Integrating Suicide Loss – What That Means for Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperceptable Change

“The coming and going of the seasons give us more than the springtimes, summers, autumns, and winters of our lives. It reflects the coming and going of the circumstances of our lives like the glassy surface of a pond that shows our faces radiant with joy or contorted with pain.” ~Gary Zukav

As summer draws to a close here in Illinois, I note with sadness that the flowers in my garden are beginning to wither and die. Cooler days are coming, leaves are going to turn and then drop and before too long, winter will be here again. Each day, I note that something in my garden is a little bit different in color or texture.  I notice subtle, almost imperceptible changes. 

These changes are very different than the abrupt and traumatic loss experienced by survivors of suicide. Survivors are faced with shocking news that alters their world and shatters the foundation of life as they knew it. In the beginning, it is very difficult to process such abrupt, life-altering loss. Things seem surreal. We cannot believe our loved one has gone. We struggle, trying to absorb and make sense of what has happened. 

Our brains are wired to store shocking information.

Most survivors store vivid memories of the moment in which they learned their loved one died. Years later, they can still tell you where they were standing, what they were doing, and who was with them at the exact moment the news arrived. 

We are not wired, however, to note the very subtle changes that occur in and around us all the time. And for the most part, life is a series of continuous small changes. The paint on our walls, for example, grows imperceptibly darker and more worn each day, until at some point, after several years, we note it is time to repaint. Our freshly cleaned house grows messier and dirtier little by little until suddenly, we note it is time to clean again. 

Little by little, things die down. On the flip side, most things come into existence slowly and sometimes, almost imperceptibly. The seed grows into a flower in incremental steps that are often not noticed until the bloom springs open. 

The healing that survivors experience following the loss of their loved one is often not noticed. 

it is a series of imperceptible changes, accomplishments, and triumphs. Many times survivors feel stuck. They don’t believe they are healing or moving forward. It is important for those who are further along to provide reassurance.  

We can learn more about the grief journey from Elizabeth Harper Neeld.

The emotions and challenges faced by survivors on the journey are as varied as the colors in nature. Yet there are commonalities. Elizabeth Harper Neeld has done an extraordinary job of describing phases of the traumatic grief journey – from the original impact of the traumatic event to the eventual integration of the loss. You can find excerpts from her work on the Alliance of Hope website.

Those who check out Neeld’s work will note that she delineates identifiable phases and commonly shared experiences on the grief journey, but no timetable for grief. That is because there is no timetable for healing – and no right way or wrong way to grieve. 

As we head into a new season,  my thoughts are with our entire extraordinary, survivor community. Let us look to each other for understanding and support as we travel forward – remembering always, that kindness matters.

Ronnie

I Don’t Know How to Be with Others

Having just lost my son to suicide, I’m learning really quickly that my friends don’t know how to be around me. And I don’t think I know how to be around them.

The last half of the week, one of my best friends picked me up to spend a few days at her lakeside retreat. Two other girlfriends invited themselves along. And as much as I love these women, two of them talked non-stop about the most inane, superficial stuff. I couldn’t have gotten a word in even if I’d wanted to. They talked so much, avoided asking me any questions, or taking the risk I might tell them something they didn’t want to hear. There were several times when I just wanted them to STOP TALKING. My response to the non-stop avoidance conversation was anxiety.

As much as I don’t want to isolate myself, I’m starting to feel afraid to reach out to friends. I just don’t know how they will react. I’m starting to feel like a pariah! I’m working hard not to feel judged–even though I’m the harshest critic of my performance as the mother of a son who took his own life–but that creeps in as well. I know they’re worried about me, but they just don’t know what to say or do. And neither do I.

I’m learning that the only safe place to tell my story, my son’s story, my family’s story is in counseling for now and hopefully group down the line. This is too much for friends, no matter how close you think they are.

Grieving my son’s loss is hard enough. Grieving the loss of friendships I’ve had for decades, only adds to the pain I already feel. How do I avoid the isolation?

When Survivors Discuss Suicide Prevention

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – a time when many organizations and media outlets share warning signs, resources, and inspirational messages. Some of those messages tell us that “Suicide is Preventable.” Some organizations go as far as to say that “Suicide is 100% Preventable.”  

Suicide loss survivors tell me they view “prevention” campaigns with mixed feelings. While everyone wants suicide to be preventable, many feel that assertion is unrealistic, or overly simplistic, because it is not at all in line with the reality of what they experienced. Many say that prevention messages leave them feeling guilty, upset and fearful of being judged – as if they “dropped the ball” and hence their loved one died.

