This year will mark the twelfth Christmas without my husband. I think one of the things that made his suicide so unbelievable was that he had always been so incredibly strong. In mind and in body. Even the strong and the brave, the gentle and the good can lose hope and the will to live. I would not have been so shocked if his heart had given out though a brain is no more indestructible than a human heart. In a way, his heart did give out first though not without a long and hard-fought battle.
I never say my “late” husband. I don’t think of him as gone or late. If anything, he left too soon. And the influence his life had on mine was so powerful it is still there. Seeing the world through his eyes is something that continues to be a part of me. In many ways, he made me who I am. People have that effect on one another, and I don’t expect that to change. We grew so close that when he died, part of me died, too.
I suspect it is that way with each of you and the ones you loved. For those of you who are in the early years of loss, know that you are not alone and that you can survive. For you who are further from your deepest grief, know you are living proof that it is possible to go beyond just surviving to thrive and rebuild a life, “to have happy, meaningful and contributory lives,” as Ronnie Walker, Alliance of Hope’s founder says.
I like to read about the history and mission of the Alliance of Hope, where I volunteer. It makes me feel that my small part in something that makes a difference in the world is a worthy tribute to my husband. It helps me face the holidays (and every day) with joy as well as memories that are bittersweet.
I lost my beloved husband but not what he means to me. He is always present. Always loved. Always an influence for good.
The people we have lost are not defined by the way that we lost them, and neither are we.
In fall and winters past, we would gather in the upstairs family room that has a fireplace and hang out there. We would usually shut off the heat in the house as the fire was plenty warm enough (and we hate forced hot-air heat!). Sometimes, we would camp out on the floor and sleep in front of the fire, but when we did venture back to the bedroom, it was cooooolddddd! We used to try to jump into bed under the covers simultaneously, and if one of us had to make a pit-stop on the way, the other would cry out, “Holding! Holding! Holding!” to call the other to warm up the sheets.
I haven’t had any fires yet this year as I need a fireplace repair first. They are coming next Monday. I will surely cry the first fire I make … this was a nightly ritual for us, and on weekends we would keep the fire burning continuously from Friday night until Sunday night.
Well, regardless of where I set the thermostat now, I have been freezing every day and every night. I cried the other night when I recalled the cries for HOLDING when jumping into the cold sheets.
I mentioned to my sister-in-law (husband’s sis) that I thought I needed an electric blanket, but she told me about her electric mattress pad and claimed it was “the bomb”. Yesterday, I took one of my many Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons and went to buy one. I put it on the bed last night and set it to pre-heat while I was getting bath and bed done with my son. I went to bed shortly after, and ahhhhhhhhhhh… what a warm and snuggly feeling. After my body caught up and was warm too, I shut off my side of the bed and set my husband’s side to low, I’d slide over to that side if I got cold again.
Well, I think it’s the first time I slept through the WHOLE night in over eight months … and deeply and dreamlessly too. Kind of poignant, but I guess that’s part of moving forward, right?
It will be seven years in December since our beloved daughter, Buttercup, left us via suicide for higher realms than this. We scattered her ashes in the Four Directions and buried what was left on our family farm, next to both sets of her great-grandparents. My original intention had been to bury her next to my older son’s dog in the tiny woods near the creek. She dearly loved that dog, the gentle Pitbull who thought she was a human being.
My mother protested, saying Buttercup should be buried close to the house, next to the ancestors. I relented, and we then buried her next to them, in a tiny grove of birch and pine. We soon buried her beloved dog beside her within a year, thinking we would also be laid to rest next to them one day.
This scenario was not meant to be. Shortly afterward, a deep rift developed in the family over selling the property which contained the gravesites. I was compelled into digging up Buttercup’s and her dog’s remains and re-burying them in a public graveyard two hours from our home. Yet in the back of my mind, I wished I had done as I wanted to in the first place, to bury Buttercup’s ashes next to my son’s dog, on another part of the property.
I had retained some of Buttercup’s ashes, along with some of her dog’s ashes, thinking my sons might want to do something special with them in time. But I decided on Thursday while driving home from work, that I didn’t want to leave them with any hard decisions in the future when I might no longer be here myself. I made the decision to bury all the ashes before the snow fell and the ground froze too hard to dig into. I wept thinking of it all – of once again letting go of the only remaining physical aspect of Buttercup. She was and is such a shining Light and I miss her so very much. But I knew I would be doing what she would have wanted me to do in the first place, and this would bring us both Peace.
Yesterday, it snowed here, over two inches, and I was concerned we might have missed our chance to complete the burial. It was nearing dusk when we finally arrived at the farm and gathered our small family group together in the little woods. A large tree had fallen near the gravesite of our son’s dog, and much of the foliage was overgrown around it as well. It felt powerfully serene though, in the middle of towering and ancient white pines, with the creek softly babbling nearby.
My older son dug the hole, next to the small wooden cross my grandson had made to mark his beloved dog’s gravesite. He then combined Buttercup’s and her dog’s ashes together, and we all took turns placing the dirt over them. My son tenderly made a small heart of leaves over the new gravesite. I read a beautiful and moving poem by John Roedel, as the sleet began to fall suddenly and crisply. We all embraced in one large loving hug to remember Buttercup and her two best dog friends, now together once more. I cried a bit, but I also felt a welcome relief, knowing Buttercup had come full circle back to where she belonged and needed to be.
