Trying to talk about Mitch’s suicide, even ten years later, still brings many thoughts to mind regarding all my feelings … then and now. The feelings are so personal, so private, so utterly my own, that the thought of sharing them with another is still difficult today. Yet, in the midst of the growing awareness of suicide and the efforts being made today to slow the occurrence, my hope is that we can provide insights into the feelings we have had, are having, and will continue to experience.
Surely, nothing in my life has taken so much out of me and at the same time given me so much hope for others. Hardly a day passes without someone coming to my office to talk about their interest in sales and instead beginning to talk about the tragedy that has taken place in their immediate family or with loved ones. My hope is that through the opportunity of talking about our loss, others may find that they too can proceed to make the journey through the pain and anguish that can be mastered.
I admit that in the aftermath of Mitch’s death there were so many questions that it is hard to bring them to the conscious level. One of many was “Whose fault is it?” And there was anger that could not be easily put aside. There is the dichotomy I faced in trying to bring to terms the different feelings that racked my body and mind.
Who could possibly know what I was feeling? No man, no woman, no priest, no counselor – no one knew.
I began to ask myself questions about how I would deal with my friends, my co-workers, the business contacts. Who would stand ahead of me and let them know that I had suffered and should be handled with care? I thought that everyone in the world knew that Mitch shot himself and that this father of his was about to enter a room, call on the telephone, or write a letter.
To my surprise, a lot of people did not know, but those who did, went out of their way to give me support, love, and comfort. My faith would tell me that I should expect help from our church – after all, we had been with the church from almost its very beginning as a mission. But the strength that awaited us there was more and bigger and wider.
Probably nothing stands out in my mind more than the different people who expressed their love and support. This came from the church and from others around us. It seemed that as soon as I could permit myself to express, to expose, I received the reinforcement to proceed.
Time became a major factor, as I slowly rebuilt the strengths that I knew I had, overcoming the agony. I found that time moved impossibly slow. When would I feel better? When would it be over?
The truth is that it is never over, but then, its is not supposed to be over. It will never be over, but my growth and gaining strength will make it acceptable.
Years have passed since I went to Mitch’s room to find him dying by his own hands. That image is with me today, and yet I find that I can look at that image and be at peace with myself. I know I did not plan, nor want, nor envision, that my son could or would take his own life. But it is the fact, and I can live with it today, knowing that I have made it this far.
It is a gift Mitch has given us, new knowledge of strength. Mitch has given us a new understanding of loving, caring, and the warmth of the friendship of others. Mitch has renewed our faith in God and the world. This was a faith, a love, a caring, and a friendship that I had taken for granted. No more! Time is precious. Life is precious. You are precious. Each day is a new revelation of this gift, a gift from Mitch.
I should know a lot about how men grieve. After all, I spent the first 15 years of my career pioneering the psychology of men. My 1984 book, The Secrets Men Keep (Ballantine Books), mapped out previously uncharted paths to men’s hearts, souls and deepest needs.
I was featured regularly on Oprah, Larry King Live, Donahue, PBS, hundreds of network news and talk shows and countless articles on everything “male” in the nation’s largest newspapers and magazines. For 12 years, I traveled the world giving talks about men, men’s workshops, and training programs, consulting with leaders of Fortune 500 companies, and being called upon as an expert on men. And then, my life ended abruptly.
My beloved daughter, Jenna, died violently in 1996 while studying abroad. Racked by more pain than I could possibly handle, I held on for dear life. Searching desperately for answers and for something to hold onto, I immersed myself in the world of grief and loss. I was a drowning man, trying to survive overwhelming pain. My heart shattered into a million pieces. My life derailed. I honestly didn’t know where to turn or if I was even going to make it.
Nothing I’d learned or been through was helping me navigate the darkness, devastation, and feelings of utter helplessness I was encountering on the path of grief. I would need to start all over. Learn to walk, breathe, think, feel, love, surrender, rage, cope, and travel by the dim light of the stars. It took every ounce of raw courage, faith, and patience I had to survive. Receiving support from family and friends was not easy. I was used to being the strong one. Taking care of myself was also a real challenge. I was used to powering through everything – figuring it out and fixing it. This could not be fixed. Learning to decipher between people and things that helped me, and those that drained and depleted me, enabled me to hold on. Slowly, I began to fight my way back into life. To breathe. And to find new strength. But not the way you might expect.
Did it help or hurt that I had undergone 47 years of basic training as a guy?
I’d been taught that emotions (other than anger) were a sign of weakness. Shows of sorrow, confusion, helplessness, and fear would be cause for demotion to a “lesser of a man” status. Tears would be automatic grounds for a significant drop in stature on the male scale. “Be a man!” “Suck it up,” “Get over it” and other clichés borrowed from sports and warfare, were not only useless – they were harmful.
What I needed more than anything was the strength, courage, and permission to grieve. I needed to feel the hurt, helpless, sorrow, brokenness, outrage, and confusion. The macho code of posing and posturing as strong and self-reliant would have been a formula for disaster for me. Hiding, denying, repressing my emotions would have prolonged my pain and deepened my sense of isolation. Distancing myself from my emotions and “shooting the messenger” when sorrow surfaced, would have disconnected me from my humanity. And thwarted my grieving process.