Over time, I’ve realized how many loss survivors feel alone with these thoughts. They suffer in silence, reluctant to share their own experience in the face of large-scale campaigns led by mental health experts. And they don’t want to criticize a campaign that just might do some good.

Recently a survivor on the Alliance of Hope Forum asked other members for their thoughts on the “Suicide is Preventable” campaign. The responses she received from other survivors reflected a variety of experiences and opinions. Here are just a few:

The Original Question:

MMaryAnne:  “I drove past my local hospital today. They have a large electronic sign out on the corner. Every two weeks or so they change the message. Today it said, “Suicide is Preventable” and provided the suicide hotline number. What do we think about this?”

“It’s Too Simplistic”

Rainy:  “Ugh to the slogan. Bottom line – they mean well but have obviously never lost a loved one to suicide. Far too simplistic.”

CherylD:  “I think different people will have different perspectives on this. Personally, I think it can be (preventable) – but not always. The answer depends on the individual situation.” 

“It’s Preventable Only if Someone Shows a Sign”

Chloe’sMom:  “I believe suicide is preventable “ONLY” if someone shows a sign. …My daughter did not show any signs. In fact, the night she died by suicide we had watched our favourite soap together and made plans for me to go with her on her next flight to China (she was a flight attendant). She had even made plans that very same day to go on vacation with her best friend and lastly had ordered my birthday gift online … bought some clothes … so many things yet not one little sign. So yes, it is preventable in certain circumstances but not in mine. I understand and agree that for most of us this “slogan” makes us feel like we have failed as parents. I prefer to think that my husband and I gave ourselves, our love and our time unreservedly to Chloe. The fact remains that suicide is a consequence of mental illness. There will be some who survive and some who won’t just like cancer.” 

Jay14:  “These campaigns oversimplify suicide. … I think it’s well-intended to raise suicide awareness and create hope. However, not all cases are preventable. If someone is seriously considering it, they will likely make every effort to conceal their plan. And even if some people do show some “signs” – even if we knew what to look for – the signs often don’t sink in. The possibility of a loved one ending their life, is not even a remote reality for most people, until it happens, even if they’ve had previous attempts. It’s just so painful and out of this world …”

“It Requires a Societal Effort”

Tigerlily:  “It should say: ‘Suicide, it’s preventable if you’re willing to vote to increase spending for research on physical and psychological causes and creating the infrastructure needed to treat those in danger – if we are willing to remake our culture into one that works for the betterment of all people and that cares for all the disabilities of our citizens before it cares for the padding of our bank accounts – and that would rather open the door and let light into the dark room than to let someone suffer in it alone.’ Then, maybe then, some of them will be preventable. But none of us can do any of these things on our own. It’s preventable only as a societal effort.”

“It’s Unsettling to Read”

Malia 1230:  “Seeing those words makes me feel so guilty and utterly worthless as a mother. Those words, in my mind, substantiate what a horrible mother I am and that I should have known and been able to save my daughter! I do hope that other parents and loved ones are able to save their children and prevent more suicides from happening.”

AlwaysMissYou:  “I’m finding this campaign very hard. … I lost my husband to suicide four months ago. … it makes me feel cold and sick in the pit of my stomach when I read ‘suicide is preventable’ because I think: ‘It’s my fault, I let him down. I could have prevented this if I’d been better, more loving, more listening, more empathetic, I didn’t do well enough, I didn’t prevent this’. — Then I can’t stand the pain of that thought process so I start on all the reasons that it may not have been preventable, ‘his childhood wasn’t my fault, if he’d been able to say something different to me perhaps I could have been different, could have understood more, how could I understand something when he wasn’t verbalizing it to me, the doctors didn’t listen, they couldn’t balance his meds right, etc. etc.’. … it’s really tough to read ‘Suicide is Preventable.’” 

“It Makes Me Angry”

Always4Hope :  “I think it is a waste of funding. Awareness yes. Preventable no. There was nothing to prevent what happened to my son. Nothing. And I am so sick of the saying it is preventable. The a-holes do not even know what happens. They all have thousands of theories or drugs to prescribe but when it comes down to it. They do not know. Sorry, this anger is not directed at you or anyone. I just think it is pathetic to say suicide prevention. Give me a break.  Ok rant over – truly wishing peace.”

