bathroom. If by some miracle I beat you there and manage to get the door shut, it is not necessary to claw, whine, meow, try to turn the knob or get your paw under the edge and try to pull the door open. I must exit through the same door I entered. Also, I have been using the bathroom for years – canine or feline attendance is not required.
The proper order is to kiss me, then go smell the other dog or cat’s posterior. I cannot stress this enough!
To pacify you, my dear pets, I have posted the following message on our front door:
To All Non-Pet Owners Who Visit and Complain About Our Pets:
They live here. You don’t.
. If you don’t want their hair on your clothes, stay off the furniture. (That’s why they call it fur-niture.)
I like my pets a lot better than I like most people.
To you, it’s an animal. To me, he/she is an adopted son/daughter who is short, hairy, walks on all fours, and doesn’t speak clearly.
A new study explores bereaved individuals’ satisfaction with social support. Findings indicate that animals can provide the most satisfactory form of support. When asked to rate their perception of support from others, mortuary staff were ranked as being the most effective in providing human-to-human support. Law enforcement, physicians, and hospital social workers were ranked least effective. “Animals were ranked the highest among all forms of social support, which included categories like friends, family, community members, faith leaders, therapists or counselors, support groups, and faith leaders.“ You can read more about the findings of this study here.
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.
I should know a lot about how men grieve. After all, I spent the first 15 years of my career pioneering the psychology of men. My 1984 book, The Secrets Men Keep (Ballantine Books), mapped out previously uncharted paths to men’s hearts, souls and deepest needs.
I was featured regularly on Oprah, Larry King Live, Donahue, PBS, hundreds of network news and talk shows and countless articles on everything “male” in the nation’s largest newspapers and magazines. For 12 years, I traveled the world giving talks about men, men’s workshops, and training programs, consulting with leaders of Fortune 500 companies, and being called upon as an expert on men. And then, my life ended abruptly.
My beloved daughter, Jenna, died violently in 1996 while studying abroad. Racked by more pain than I could possibly handle, I held on for dear life. Searching desperately for answers and for something to hold onto, I immersed myself in the world of grief and loss. I was a drowning man, trying to survive overwhelming pain. My heart shattered into a million pieces. My life derailed. I honestly didn’t know where to turn or if I was even going to make it.
Nothing I’d learned or been through was helping me navigate the darkness, devastation, and feelings of utter helplessness I was encountering on the path of grief. I would need to start all over. Learn to walk, breathe, think, feel, love, surrender, rage, cope, and travel by the dim light of the stars. It took every ounce of raw courage, faith, and patience I had to survive. Receiving support from family and friends was not easy. I was used to being the strong one. Taking care of myself was also a real challenge. I was used to powering through everything – figuring it out and fixing it. This could not be fixed. Learning to decipher between people and things that helped me, and those that drained and depleted me, enabled me to hold on. Slowly, I began to fight my way back into life. To breathe. And to find new strength. But not the way you might expect.
Did it help or hurt that I had undergone 47 years of basic training as a guy?
I’d been taught that emotions (other than anger) were a sign of weakness. Shows of sorrow, confusion, helplessness, and fear would be cause for demotion to a “lesser of a man” status. Tears would be automatic grounds for a significant drop in stature on the male scale. “Be a man!” “Suck it up,” “Get over it” and other clichés borrowed from sports and warfare, were not only useless – they were harmful.
What I needed more than anything was the strength, courage, and permission to grieve. I needed to feel the hurt, helpless, sorrow, brokenness, outrage, and confusion. The macho code of posing and posturing as strong and self-reliant would have been a formula for disaster for me. Hiding, denying, repressing my emotions would have prolonged my pain and deepened my sense of isolation. Distancing myself from my emotions and “shooting the messenger” when sorrow surfaced, would have disconnected me from my humanity. And thwarted my grieving process.
The cultural norm for being a man encourages us to shut down and shut up, less we suffer another loss, our status. Dr. Mike Freidman, the father of Type-A Behavior and one of my mentors, called this “status insecurity.” Is it any wonder that 85% of participants who seek grief support after the death of a child, spouse, or parent, are women? Men who are overwhelmed by the intensity of their grief and defenseless against their own feelings of sorrow, will try to outrun, out-numb, out-busy their way over and around grief. As I learned at one of our first support groups in New York after 9-11, they will even shout down others who are trying valiantly to work through their grief.
A disgruntled husband had come to pick up his wife from support group stuck his head in the room to see if we were done. He was invited by several group members to join in and responded, “No thanks, I know how this stuff works. Misery loves company!” After a brief silence, one of the other wives stood up, looked him in the eye and said, “No sir, you’ve got it all wrong. Hope loves company.”