When I lost my son, Josh, to suicide in 2001, I wasn’t sure I would survive. Other survivors reached out to me in those early months and years, providing hope and that was so important. Many years have passed since then, and my pain has softened, but I still remember the searing and raw emotions of early grief and know you may be feeling that now.
They say that grief is a journey. I believe that is a good way to describe it. There are many things I have learned along the way, and I would like to share some of them with you. I have a strong suspicion that you also will relate to much of what I have learned.
I have learned compassion. My “old self” was so busy, I never really noticed others around me. Now I do. I even notice when strangers are unhappy. I feel for them and try to make the moment better for them, to bring them peace and comfort.
I’ve learned tolerance. Little things that used to seem so big to me, are now just a speck of dust. I’ve been through the worst event possible, so anything else should be a walk in the park. The ups and downs of everyday life, the disappointments when things don’t go as planned – well, they just don’t seem to matter anymore. Life goes on and I intend to live it to the fullest and not sweat the small stuff.
I’ve learned empathy. I can look into another person’s eyes now, or read a post on the Alliance of Hope forum, and feel the pain that person is feeling. Knowing how someone is hurting lets me offer comfort and caring.
I’ve learned to love. Without restriction, without rules, but with my whole heart and soul. I’m a much nicer person now than I was when my son died.
I’ve learned faith. It gets me through each day. The faith that all things happen for a reason, that there is a better place when life is over, and the faith that I will see not only my beautiful son again but all the others I have lost over the years as well.
I have learned these things because of my son, Josh. I miss him terribly, but I know I will see him again and I talk to him every day. I love him deeply, and I regret that he felt he had no option other than suicide. I understand the depth of his despair, and my heart aches with him.
For those just starting on this journey through grief, I hope this gives you hope. Life will go on, and if you learn from the experience, it will be a fulfilling and peaceful life again – just different from what you thought it would be before you lost your precious loved one.
This autumn is the tenth one without my husband. I have entered a new kind of “after.” The seasons seem to insist on moving on; the protective shock, pain and active grieving I experienced for a decade are different now, too. This new path is leading me to new places.
I feel like an old oak tree. My gnarled branches reach out further than I ever expected. My leaves that sheltered growing children have turned different colors and fallen to the ground though grandchildren still adore those interesting, crackly playthings.
The many layers of grief I’ve moved through once compelled me to focus on suicide, the causes, the effects, the questions with no answers, and the most difficult work of manufacturing hope. I felt like my life was the “suicide channel,” all suicide, all the time. After that, I found the place on the map where I had to confront the depths of the loss itself and grieve the many parts of that.
I’ve passed through periods of numbness, forgetfulness, and uncertainty when making decisions – even big, life-altering decisions that came to be filed under the category of “had to be done, ready or not.”
Through all of it, for better or for worse, I found my husband’s memory and his love were still there. They traveled with me. The love we shared was still alive in my heart, even when I came to a place called Acceptance. I danced around the edges of that spot a great deal before making some kind of peace with the entire situation.
Now, I no longer feel the need to talk about suicide with friends new or old. I drift on the sea of new life, aware that the opportunity to comfort someone, somewhere will come again. And I do consider it an opportunity now, an honor.
Meanwhile, I live. Not like I would have lived if suicide had not entered my life. No. Not like I would have grieved another kind of loss. But with hope that has taken root and grown up all around me, supporting me in the darkness of night, celebrating with me in the coolness of the morning.
I have unpacked some of the things I used to hold onto and cast them aside. I’ve made new priorities. That doesn’t mean I love my husband any less than I did on the day he died. What it does mean is that I’m healing from the terrible hurt and trauma of losing him to suicide or at all.
When I remember my husband, it is with a comforting closeness. Sometimes that’s not enough, but his death has given me a new awareness of life, its precious nature, and its gifts. We still walk along side by side, he on his side of the universe and I on mine. There is contentment there…and sometimes pain. If I am the only one carrying that love, that’s okay; that’s an honor and an opportunity for me to share what he meant to me.
Life – anyone’s life – is like that, full of opposites. Loss – anyone’s loss – is a challenging path through the wide unknown. Sometimes, we have to watch the seasons turn before we are ready, and sometimes the day feels like it will never get done. Sometimes, we don’t even have anywhere to live, anyone to hold onto.
I’ve been in all those places. And beyond. I don’t know what other layers there are yet to find and work through, but I can only try to meet their challenges, one day at a time. Just as I did at the beginning.
Editor’s Note: Maria Sallese, who lost her son Mario, submitted the following essay to her local newspaper last year. We have asked her permission to reprint her words here. Thank you, Maria, for your commitment to lessening the stigma around mental illness and suicide.
“The month of September is recognized nationwide as Suicide Prevention month and September 10th is recognized as World Suicide Prevention Day. Having lost my child to suicide, the slogans surrounding this month have their pangs. The ones declaring ‘Suicide Is Preventable’ tend to leave many who’ve lost a loved one to suicide feeling at fault for not being able to save their person.