Stay Gold:  “As a newly bereaved mother, I find the campaign offensive & repulsive. It places the responsibility on family members and those who are about to take their lives. We obviously would have done something if our loved ones expressed their intentions … and our loved ones were obviously not in their right states of mind so how/why would they have the foresight to find & call a hotline number. We (the survivors) are the ones that need resources! If half the money that was spent on campaigns & training was allotted to us (an at-risk demographic) then there could be meaningful enhancements to the quality of life. Fewer people would drop out of society if we had more support … this would mean less unemployment or social welfare benefits. … I don’t even want to get started with the cost/benefit analysis. I’m an Economics professor so I could talk all day about the impact on society.” 

In Summary … 

It becomes obvious when reading the comments above or listening to loss survivors, that the “Suicide is Preventable” campaign, though aimed at increased awareness and reduction of suicide, also triggers guilt, frustration and even anger for many loss survivors. And the consensus seems to be that public health campaigns oversimply the matter – leading us to think in simplistic ways. Suicide is a complex problem with no easy answers. It’s possible to prevent sometimes — but not always

What Helps? Journaling

I have found writing my thoughts and feelings down to be very helpful as I navigate this life without my Colin. In the beginning, it was so hard to tell my family or my friends how broken I was. I did not want to burden them.

I did talk with a therapist and that was good. They are paid to listen or just to bear witness to our tears. But at some point, going was no longer feasible for me. It got too expensive and so I looked for other ways to find some relief. My daughter-in-law gave me my first journal and it sat there for a while unused. Finally, one particularly hard day I opened it and wrote/ slashed the word into the page: WHY? Over and over I filled that blank page with my heartbreaking question, the question we all have after such a loss.

Of course, I did not get an answer, but I did experience some lightness. The next time it was another one-word entry all over the page: SORRY!  Another feeling we – especially parents — experience.

Over time my writing became more expressive. it became an outlet for my daily thoughts, feelings and yes – even my joy. My journal is my friend. It keeps my secrets. It provides a place to unload and clarity after I read through my writing. It has become a place where I create the beauty I crave. This world can be stark and cold. In my journal, it is warm, pretty, funny. I add so much more than words now.

I could not do it in my beginning. Everything hurt, but I kept on with it. Not always every day. Sometimes just when I needed a friend.

I hope you try journaling. It has been a lifesaver for me. If you can’t write then draw, paint, cut out magazine pictures and glue them in. Write quotes that touch you. There is so much to journaling than just “dear diary”.

I thank my daughter in law so much for my first journal and I thank myself for continuing with the practice. It is just one more way I am helping myself survive without my Colin.

Hugs everyone.​

Sad

Lessons from Tears — @5 months

I’m becoming an expert on tears. What I’ve learned:

  1. There are as many kinds of tears in grief as kinds of snow in the Arctic.
  2. You can cry without tears and without sound, just a grimace and an internal shudder.
  3. When you lie on your back, tears leak down your temples and into your ears.
  4. You can look stricken after a cry, but if you wear glasses, no one will notice.
  5. You can get an infection of the eyelids from too much crying. Always carry lubricating eye drops.
  6. The purge of a big cry can bring on a purge from your bladder!
  7. Best places to cry: in the car, going slow or parked; in bed; in the shower; beside moving water; at a place of prayer; in therapy sessions or survivor support groups.
  8. After a really big cry, you feel like you’ll dissolve again at any moment for at least a day or two.
  9. You can move in and out of crying and still smile at pets and babies and kind people.
  10. Tears are a renewable resource. They open the heart and seal the bond with the person you lost.

This New Life:  Treehouses

If “a rose by any other name smells as sweet” (William Shakespeare), would a treehouse always be as sweet as our childhood memories tell us?

That’s what I wondered as I drove by a very nice group of houses the other day. I couldn’t help but notice the one closest to the road. It didn’t look so different from the others, but this house was home to children, very lucky children. A tall, wooden fort loomed in the side yard. Well-constructed hung below with swings and a rope bridge, it made me long for a special place like that.

A hideaway.

As a child, I loved to climb. Trees, jungle gyms, slides. I had no treehouse, but there were corners of the wooded lot next to our house that became circus tents, mud-pie markets, and pirate ships, even if they were only visible to me. The big ditch with its drizzle of water and the board I used to walk across it to my wonderland was probably not as big as I thought when I was nine years old, but it served my imagination well.

I never quite got over my fascination with what could happen in the trees, and I think now, as a suicide survivor, that’s a good thing. We all need a place to hide away, to pretend as we heal.