Taught to hide, deny, repress and outright avoid our feelings, or fake it by telling everyone “I’m fine,” men learn to fool themselves into believing they can just hold their breath or think their way around it. These men become the dumbed down, crusty, diluted version of their former selves. But the debt comes due. Cut off from their feelings, hearts and too often, their loved ones, they wither. As if life after loss wasn’t difficult enough.
Here are a few healthy and effective ways to support a man who you care about through grief:
Ask open-ended questions like “What has it been like for you since losing ___?”
Listen and gently draw him out by asking, “What’s been helping you? Making it harder?” “What are your options?” and “Tell me more.”
Men often find that “doing” some form of activity, like going for a walk, fishing, golfing, working on a project, taking a trip, etc. helps them cope. Consider asking him about, or suggesting, an activity and joining him.
Gently encourage, but don’t push, him to
a) share his feelings of sorrow, anger, confusion, fear, loneliness, etc.
b) be patient, kind, and caring with himself
c) be honest and direct with those in his inner circle and place of work about the kind of support he needs.
Going on is never easy after the loss of a loved one. It takes a strong work ethic, bravery, and a lot of faith to fight one’s way back into life. It also takes courage and humility to admit that we need help and ask for it (“help” is, after all, the least utilized 4 letter word in the male vocabulary). Learning self-care, self-compassion, and that it’s OK to ask for what we need are the things that not only help men grieve but slowly transform their pain back into love and enjoy full lives in the aftermath of loss. Making our lives an expression of love, rather than despair, is a noble quest for any “real man.”
The year 2001 was the worst year of my life. In January, one of my closest friends was admitted to the hospital with a “mild” case of pneumonia. It developed into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). The day before my birthday, she died while I held her hand.
Shock and grief sent the depression I had battled all my life spiraling out of control. The medication I had taken for years no longer seemed to help. The simple act of breathing was physically painful. I wanted the hurt to stop. More than anything, I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. Almost without realizing it, I drifted into planning how I could make that happen.
Why am I telling you this? Because if you are like most survivors, including me, you’ve spent a lot of time agonizing about what you could have said or done to keep your loved one alive.
I have been where our loved ones stood.
I know the tunnel-vision lure of the suicide trance. And I also know that there was nothing anyone could have done to get through to me at that point. Absolutely nothing.
I knew that my family and friends loved me and worried about me. Somehow, my mind twisted their concern, distorting it into the conviction that I was making them miserable, and they’d all be better off after I was gone.
Were they perfect? No, of course not. They were human.
Did they sometimes say the wrong things in their desperation to break through to me? God, yes.
But not one of them said – or could have said — anything wrong enough to push me into suicide nor anything right enough to pull me back from the brink.
I could barely register their words, anyway. All I could focus on was my own all-consuming anguish.
The only reason I survived my suicide trance was sheer dumb luck.
While I was making my plans, I had scoped out a pawnshop that sold handguns and wasn’t too fussy about paperwork or mandatory waiting periods. The night I was ready to act, I took $300 in cash out of my bank account and drove over to the pawnshop … only to find that it had gone out of business.
My tunnel vision was so narrow at that point that it didn’t occur to me that I could go to another pawn shop, and I was too mentally and physically exhausted to think of a different plan. I sat numbly in my car in the parking lot until daybreak. Then I slowly drove to my doctor’s office.
By the end of the year, I had acquired a psychiatrist, a new diagnosis – bipolar disorder – and a new treatment regimen that slowly began to disperse that dark cloud of despair that had shrouded me for so many months.
Looking back on that time in my life now is a little like trying to remember a nightmare in the warm safety of daylight. One thing I cannot forget, however, is the dull resignation of being trapped in a prison of depression with walls so thick that not even love could penetrate them.
If you are still struggling with guilt over your loved one’s suicide, please make today the day that absorbs the knowledge, in your mind and in your heart, that you are not to blame. You did not cause it. You could not have stopped it.
Fairy tales and Hollywood tells us that love is enough to overcome anything. I used to believe that. I don’t anymore. Sometimes the bad things are stronger than love. Sometimes the bad things win. As the song, “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Misérables says so eloquently, “… there are dreams that cannot be / and there are storms we cannot weather.”