I could not prevent my son from taking his life and I cannot say with firm resolve that suicide IS preventable. In some cases, it is, but I don’t believe it can be said as a matter of fact for all. Still, I believe the ultimate message of the campaigns is important, and equally so are the efforts of raising awareness of this crisis.
According to the CDC:
More than 47,500 people in the United States died by suicide in 2019 (about 1 death every 11 minutes)
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10-34, the fourth among people 34-54, and the fifth among people 45-54.
Of equal importance, I believe, is raising awareness of the fact that mental health illness is as real as any other and one that we should speak openly and unashamedly about. Our doing so will help remove the stigma, encouraging others to do the same, while supporting those in need of help to be unafraid and unashamed to ask. I believe that is a step toward prevention and it is where I hope to lend my voice.
I will never be anything less than proud of my son. Behind his loud presence and raw sense of humor, he struggled with anxiety and depression – but how he died will never define who he was. His life was large and his love was deep.
In sharing his story I wish to convey this message. It’s okay to say that you’re not okay and asking for help is always brave and courageous. You matter and you make a difference. You are loved and the world will always be a better place with you in it.”
Since writing A Different Kind of Same about losing my brother to suicide, I’ve had the privilege of talking to a couple of book clubs. Yesterday I did a Q&A with one over the internet. It was a great group of women who were friendly and engaged. They had prepared insightful questions and made me feel welcome, even though I was kind of awkward and super nervous. I can’t shake the belief that I’m rubbish in person. I think a lot of writers feel this way. Like, I’m happy to respond to any questions you have; just give me six months to write 15 drafts of my answer. But overall (I think) I managed to sound coherent. Until one woman asked, “How do you deal with the feelings of guilt and helplessness?”
That shut me right up.
You see, this club lost one of its members to suicide last year. They were right there in it, in the messiest, stickiest part of grief.
I floundered. There were a lot of “Ummmm,” and “Wow, that’s a good question,” and a few ramblings about grief as evidence of deep love. I finally said I needed more time to think about it and asked if I could email them my response. “I want to give you guys a really good answer,” I said.
The problem was that I already knew the answer, and I was worried that it was crappy. Nearly 12 years out from my own loss, I still want to believe there’s something we can do to escape all that pain. There should be a handbook, a manual, or at least a list of helpful suggestions. I know there are a few things we can try: We can read books about grieving; we can talk to our friends and family about what we’re feeling; we can pray, or meditate, or go for walks in quiet places; we can volunteer with suicide prevention efforts. These are all things I did, and they helped, some. But the truth is that the only way to deal with guilt and helplessness is to feel them, to let them soften us, to let them be part of our grief, and to be as gentle with ourselves as possible.
It’s awful. It’s really, really uncomfortable. It hurts. It takes a long time. And it isn’t fair.
All last night I pouted and grumbled about it. I didn’t want to be the bearer of this bad news. I wanted to be the hero, the sage, the one who knows where all the land mines are buried in the field of grief and, most important, how to dig them up safely. Then I remembered a quote that one of the other women shared at the end of our meeting, from the author Marianne Williamson.
“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.”
And I realized, “Who am I to stop anyone’s knees from hitting the floor?” The intent — to decrease someone’s suffering —is pure, but the action robs survivors of the validation their grief needs. The most powerful, most helpful thing I know to do is to tell the truth, even when it isn’t what I want it to be. I also remembered that when you stop trying to chase away the guilt and the hopelessness, they have room to become kindness and compassion. When you give them space, they can lead you to empathy and love.
Your knees are going to hurt like hell. You’re going to think you might never stand up again. But you will.
Two months ago I welcomed an eight-week-old puppy into my home. Her name is Magnolia Blossom. “Maggie,” for a favorite E. E. Cummings poem, and “Blossom,” because that’s what beautiful things do.
I also have a thirteen-year-old dog. Her name is Betsy and she truly was the apple of my son’s eye. She surrounded him with love every day and he showered her with the same. I can look at certain photos of him wrapped in her embrace and see her willingness to be the vessel to take on his sorrow. The tilt in her head says, “Leave it all here with me,” and, in the heaviness of his posture, I know that he did. There’s no doubt in my mind that his time here was made longer on account of her love. She’s an amazing girl, and throughout my grief, my constant companion. She’s sat with me through my darkest of days and walked a countless number of miles with me those first two years. She never leaves my side, still. Age has slowed her steps, but not her unconditional love. She’s also grieved this loss. I recognize it at times in our similar and somewhat somber demeanor.
While I take great refuge in the sound of silence, I also miss the sound of joy in my home. The sounds of the living and everyday life… my laughter, my son’s laughter, Betsy’s happy feet jumping about on the floor.
The arrival of the new puppy brings a sense of joy back to my life and I see that for Betsy, too. For her, I see a returned pep-in-her-step as she prances about with a toy in her mouth. She can’t keep up with the speed of the little one, but she walks in a showing-off fashion with her toy held high as if to say, “Sure, she’s cute, but can she do this?!” She’s patient, kind, and incredibly tolerant of Maggie’s puppy shenanigans. She was born to be a mentor and Maggie follows her everywhere. We all need purpose and Betsy seems to have found a renewed sense of one having Maggie under her wing.