I imagined the children running out to the tall fort I had seen, but suddenly I wondered if something had been lost in the new construction. A dad might have put the thing together, but it may have been installed by other men. That led me to think about how different our lives are today, even our treehouses.

Life is faster now than ever before. The world doesn’t stop for those who grieve. So, what’s in a treehouse really?

Generations have pulled scrap boards into the branches, nailed floors and tiny rooms in place. Lessons passed from father to son include how to handle a hammer, what to say when fingers get hit instead of nails, and general principles of construction. Building shelters, like building a life, takes a certain kind of planning and execution and a “stick-to-itiveness” that battles frustration, no matter how rough the shape or how complicated the blueprint.

I could see some of these men in my mind, working beside sons and sometimes daughters, teaching more than woodwork, talking but also listening, mastering an unconscious bond that would guide their children throughout their lives.

Is all that gone with the pre-installed, pre-fabricated playgrounds of today? That’s the question I asked myself, but then I realized the answer is “no.”

Maybe things are different. The forts look better. That’s for sure. But countless dads and moms still spend incalculable hours rocking sick children, putting burgers on the grill in the backyard, sorting out problems, and cheering their kids on at ball games.

What does all this have to do with survivors of suicide? For me, it says. “Keep the good memories from the past, the tree-houses built under a tree instead of in one because my husband didn’t want our little girls to fall, but hold onto the new life we’re creating with those we can still hold in our arms. Build a hideaway, if only in our minds. Rest, step forward, rest, and go again.”

Families who lose a loved one to suicide must meet many challenges. Keeping those connections close after such loss is tiring, draining, and rewarding work. 

Even if your treehouse is on the ground, don’t forget to go there.  And take someone with you if you can. 

We Have Been Broken and Yet …

I work in a small town in rural Montana — population 93 if you count dogs, cats, gofers, chickens, and the occasional goat. There’s a little tiny grocery store (about like a convenience store) where I buy lunch most days. Yesterday I mentioned to the clerk, whom I’ve known for a couple years although not well – really just by name — that we went to the high school graduation over the weekend. She asked if I had a kid graduating and I told her that my son who we’d lost, would have graduated. She said “so sorry” and I never thought much more about it.

So today I go to get lunch and she asked “can I ask how your son died” so I told her Tandi had taken his life on the first day of his freshman year. And then the surprise for me — she lost her first husband to suicide many years ago. A nice long chat ensued. Turns out her niece also lost a boyfriend to suicide within the past few months (so I plugged Alliance of Hope. 😊)

My point with all this is I’ve always seen Lisa as just another person living and working in a small rural town — just as normal as normal can be. I never would have guessed she’s one of us! My perspective was completely changed. What I see now in Lisa is a pillar of healing and hope, a glimpse of what I aspire to be many years from now.

I can say with confidence that for every member here, someone in your circle sees YOU as a pillar too. You don’t see it — you’re too close to yourself — but someone does.

The son of some friends of ours fell while rock climbing late last summer. He is now at the Craig hospital in Denver rehabilitating from severe head trauma and multiple breaks in his neck/back. I follow his progress. The Craig Hospital specializes in recovery and rehabilitation for those with severe, life-threatening injuries. Many of their patients will never walk again, most will require a caregiver for the rest of their lives.

Late last week his mom posted an update that said, in part: “There is both joy and awe in watching those who are broken find the courage to pick up the pieces of their lives and find a way to start anew.” While she was referring to those in the hospital who are broken physically when I read that I thought of all of us here. Every one of us here was broken; most of us are still broken. Some see no path to healing while others are a shining example of healing and hope. Most of us are devastated and through our devastation, we can’t see our own healing that is obvious to others. Speaking for myself, I came here looking for an anonymous outlet for the pain and found hope and healing from my fellow travelers.

Every single one of you has been broken, and yet … you have the courage to trudge on. You have the courage to seek support and share your stories. Somehow, you find the courage to pick up the shattered pieces of your life and find a way to start anew. I see you finding those little pieces and I see you fitting them back together.

Seeing that develop in you brings joy to my heart. I AM IN AWE OF EVERY ONE OF US!! If you’re reading this, I refer to you. I am in awe of you. You give me hope and I thank you.

I’m Taking Him with Me

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

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

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

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

I Don’t Know Why

I don’t know why…

I’ll never know why…

I don’t have to know why…

I don’t like it…

I don’t have to like it…

What I do have to do is make a choice about my living.

What I do want to do is to accept it and go on living.