It is sad – horribly and tragically sad when depression or another mental illness steals a life. But it is not your fault.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward.” ~Steve Jobs
I posted a quote from Steve Jobs in my status this morning. I thought it was worth explaining the context. It came from a commencement address he gave at Stanford. He explained that he dropped out of college after one semester, (I’m sure much to the dismay of his parents) but continued to hang around and attend free classes that interested him – while sleeping on friend’s floors. He took a calligraphy class just because he thought it was cool. Fast forward to the early years of Apple. He took his calligraphy knowledge and developed the different fonts that are used in all word processing software around the world. It was only looking back that the dots connected any value to a class he’d taken on a whim.
In my mid-40’s I was a content bachelor and comfortable, living out my life as one. During a casual conversation with a lady friend at work, I mentioned how all my attempts at relationships had been disasters. She jokingly said, “Maybe you should try one of those Asian mail order brides”. On a whim, I found a service to connect with Vietnamese ladies and sent out some introductory letters. The culture and family values of Vietnam had always interested me. There was no road map in front of me showing that I would develop a relationship with a wonderful woman and that 7 months later I would be standing terrified in the middle of a Vietnamese wedding. That 4 years later I would hold God’s most precious gift to me, just minutes after Kelly took her first breath of life. That almost 11 years later I would be sobbing and forever broken over her lifeless body.
It’s only looking back that the dots connect. I didn’t have a crystal ball showing me the steps in advance to be a perfect dad to a little girl – or that how her life ended was never within my control.
Before the day is over, I will be re-arranging the dots and doing the “if only” and “should have” and examining my failures as a Dad. But at least for a little while, I will hold on to the understanding that this can only be done looking back. There were no dots to connect, reconnect, or shuffle and reorganize all those years ago. There was a moment in time when on a whim I took a step toward something that interested me – and now, I cannot change the ending … and there’s nothing else I would change.
If no one speaks your name today, I will Kelly. Every day as long as there is breath in my body.
Prince Phillip died yesterday. There was lots of news coverage about it. Although it is inevitable, I am always saddened to see life-long partners separated by death. I have admired Queen Elizabeth for as long as I can remember. And when I read about her husband’s death, there was no question in my mind, that I would send a note. I know there is little chance that she will ever read it, but I wanted to do it – needed to do it.
I think as suicide loss survivors we grow in compassion and courage. That is something we don’t talk about much, but I see it in myself and in so many others in our survivor community. Having experienced the heartbreaking pain of losing a loved one, we understand and are not afraid to reach out to others who are experiencing loss. I think that as a community, we also understand how important it is to express our gratitude and let others know they are appreciated.
So here is the note I sent to the Queen:
“I write to let you know that my heart goes out to your entire family on the death of Prince Philip. Though I have never met any member of your family in person, and though I live across the ocean, it is with great admiration and affection that I have read about and watched the activities of your family over the years.
When I was a child, living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was given a beautiful tin with candy. The tin was adorned with photos of the Queen and the Prince, newly married. Back then, I didn’t fully understand that it was a coronation tin – just that it was very special. I have kept that tin all these years and added others like it to a collection.
As I grew older, I came to admire and understand more about the sense of duty your family has towards the public and how deeply challenging it must have been to live in the eye of the public and the media.
We will most likely never meet, but I send my love to your family and especially to Her Majesty, the Queen. She has been a profound inspiration to me and to so many others.
Hello. The second-year date of my son’s suicide is coming up next week. In light of this, I find myself more sensitized to even the smallest things. Last night, “my” dog slept at the foot of the bed my son used; he hardly ever goes in that room anymore, or not so I have seen. The most poignant incident is my son’s best friend’s mentioning that she is “beginning to forget the little things about him”.
Of course, there is beauty in remembering the “big accomplishments and the amazing generosity he showed to everyone,” for example, BUT I find myself the keeper of the little things. They are stuck to me like those hooked seed casings known as hitchhikers; they seem to pop open at a moment’s notice when a memory is evoked. There is no expectation that anyone other than myself will keep remembering all of the little and big parts of who my son was. It is just a reminder of time’s passing for everyone else and time’s slow pace for me. Maybe it’s all part of a mother’s job; if he were alive, I probably would be helping plan a wedding or other major event which would include lots of little details.
I have made progress on the journey back into life, but this month is one of accepting myself for as far as I have gone and not worrying about how far I decide I need to go. People are not as patient with me as they once were, but I put on my armor and ignore them. I think that is a huge step for me, in and of itself. This is my “Fault in Our Stars” to live through… As my garden grows in this wet and wild spring weather, I realize that once a mother has put that much love and effort into nurturing an infant to a child to young adulthood, her son or daughter is part of her forever. ALL parts. The commitment does not end with death.
So, ask me a question about something “little” and I am sure I will have a story to tell.