And then there’s me. I watch Maggie experience things for the first time and, through her eyes, I’m reminded to look at things for the simple joys they bring. She chases her shadow to the fence as though she can coral it and it reminds me of being a kid trying to catch my own. She stops and stares to the sky at the sound of a bird or a plane flying overhead and I’m reminded how beautiful it is to simply stand and look to the sky. She watches the wind rustle the trees and tosses her head while she tilts her nose up as though she might land the breeze. She loves to go for walks and she trots down the sidewalk with such poise. She’s so confident in her steps and I wish to find the same in my own. I can’t wait to take her for her first hike, first swim, her first visit to the ocean. She’s so full of wonder.
She’s already associated the ringtone on the alarm clock to be get-up-and-go-time, so the fun for her repeatedly begins every morning with a joyful energy that has her licking my face as if to say, “It’s a new day-hurry, hurry, getup-it’s a new day!!”, and nothing wakes you up with a smile quite like having your ears licked.
And her excitement wakes Betsy. She might not have the oomph to jump on the bed anymore, but her wiggly behind and wagging tail thump her happy drum roll on the wall. I watch them play together and I can’t resist sitting on the floor and letting them drag me in. It brings out my own joyful laughter. A sound I’ve not heard in my own voice, and a sound I’ve not heard in my home, for almost three years.
And somehow the sound of my son’s laughter comes to return with my own.
New survivors of suicide loss often wonder if healing is even possible. And they fear that “being okay” equates to the death of their loved ones being okay. (Not true). Recently I talked to a group of long-term survivors about healing – what it is, how it looks, and how we navigate it. They generously shared insights about how their lives had changed over time, which I share now with you.
One survivor said: “Healing for me was the slow return of my senses. When I could actually begin to see, smell, taste, hear, and feel again. When the love I feel for my son was more in balance again with the love I feel for others.”
Another survivor, who also lost a son, described healing as when you can talk about the person and/or the way they died without falling apart or experiencing anxiety. “Healing is when their death doesn’t have a negative influence on your day-to-day living or occupy your thoughts 24/7, when memories aren’t met with tears, and when seeing/touching their belongings doesn’t bring you to your knees. Anniversaries aren’t filled with the same level of anxiety as before, and memories don’t hover in the back of your mind all the time to jump out when least expected.”
The earliest signs of healing may go unnoticed. Eating, washing/styling hair, wearing makeup, leaving the house, not having a panic attack, not crying during the day – all are signs of healing. As time passes thoughts turn to “Now what?” Sometimes our children move us forward. “I found myself seeking ways to return to life and living, venturing out, joining a widows’ club, planning ahead a little, and envisioning a future. I tried harder and wanted to return to life.”
What is healing? I asked the group. “When you can laugh again. Giving yourself permission to be happy. When you can see joy in your life. When you can function without your every thought being about your loved one. It is realizing you will always miss them but you can go on living a decent life.”
Three to five years out from the loss brought a “real shift” for a woman who lost her husband. “Truly believing I could still have a happy future, I toyed with the idea of another relationship. I no longer felt my kids were in danger and saw they could have a happy future, too.”
In another couple of years, the widow continued, the kids are finally grown up and independent. “My focus was no longer just on them. I know for a fact I will and have survived. Confident that we are over the worse, I have a sense of pride and accomplishment in how we’ve coped and what we have achieved.” Despite a “Mega What Now?” moment, another feeling triumphs: the best is yet to come.
The theme of joy kept coming up in the conversation. “Healing is accepting you will miss the person you lost forever but realizing you will have joy and happiness in life. It is a duality. That is a word I have heard recently and it resonates with me. The biggest part of healing for me is that when a grief wave creeps up, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I will survive. I know it will pass and joy and happiness will reign. I know it for a fact. That is true healing.”
Muscle memory. It’s an amazing thing. It’s what keeps my fingers playing “Fur Elise” on the piano long after I stopped taking lessons. It’s the pressure I sense in the crook of my elbow from linking arms with my late husband. It’s why every time I go for a walk I feel the pull of the leash from my dog, Elvis, even though he too is gone.
Muscle memory holds on to real memories. And each time my muscle memory kicks in I want to link arms with my husband, play Beethoven on the piano, and walk my dog.
Two years after my husband Victor died by suicide my 18-year-old Shih Tzu Elvis died. He was an old dog, plagued by a chronic UTI and crippled by arthritis – most “walks” were in a doggy carriage. But his heart was strong, he wagged his tail, ate like a pig, loved car rides – and when he was having a good day, he still ran down the street toward home.
Until he didn’t.
His decline in the last 6 months was steady, but luckily, the end was quick. And, luckily for me, I didn’t have to make The Decision. He made it for me. Within 12 hours he stopped walking, eating, and wagging his tail. He was done trying and he was done struggling and he was just done. I’m glad I recognized it. As heartbreaking as it was, I let him go peacefully and on his own terms.
It’s still tough, as anyone who has lost a beloved pet knows. Between muscle memory, habit, and unconditional love, the death of a pet leaves a huge hole in the heart and in the home.