The choice is mine.

I can go on living, valuing every moment in a way I never did before,

Or I can be destroyed by it and in turn, destroy others.

I thought I was immortal, that my children and my family were also,

That tragedy happened only to others…

But I know now that life is tenuous and valuable.

And I choose to go on living, making the most of the time I have,

Valuing my family and friends in a way I never experienced before.

Podcast: Grief After Suicide – It’s Unique & Complicated

Last month, I had the opportunity to discuss suicide loss with Dr. Gloria Horsley and Dr. Heidi Horsley, of Open to Hope, a non-profit with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. In this 20-minute podcast, we discuss the unique and complicated grief that follows the loss of a loved one to suicide. Watch to learn more about specific challenges as well as how to talk about the loss of your loved one.

Be sure to check out the Open to Hope website. It offers hundreds of informative and inspirational podcasts to help people cope with their pain, heal their grief and invest in their future.  

Beyond Surviving: Things 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.

His Essence Is Still With Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tips from Survivors: Don’t Try This Alone

Dear Surviving Parents,

Your world has completely stopped, but at the same time, it is spinning wildly around you. You can’t stop sobbing. A sound is coming from you like you have never heard. Your knees are buckling under your weight, and you are falling to the floor. You may be physically sick, vomiting until your stomach is empty. You watch professionals take your child away and wonder what he or she will look like when and if you see him or her again.

You are being asked to make decisions about what comes next for your child’s physical remains, but you are not able to decide. Your mind keeps going back to the last time you saw your child alive. You replay your last words with them and wonder if you hugged them and told them you love them. Then you go further back and think about the signs you somehow missed and how this must be your fault. Your mind will also go back again and again to the last time you saw them dead.

You will stand in the grocery store with everyone moving around you like nothing has happened. You will want to scream out, “My child is dead!” so they understand your pain. It will be like a movie playing in front of you.

You will want answers. Maybe your child left a note that gives you some solace. But the note’s content will not be enough. There are always going to be more questions. You are likely never going to understand completely why this happened. You will spend a lot of time thinking about it. You will go through his or her room, backpacks, notebooks, and computer files, looking for more information or a special keepsake he or she left for you. You may or may not find it. Either way it will still not be enough.

Some of your friends won’t know what to say, so they will stay away. Others will try to find the right words and will say something hurtful without meaning to. Some will research the right things to say to someone in your situation. Some will send you cards and e-mails months from now, and you will be grateful they have not forgotten your loss and pain. Some will offer to sit quietly and hold you.

You will have a hard time making decisions—not just big ones, like what to do with your child’s belongings or room or what the headstone should look like, but rather little ones, like what to have for dinner or what to wear.

The first few months will be a blur. You will have memory issues where chunks of time are missing or you cannot remember conversations. Your work will suffer.

You will not enjoy socializing as you once did. You will hide behind closed doors and pulled shades so you do not need to interact with others. You will avoid phone calls and texts. You will turn down invitations that you would have once happily accepted. When you do find the wherewithal to go out, you will come home exhausted and emotionally drained. It will not be because people are unkind. It will be because interacting with others will enervate you.

Some of your friends, family, and coworkers will want you to get over it and will tell you so. Your grief will make them uncomfortable. You will give yourself deadlines for feeling better. After the holidays. After the child’s first birthday that he or she is not with you. After the first anniversary of his or her death. But you won’t get over it. Grief does not have a timeline.

You might consider going to counseling and then decide you don’t need it. Go anyway. This is not a journey to travel alone.

You will be changed. But you will not always feel as hopeless and helpless as you do right now. Things will get better, but it will take time and effort.

Please. Take the time to connect with resources especially developed for those who are traveling this road. Check out Facebook and online survivors’ groups. Go to meetings. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. You will connect with people who understand your journey, who will say what you are saying is exactly how they feel. You will feel at home, especially when home feels so empty now.

You are not alone.

Peace, love and light to you on this journey.

(C) 2016

‘Twas the Night before Christmas – For Bereaved Parents

‘Twas the month before Christmas and I dreaded the days,

That I knew I was facing -the holiday craze.

The stores were all filled with holiday lights,

In hopes of drawing customers by day and by night.

 

As others were making their holiday plans,

My heart was breaking – I couldn’t understand.

I had lost my dear child a few years before,

And I knew what my holiday had in store.

 

When out of nowhere, there arose such a sound,

I sprang to my feet and was looking around,

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash

 

The sight that I saw took my breath away,

And my tears turned to smiles in the light of the day.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a cluster of butterflies fluttering near.