I always knew that my dog Elvis was the cushion that softened the edges of grief after Victor died. Elvis became my buddy and constant companion. I talked to him, shopped for him, took him everywhere I could, and went above and beyond to keep him healthy. And, as he got older, I didn’t plan anything or go anywhere without considering the impact it would have on him.
And you know what? I could say the same thing about the last years of my husband’s life. The caretaker role that I experienced with my older dog was familiar to me. I slipped seamlessly from caring for my husband as he struggled with depression to caring for my dog in his old age.
Victor’s decline was also steady. And, as he went deeper into his darkness, I didn’t make any decisions, go anywhere, or plan anything without thinking of how it would affect him.
I worked hard to get my husband help and keep him positive and hopeful, healthy, and alive. But it turned out that he too was done trying. He was tired of struggling. Of living with his pain. On good days, I try to respect his decision to end his life, on bad days, I replay what I might have done differently.
I’m not comparing the loss of my dog to that of my husband. The yardstick breaks when one tries to measure grief. But love is love, connection is connection, and emotions run deep no matter what the loss. When Victor died, the love I poured into his life emptied into the love I gave my little dog. And that love for my dog supported me through the most difficult days of my life as I grieved my husband.
Elvis was my pal, my companion, the cute little face I woke up to each morning, a source of laughter, and the reason to get out of bed and go outside. He was four paws of hope during the COVID lockdown. And there’s almost no better way to start a conversation with a passerby than to have a cute little dog by your side, or even better, riding in a “baby” carriage.
And then the dog died.
That wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. After the catastrophic loss of my husband, I wanted a break, a time to catch my breath before the next calamity occurred – a break measured ideally in decades. But the smooth sailing I thought I was entitled to after Victor’s death, the one where there are no upheavals or catastrophes, capsized when Elvis died. It’s a heavy reminder that as much as we think we deserve a break, there is no guarantee that we’ll get one. Or for how long.
Muscle memory. It’s not only physical, it’s also emotional. Physical muscle memory is triggered by an action, emotional muscle memory by a memory: a photograph of a loved one, the smell of rain, a visit to a former home – or the death of a loved one.
It’s been almost a year since Elvis died and over three years since Victor took his life. When Elvis died not only did I grieve his death, but thanks to emotional muscle memory, the pain of my husband’s death, the exhaustion, the confusion, the despair, the sadness – all came roaring back.
But something else returned too. My emotional muscle memory reminded me of what I needed to do to help myself. My previous loss, in essence, coached my current loss. I wasn’t starting over with grief. I knew the drill. I recognized the pitfalls and how to sidestep them and that I would be ok.
Physical muscle memory may be the reminder of the sweet moments in your past, but it will be the emotional muscle memory that will guide you into the future. Never forget that.
I have learned that as a survivor, I can be whole again.
On December 2, 2010, the man I loved to distraction sent a text message to three people saying that life was too difficult. He turned off his phone, went out on the front porch, and shot himself. In the two years that have followed, I have learned a great deal about surviving suicide.
In the early months following his death, I was in excruciating pain … all of the time. I felt like a fish hooked deeply and painfully. No amount of writhing or maneuvering could free me from that pain. I wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t. I tried drinking, but drinking just made me sadder. Nothing brought relief. When I tried to think of what my future was going to be, I was overwhelmed by sadness and fear, and revulsion for a life I didn’t want. Someone (actually, Ronnie Walker) told me not to think about the future – it was excellent advice. She told me to just try to get by minute by minute until I could handle hour by hour. Two years later, I am able to think weeks or even months out, but trying to plan years out just depresses me. I have learned that’s ok, I only have to do what I can.
Several months after his death, the terrible pain started to ease. I thought I was returning to normal. When you’ve been so far down, each little improvement feels like a huge move up. Other people also saw the improvement, and some felt like I was back to my old self. But I was not normal. I have learned that normal if it returns, takes a long, long time. And that however long it takes, you have to accept that and work within your new limitations to get through.
I have seen that tiny disappointments can now result in emotional meltdowns and days and days of depression. My resiliency is not what it was. I had always been cheerful and optimistic, but eventually after the loss, to protect myself against disappointment, I began to imagine the worst and plan for it. I wasn’t obsessing about the worst; I was just preparing for it. If the worst didn’t happen, it was a relief instead of a crushing disappointment. Viewing the world that way works against my natural personality, but it allows me to function. Some people find it disturbing, especially if they knew me before, but I’ve learned to do what works for me.
I have learned that those who have not survived cannot be expected to understand what survivors are going through. People may be cruel, or they may be kind. In the early days, I reacted much too strongly to well-intentioned but ignorant people. Perhaps my reactions taught them something, but probably not. Now I’ve learned not to listen to the opinions of those who don’t know, and I’ve learned to tell them firmly (but I hope not rudely) that I hope they never have to know what they are talking about.
On this grief journey, I have changed. I was an outgoing, bubbly, optimistic person who loved life and truly believed that no matter how bad things looked, they would work out somehow. Now I know that terrible things can happen, and you may not be able to stop them. I used to believe my strength would allow me to absorb blows and move forward without being crippled by them. Now I know I can be brought to my knees in pain, but still rise up and live each day. And I have learned that even if you don’t really love all of life, there are still moments of great joy to be found that make it worthwhile.
I have learned that grief is selfish. When you are grieving, you cannot be the good friend and thoughtful daughter or sister or parent that you once were. I found the expectations and needs of others, however much they loved me, to be a burden. And for a while, that’s ok. But you do have to work back to thinking of others at some point. And I have learned that getting in touch with gratitude helps with that. Counting whatever blessings you can find helps heal you. This may feel like hard work, but trust me, without gratitude you won’t survive as a whole person.
And I have learned that as a survivor, I can be whole again. Perhaps I’m not the bubbly, outgoing, optimistic, and resilient me that I was, but still a whole person. I may never have the life I wanted, but I am learning to accept the life I have and truly appreciate the good parts of it.
I am still on this journey. I can make the adjustments I need to make to compensate for the scars that I bear. I can contribute to the world around me. I can return the love that others give me. And I have learned that I can have wonderful moments that would not have seemed possible two years ago, and the only way to have them is to keep surviving.
In the final scene of the musical Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton reflects on her life and on the life of her husband Alexander. In a beautiful tribute, she sings “Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Tells Your Story?” I am always moved by that song. To me, it drives home the importance of stories as acknowledgment, inspiration, and guides for living.
In listening to the stories of those who have journeyed before us, we grow and gain wisdom. In sharing our stories we empower others and provide hope.
In the weeks and months after my stepson Channing ended his life, dozens of people shared their stories with me. Their words pierced through the isolation and reassured me. Knowing others had survived similar losses, gave me hope. Now – 26 years later – I’d like to share my story with you. It is a story that reflects archetypal themes of human loss and renewal, as old as womankind.
Of course, there was a before and after …
Back in 1995, weeks before my stepson, Channing, ended his life, I knew where my life was going. I had just accepted a job as director of quality assurance for a child welfare agency. I was set to transform a dysfunctional organization and had no doubt I could do it. I could articulate my vision, produce results, and had a whole bunch of transformational tools in my pocket.
Following Chan’s death, all bets were off. I was catapulted onto a journey I didn’t expect. The path was filled with debilitating grief, symptoms of PTSD, and fractured relationships.
In the weeks after Chan died, my emotions were unpredictable – just as they are for most new survivors. Anxiety, guilt, and despair were constant companions. I couldn’t focus at work. My 10-year marriage began to falter and then, five months later, it failed. Although I was a clinical mental health counselor, nothing in my traditional training provided a context for what I was experiencing. When I began to feel suicidal myself, I did not know how common it was for survivors of suicide loss to feel suicidal in the aftermath. I found that taking “one day at a time” was too much for me. At one point, with the help of family and friends, I lived two hours at a time.
In the initial months and years following my loss, there were many dark days. Looking back now, I can see that healing was taking place, even though I lacked consciousness of that at the time.
About five years passed before I began to feel an interest – or a calling to contribute. I believe that most people experience something similar, at some point in their healing journey. It can show up like a very subtle growing interest or a yearning to participate with the world in some way that makes a meaningful difference.
I experienced a yearning to work with those who had experienced traumatic loss and in particular, survivors of suicide loss. Back then there was little online support for suicide loss survivors. There were a few websites – mostly filled with statements like “You never get over it. You just learn to live with it. You’ve joined the club no one wants to join.”
I understood why people made those statements – especially after losing a child or close family member – but I wanted to add something more hopeful, so in 2008, I launched the Alliance of Hope to offer information, friendship, and hope to other survivors. I wrote about the possibility of being forever altered, of growing wiser and stronger on the journey through grief, and the possibility of even eventually making a meaningful difference as a result of one’s loss.
Looking back now, it’s remarkable that anyone ever found the first website I built. Initially, allianceofhope.org was number 10,000 in a Google search! Yet survivors found us. They came, first in a trickle and then, in a steady stream. Today our forum hosts more than 21,000 loss survivors and we have expanded to serve survivors in numerous other ways.
Having told you a bit of my story, I want to return for a moment to what I said earlier. My story – my journey – is most valuable when seen from the perspective of the archetypical human story of loss and renewal. I believe the themes, rather than the content of my story are what is important. I suggest to you that those themes are at play now, both in the specific suicide loss you have experienced, and, whenever we experience sudden and traumatic upheavals.
In my story …
A tragic, unexpected event occurred. Life as I knew it altered. I was catapulted into unknown territory and a challenging path. In the early days, it was all I could do to put one foot in front of another. It was a very dark time for me. I was unable to feel touched or moved or inspired by anything in life. At one point, I even wondered if my soul had died.
In my story, as in most everyone’s story, eventually, I began to emerge from the darkness. I found myself, not just in a “new normal” as we often say, but also stronger and wiser about life. And like tens of thousands of other people who have traveled this journey, I wanted to use what I had gone through to help others.
I encourage you …
If you are in a very dark place right now, reach out for hope by connecting with others who have been there too and who have survived – people who understand the journey you are on. Check out the Alliance of Hope forum if you need support. Our community is kind, welcoming, and compassionate.