With beauty and grace they performed a dance,

I knew in a moment this wasn’t by chance.

 

The hope that they gave me was a sign from above,

That my child was still near me and that I was loved.

The message they brought was my holiday gift,

And I cried when I saw them in spite of myself.

 

As I knelt closer to get a better view,

One allowed me to pet it – as if it knew –

That I needed the touch of its fragile wings,

To help me get through the holiday scene.

 

In the days that followed I carried the thought,

Of the message the butterflies left in my heart –

That no matter what happens or what days lie ahead,

Our children are with us – they’re not really dead.

 

Yes, the message of the butterflies still rings in my ears,

A message of hope – a message so dear.

And I imagined they sang as they flew out of sight,

“To all bereaved parents – We love you tonight!”

Black Friday

“My son’s nutcrackers decorate the mantle. Nothing else is really needed.”

It’s the day after Thanksgiving. Known as Black Friday to retailers, the economy and bargain hunters. To Suicide Survivors it is just another Black Day we move through without someone very dear that we lost in an unimaginable way.

This Thanksgiving I reminded myself that I am thankful for having my youngest son Adam in my life for 22 years. That I would rather have those 22 years with him than not to have had him at all. I am thankful for my surviving sons as they make me want to be strong. I give thanks for the friends and family who love and stick by me. After my tragic loss I am forever thankful for this forum as it gives me a place to speak, to be heard and to be understood. Alliance of Hope has been my lifeline and I am at a point in my life where I can listen and try to offer compassion and understanding as well. I seek now to listen more as I realize what a gift that can be to others.

This weekend I decorate for the holidays. It is another sign of my survival. My son’s nutcrackers decorate the mantle. Nothing else is really needed. No reason to add to it as each piece is a reminder of him and the love and joy he brought us. He is always with us and we celebrate him all year round.

This Black Friday I light a candle as I do every day. I give thanks for Adam and my surviving sons, for true friends and loving family, and for the AOH community of support. I am a suicide survivor and I am as loving as I am strong. I’ve come a long way and know others have too. So here’s to us…the compassionate and strong survivors who hope to help others make it through the Blackest of Days.

Originally published by Audrey Crilley on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and reprinted with permission.

How Suicide Loss Prepared Me for a Cancer Diagnosis

I was in a bookstore when I got the call on my cell. I knew it had to be bad news if the doctor was calling me herself after the breast biopsy. I stepped outside and sat down. I heard “definitely malignant” and “I’m sorry” before the call ended. I teared up but didn’t break down. What do I do now? Call my husband. Go back in the store and get a book on breast cancer.

The dreaded C-word. The word that older relatives, even some doctors, wouldn’t say 40 or 50 years ago when my mother, aunt, and grandparents had it. In my family, that was how you died.

“It’s a sock in the gut, isn’t it?” a friend wrote, recalling the shock of her own diagnosis.

Yes, but my shock absorbers have changed. The worst thing that can happen has already happened to me. My child’s suicide is a nightmare that will always be with me. Cancer, at least at this point, is an unwelcome guest—a condition to be managed. We each have our own private calculus. My instinct on hearing the diagnosis was to take charge, stay calm. I would not catastrophize, I told myself, unless or until there was reason to do so. I would try not to act out of fear.

The first few weeks after the diagnosis, I felt some of the same vulnerability and reached for some of the same solace as I did after Noah’s suicide. I was tired and slept a lot, while also having trouble sleeping. I took one day at a time. I craved comfort food, like big bowls of Japanese ramen. I prayed for healing. I felt the concern of friends and family who fretted: “You shouldn’t have to deal with this right now.” I told my son, Ben, that I wanted him home for Thanksgiving and for my lumpectomy the following day. He came, as he came so often to visit us in the year after Noah’s death. Much of this felt familiar.

Unlike after Noah’s suicide, after the diagnosis I welcomed distraction and positive thinking rather than crying fits. I didn’t feel the need to find a support group or talk a lot with other breast cancer survivors. I knew that everyone handles the diagnosis differently, just as everyone handles grief differently. In 2013, I wanted it known that Noah died by suicide and that we welcomed support. In 2016, I wanted to keep the cancer news more private because I didn’t feel like a cancer patient and didn’t want to have to deal with a lot of well-wishers eager to help. With the suicide, many people said there were no words, but with a breast cancer diagnosis, people seem to know the drill. After all, one in nine American women get breast cancer while only 13.4 of every 100,000 Americans die by suicide. The C-word is a familiar visitor, no longer so fearful, but the S-word remains laden with stigma, ignorance, and horror.

I’d never had surgery or general anesthesia before. In preparation, I listened to a guided meditation on visualizing successful surgery that suggested imagining everyone who loves you, living or dead, as a “band of angels” watching over you in the operating room. Thinking of my dead son and parents wishing me well made me cry so I decided that the living were enough to protect me.

I’ve been lucky with this cancer, considering. It’s small, early, treatable. I have good insurance and encouraging, competent doctors. I don’t need chemo—the other dreaded C-word, reminding me of my mother’s shrunken face at 47, cheekbones protruding, gray tufts sprouting on her head like a baby bird. If I’d had to have chemo or my prognosis was worse, I’d more likely feel like a cancer patient, more afraid and sorry for myself–at which point, maybe I would seek a support group.

In the desert two days before surgery, I saw the biggest rainbow I’ve ever seen. Its perfect arc spanned the sky with thick bands of primary colors, like a child’s drawing. While meditating by the beach on the day before my chemo consultation, I sensed an unfamiliar deep, teal-colored light behind my eyes. I’ll take both of these signs as Noah’s blessing: You can do this, Mom.

Susan Auerbach is twice a suicide loss survivor and the author of I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage, and Clarity After Suicide Loss. This article is reprinted from her blog, Walking the Mourner’s Path After a Child’s Suicide. © Susan Auerbach 2017

Book Review: I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach

Auerbach’s intimate story will resonate with anyone who has lost a child to suicide. She is a gifted writer with a unique ability to observe and articulate what she was feeling as she journeyed through shocking loss and complicated grief. Readers will relate to her emotions, admire her courage, and be inspired by her commitment to make a difference. It is rare to find such an eloquent and powerful work in suicide grief literature.”~Ronnie Susan Walker, MS, LCPC Founder & Executive Director, Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors

A mother came home from work to find her 21-year-old son Noah’s body in her garage. She was no stranger to suicide. In her mid-twenties, her father had ended his life while severely depressed. Still, the deliberate death of her son brought her to new levels of pain, regret and confusion. She knows from her first loss that she must remain “fully awake.” In the course of taking it all in, she learns to embrace her vulnerability and express her sorrows—not always encouraged in our society.

Susan knew her son Noah was troubled but he had never been diagnosed with chronic mental illness. The suicide of a close friend in college may have triggered the depression and anxiety attacks that two years later led to his downfall. He left school and came home but like his grandfather, he rejected medical help, preferring to “man up” or die trying alone. The author laments that men in our society do not respect themselves or others if they have to ask for help.

Susan takes us through her struggles to ever so slowly regain her sense of identity and security. But this is more than an intimate portrait of the author and her family. At the end of each chapter, Susan shares useful tips for coping with grief of this magnitude and complexity. She blended her rich Jewish heritage with mind-body therapies including: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR), collage-making, meditation, dance and yoga.

For the author, writing proved especially therapeutic. With each chapter, she adds another loop or line to her grief map. Instead of an oasis or pot of gold at the end, Susan’s map through the wilderness has way stations with little gems that could easily be overlooked–like the heart-shaped stones she found under her feet when the tide went out at the beach. The only answers the universe may give is that we can survive the pain and one day recover a sense of connection to our loved one without their physical presence.

We never know how one brief interaction may affect another person. Susan recounts the experience of her friend who was in an airport when she got the call with the news of Noah’s death. Her words and sobs caught the ear of a stranger, a 15-year-old girl who handed her a note. It said she had been suicidal in the past, but after witnessing the depth of pain it caused in another, it made her “realize how valuable her life really is…so thank you…You’re beautiful.”

Susan’s story of two losses to suicide is beautifully told and full of insights. At three years past Noah’s death, she could see that for a time, constantly going over the details of her son’s life and death served a purpose. It was part of a naturally healing process of reconnecting to her son and the world in unfamiliar ways. Post-traumatic growth is the “counterweight to post-traumatic stress.”Grief after losing a loved one to suicide does not always mean disorder. It does entail a complete re-ordering–rearranging–of what we thought we knew about ourselves and others and who and what we can count on.

For survivors, there is enormous comfort in reading the personal stories of others who’ve suffered this catastrophic kind of loss and emerged transformed. It is a great relief to know that suicide can and does happen to good people in good families. Other readers can peer into the abyss of sorrow from a safe distance to see that those who die by suicide, their families and friends are not so very different from themselves or people they may know.