With time, griefwork, and a community of support, the initial devastating pain usually does diminish, allowing for more and more moments of peace, and even joy. You will never stop loving, missing, or being influenced by your loved one and by their life and their death – yet you will also grow stronger and wiser and quite possibly, begin to feel a call to make a meaningful difference out of the loss you experienced.
Eventually, you might want to do something in the realm of suicide prevention or postvention, but you don’t have to. And while you may feel called to do something in honor of or in memory of your loved one, it doesn’t have to be that either. Each of us is an expression of the eternal. We each bring some special contribution to the buffet of life.
There is no need to rush any of this or to worry about whether a calling will come. It usually does. Post-traumatic growth, as they call it these days, is one natural outcome of the journey.
As you continue to heal and make a difference in ways that are important to you, please know, that you are not alone on the journey. I hold you and all who are grieving in my heart.
Three months after our son died back in May 2019, I called my friend’s sister whose son had tragically died the year before.
“How long will it take before I stop crying every day?” I asked.
“It takes a while,” she said.
I told her about the aqua t-shirt hanging in my closet, unworn, tags still on it. I’d purchased it just weeks before our world exploded. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to wear it given our new reality. I might as well donate it, I mused.
On the front was a sailboat and three words: Life Is Good.
“Life Is Good,” the company that sells apparel, donates 10% of its profits to a foundation that helps kids. I love supporting them.
But I felt the sentiment would never define my life again. How could it?
“I promise you’ll wear it one day, “Jen assured. “And when you do, I want you to take a selfie and send it to me.”
Sure enough, a few months later, I went camping and wore the shirt. Granted, I cried off and on during campfire time and a few other moments. But it was a start.
Over the course of the next two years, I’ve literally worn the shirt out. For Christmas this past year, I asked my husband for a new one. To make shopping easier, I sent him a link to the website with two shirts sporting turtles (my fave!) and two color choices. He bought both.
I’m wearing one of them today. Truth is, life is hard without our son. Very hard. But it’s still good. Very good.
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.
Two years have passed since the day my daughter Kelly ended her life. That day was the most horrific day I will ever experience. Along with the pain, anguish and confusion were feelings I can never possibly articulate. I was completely lost, disoriented, and hopeless. At 4:00 a.m. the morning after I put my wife on a plane to Asia I got in the car and drove 2,600 miles to my mom’s house, stopping only for fuel, coffee, and two hours of restless sleep when I recognized I was becoming dangerous for the other people on the highway.
Looking back, I believe I thought I could outrun this nightmare, and if I could make it home, my mom would fix it somehow. She had died two months prior, but somehow, she would make it OK, as she had so many times before. After the first night, I understood I could never outrun the reality, and Mom could not fix this.
As the reality of everything slowly began to sink in, the pain that I thought could never possibly get worse … did. More anguish. No sleep. Serious thoughts of ending my own life. Repeat.
But life is a strange thing. Other pieces of reality began to intrude on my thoughts, including financial responsibilities. Two months later I dragged myself back to work, detesting every minute of every day. I saw that other people were going on about their lives like they always did. How could they not understand that the world had ended?
At some point, Life began to seep back in – very much against my will. One day I spoke more than three words to a co-worker. I had a short conversation that wasn’t work-related and smiled a little bit. On another day, my wife and I shared a genuine laugh and didn’t feel guilty. I was moving forward imperceptibly, almost like a glacier.
Many people say the second year is worse than the first. For me it was just a different kind of bad. Nothing can compare with the blackness of the early days and months. I still carried the pain and anguish, but I began to function again. I took on more responsibilities at work and eventually started managing people again. There were nights my wife didn’t sob while I did my best to console her with my own broken heart. We went out to dinner for the first time. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but there were interesting moments. Sometime around 18 months the understanding came to me. This is the way things are and always will be. What happened to Kelly cannot be undone. I will never see her again in this world. It was another heartbreaking but necessary realization.
The comparison has been made, rightfully so, to suicide being the equivalent of a bomb going off for the survivors. There is just a shattered shell of the building left standing. But nature begins to perform its magic. A tiny seed sprouts and begins to grow. Vines start creeping up the walls. A bird builds a nest in the corner and the first tiny flower blooms. The wreckage will always be visible, but maybe something beautiful will grow around it.
I enter the third year at least 10 years older than my biological age and 70 pounds lighter. And that’s OK. I don’t have an appetite for food, but I’m beginning to have a little appetite for life. Kelly lives in a way I can’t comprehend. She steers my life in ways I often don’t understand until time has passed. I heard her voice in the early days; four important things I needed to know that only she could tell me. She was silent after that but made her presence known in other ways. Two days ago, I saw a magnificent sunset and I heard her again. Her voice was a whisper but unmistakably Kelly. “I’m still here Dad”. Yes, you are kid, and you always will be.
If you have recently lost a loved one to suicide and entered the darkness that only survivors understand, my heart breaks for you. It’s impossible to believe now, but you will not always feel this way. Take the next breath, the next step, the next day.
As survivors, we will always carry the pain, but it can be carried along with beautiful memories. As strange as it may sound, pain can coexist with happiness. Life will seep back in. It’s OK to let it happen.
To everyone in this wonderful Alliance of Hope (AOH) family, you have my gratitude and love. Wishing you peace, and may God bless you all.