When Couples Grieve: Apart and Together

The hole that a child’s death blasts through a family can tear a marriage apart. Friends reminded my husband, Bryan, and me of this when we snapped at each other in the days after the suicide of our 21-year-old son, Noah. The anger, guilt, and remorse surrounding suicide loss make it easy to lash out at or withdraw from a partner. This brought Bryan and me to couples therapy for a while and still resurfaces.

When we’re suffering such a grievous loss, how can we soothe a partner who’s suffering the same thing? In the early months, Bryan and I didn’t have much comfort to spare; we were too depleted. We cried alone and confided in precious friends, support groups, therapists. If we reached out to the other during a crying fit, we were both in tears and struggling for calm. We clung to each other at night, awake in separate nightmares. We were doing parallel grief, like children do parallel play.

I’d rarely seen my husband cry before. For weeks after Noah died, several times a day, he sobbed and rocked on a bench in the backyard. I’d never seen his good-humored face so crumpled, his eyes so cloudy, his shoulders so defeated. His features looked stricken for months, then settled into an unfamiliar glumness. I felt terrible for him who, unlike me, had never had a major loss before. I wished I could enfold him in a soft cocoon and that he could do the same for me.

In the first year or so, it was hard to know from one moment to the next whether we could grieve together or grope our way out together. I worried that if I was upset and Bryan was numb, any lament from me would catapult him back into misery. Or if I was feeling steady and didn’t realize that he was teary, whatever I did might jar his mood. We were too emotionally exhausted to know whether we needed time alone or with others, and how much space to give each other before it became a chasm.

It’s one thing to say people grieve differently and another to live it every day with your spouse in a broken family. One of us took a leave from work; the other went back after two weeks. One of us became immersed in reading and writing related to suicide; the other in gardening, home improvement, and hobbies. One of us promptly left social gatherings when uncomfortable; the other felt obliged to be present. One of us found Noah dead and couldn’t go in the garage for many months; the other felt at home there because it was the last place Noah had been. Sometimes one of us, sometimes the other, could relax and enjoy a little.

In the early stages, we came together over comfort food, comfort TV, Shabbat services at our synagogue, and visits with our living son, Ben. We shared inspiration from our respective support groups and frustration from gatherings with relatives who avoided saying Noah’s name. We teamed up to track down every clue we could find to our son’s demise. We agonized over what to put on his gravestone, planned memorials, and went out for Noah’s favorite donuts on his birthday.

Gradually, we began to remember our son together. We brought each other stray memories and pictures like gifts. We treasured every message and visit from Noah’s friends.

Two years after the suicide, we were on firmer ground. We could usually tell if the other was having a grief surge and offer a hug. We could usually bring up Noah’s name without worrying that the other wasn’t ready to hear it; his life and death were so much on our minds that any mention, anytime, seemed natural. Three years after the suicide, we worked together to launch a remembrance fund that supports suicide prevention programs, as well as activities that enriched Noah’s life, like outdoor adventure and international student exchange. And we lovingly planned a celebration of life on what would have been Noah’s 25th birthday for family and friends.

Now, at four and a half years after the suicide, Bryan and I still grieve differently. I delve into the why’s and what-ifs of Noah’s situation and of suicide generally; my husband doesn’t want more information. He visits the cemetery regularly to talk to Noah and give him the latest news; I mostly avoid the place and talk to Noah’s photos around the house. I want to travel to refresh my mind and carry on Noah’s wanderlust; my husband usually feels more safe and comfortable at home.

We’re not alone in those differences. Psychologist John Jordan, in Grief After Suicide (2011), calls this “coping asynchrony” in couples and points to a common contrast between more “instrumental” approaches to grief that are action-oriented versus more “intuitive” approaches that focus on the outpouring of feeling. Many people blend the two approaches along their grief journey. Guess which way I and many women lean?

Suicide grief has both stressed and strengthened our marriage. Whatever else, my husband and I know each other better for walking this path, alone and together. It would be tougher to go through all this without a partner; I hope that my fellow parent survivors who are not in a relationship can find the support they need through others. And I hope all of us parent survivors can talk more openly about this part of our grief story, here and wherever we meet.

This article is adapted from Susan Auerbach’s memoir, “I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage, & Clarity After Suicide Loss.” Formore information, visit www.susanauerbachwriter.com © 2017 Susan Auerbach