It started like this: I found the Alliance of Hope Forum a few weeks after my son Ian died. I posted my story and right away received kind and gentle words. This was my first experience with an online group. I didn’t know what to expect and was grateful to find people who understood my experience and didn’t ask questions. They offered what worked for them and allowed me to share what was bothering me – those feelings in my heart that I didn’t dare share with other people.
There is comfort in knowing that you are not alone; that there are others with similar experiences. Having an anonymous sounding board gave me the freedom to share thoughts and feelings that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others in my life. Usually, after sorting it out on the forum, I was able to talk with my husband, other family members, or friends.
Grief shared in community distributes the burden over many shoulders. Collectively we can help one another. This reaching out to others becomes a blessing to each person – we release our own grief and then can help shoulder someone else’s burden. The Alliance of Hope forum provides a framework for doing this in a safe environment that is monitored and supported by clinicians and moderators.
There is no timeline or straight path for grief. Each person’s journey is unique, and we all feel stuck at some point in the path. Those around us who mean well and don’t want to see us suffer try to get us to move forward. But what they don’t understand is that we can only move forward by dealing with each emotional obstacle that arises. There are many tools that can help – individual counseling, group therapy, yoga, meditation, writing, art, and the safety of the Alliance of Hope forum.
I remember the first time I laughed after my son died. I was having lunch with close friends, and we were talking about funny things our kids did when they were little. For that moment, laughing, I felt like my “before” self. In a short span of time, my emotions looped, and I was feeling guilty and sad. When I relayed this in the Forum, I was assured that “hey it’s okay to feel good and laugh while you are grieving.” It felt so good to share my experience and get reassurance from folks who were further down the grief journey.
Ten years later and of course I still miss my son. I talk to Ian every day. I’ve worked through so many emotions and made meaning from my grief. Working with people who’ve experienced loss and are grieving through yoga and movement has become my mission. Thank you, Alliance of Hope, and all the good people on the Forum who have been there for me. You were a lifeline when I needed it most.
This is the first day of Spring. I want to enjoy it. I want to feel again that life is good and that soft cuddly bunny rabbits do exist. I want to believe again that flowers are beautiful and smell wonderful. I want to feel and see that somehow, at least most of the time, life is good too.
I used to think of the calendar like everyone else, but now life is either B.S or A.S. I find myself caught between 2 worlds: Before Suicide or After Suicide — and ahead. an unknown frightening future where previous dreams and hopes were laid waste.
As the seasons change it reminds me that life has seasons also. That there is a time for everything under the sun. I was thinking of the poem Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:
“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
A time to search and
A time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.”
Somehow I cling to the hope that I can have courage to live through the seasons of life and with your help, I can.
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.
I am personally a fan of the Continuing Bonds Theory, especially when considering that there are literally decades of grief theory that only provided one option for a person in mourning—closure, acceptance, and moving on. There is little wonder why so many grievers develop self-conscious feelings or believe they have to “put it all away” when trying to regain normal operations in their life. Times indeed are a changin’ and people are finally realizing that healthy grief might involve finding a new and different relationship with the person who died.
Ways to Continue Bonds with a Loved One
If you feel that the Continuing Bonds Theory makes a lot of sense in your own life and style of grief, you might also be looking for ways to continue a bond with your deceased loved one. Here are some ideas that you might want to try as you implement this theory in your life.
Talk with your loved one. Go ahead! Do it! It doesn’t mean you’re crazy and is completely okay! This is not only a natural thing to do but it can also bring so much comfort to you in the moments that you miss them the most. So talk away, no matter if it is out loud or in your head. This is a very common and normal way to continue your relationship with your loved one.
Write your loved one a letter. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Write a letter on the computer, in a journal, or on letterhead or stationery. You can keep these letters or get rid of them. You can get creative with them. No matter what you choose to do or how often you choose to write, this can be a great way to stay close to your loved one.
Keep their photos around. Of course, this might seem incredibly obvious, but I can tell you that there are going to be people who will make you feel like you are doing something wrong. Keeping photos around will keep your loved one present in your life and it will provide continuing influence of their presence in your household.
Involve your loved one in special events, holidays, and annual traditions. Consider leaving an empty chair for the individual at Thanksgiving dinner, get out old home videos, or make dishes that your loved ones always enjoyed. You are going to naturally think of them on these days, don’t feel like you have to bottle up those thoughts or emotions. Express yourself in any way that allows you to keep the person close to you.
Imagine how they would have given you advice or what they would have said if you had a question that you couldn’t find an answer for. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you suddenly have to make big decisions on your own that you might have made before with the help of your loved one. Imagine a conversation with them and put yourself in their shoes to think about what they might have said to you.
Discuss your loved one with new people in your life. You are going to meet people who never knew your loved one. Know that it’s okay to tell these people about the deceased and don’t hesitate to share photos or stories. This will help you keep your loved one’s legacy alive as you move forward and change as a person yourself.
No matter if the person you lost was a spouse, life partner, parent, grandparent, sibling, child, or friend, it’s easy to struggle when you realize that this person won’t be there to celebrate milestones, accomplishments, and achievements with you. I suggest you think about applying the Continuing Bonds Theory to simply live your life so that your loved one would be proud.