The cultural norm for being a man encourages us to shut down and shut up, less we suffer another loss, our status. Dr. Mike Freidman, the father of Type-A Behavior and one of my mentors, called this “status insecurity.” Is it any wonder that 85% of participants who seek grief support after the death of a child, spouse, or parent, are women? Men who are overwhelmed by the intensity of their grief and defenseless against their own feelings of sorrow, will try to outrun, out-numb, out-busy their way over and around grief. As I learned at one of our first support groups in New York after 9-11, they will even shout down others who are trying valiantly to work through their grief.
A disgruntled husband had come to pick up his wife from support group stuck his head in the room to see if we were done. He was invited by several group members to join in and responded, “No thanks, I know how this stuff works. Misery loves company!” After a brief silence, one of the other wives stood up, looked him in the eye and said, “No sir, you’ve got it all wrong. Hope loves company.”
Taught to hide, deny, repress and outright avoid our feelings, or fake it by telling everyone “I’m fine,” men learn to fool themselves into believing they can just hold their breath or think their way around it. These men become the dumbed down, crusty, diluted version of their former selves. But the debt comes due. Cut off from their feelings, hearts and too often, their loved ones, they wither. As if life after loss wasn’t difficult enough.
Here are a few healthy and effective ways to support a man who you care about through grief:
Ask open-ended questions like “What has it been like for you since losing ___?”
Listen and gently draw him out by asking, “What’s been helping you? Making it harder?” “What are your options?” and “Tell me more.”
Men often find that “doing” some form of activity, like going for a walk, fishing, golfing, working on a project, taking a trip, etc. helps them cope. Consider asking him about, or suggesting, an activity and joining him.
Gently encourage, but don’t push, him to
a) share his feelings of sorrow, anger, confusion, fear, loneliness, etc.
b) be patient, kind, and caring with himself
c) be honest and direct with those in his inner circle and place of work about the kind of support he needs.
Going on is never easy after the loss of a loved one. It takes a strong work ethic, bravery, and a lot of faith to fight one’s way back into life. It also takes courage and humility to admit that we need help and ask for it (“help” is, after all, the least utilized 4 letter word in the male vocabulary). Learning self-care, self-compassion, and that it’s OK to ask for what we need are the things that not only help men grieve but slowly transform their pain back into love and enjoy full lives in the aftermath of loss. Making our lives an expression of love, rather than despair, is a noble quest for any “real man.”
The tears of suicide loss aren’t like other tears. They’re endless and pure and come gushing out many times a day, washing us clean for a moment. They come in silent, heaving bursts that make the face contort and squeeze the breath into short, agitated spurts. When we let out their sound, it’s like the howl of a wounded animal. I’d hear those sobs around the house the first few weeks and go running to find my husband, Bryan. I’d close the windows so my own primitive cries wouldn’t alarm the neighbors.
The inexhaustible well of tears seems ready to pour out at the slightest reminder. Each outpouring releases a little more of the vastness of grief. I cling to my tears, to what’s left of my bond with Noah in the salt tracks on my face.
The hardest days are when work or other obligations compel me to keep tears at bay. Holding back feels unnatural, like damming an untamed river. The tears will have out, if not at the end of the day, then when driving or resting or when a movie or TV drama comes to a poignant end. Not another ending,please.
In my alternate vision of the day of his death, Noah collapses in tears, unable to follow through on his violent plan. But that would mean he could still feel his bond with the living and give voice to the tender, vulnerable side of himself. We hadn’t heard that voice for months. I weep for the loss of that tender soul that could have, maybe, saved his life.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward.” ~Steve Jobs
I posted a quote from Steve Jobs in my status this morning. I thought it was worth explaining the context. It came from a commencement address he gave at Stanford. He explained that he dropped out of college after one semester, (I’m sure much to the dismay of his parents) but continued to hang around and attend free classes that interested him – while sleeping on friend’s floors. He took a calligraphy class just because he thought it was cool. Fast forward to the early years of Apple. He took his calligraphy knowledge and developed the different fonts that are used in all word processing software around the world. It was only looking back that the dots connected any value to a class he’d taken on a whim.
In my mid-40’s I was a content bachelor and comfortable, living out my life as one. During a casual conversation with a lady friend at work, I mentioned how all my attempts at relationships had been disasters. She jokingly said, “Maybe you should try one of those Asian mail order brides”. On a whim, I found a service to connect with Vietnamese ladies and sent out some introductory letters. The culture and family values of Vietnam had always interested me. There was no road map in front of me showing that I would develop a relationship with a wonderful woman and that 7 months later I would be standing terrified in the middle of a Vietnamese wedding. That 4 years later I would hold God’s most precious gift to me, just minutes after Kelly took her first breath of life. That almost 11 years later I would be sobbing and forever broken over her lifeless body.
It’s only looking back that the dots connect. I didn’t have a crystal ball showing me the steps in advance to be a perfect dad to a little girl – or that how her life ended was never within my control.
Before the day is over, I will be re-arranging the dots and doing the “if only” and “should have” and examining my failures as a Dad. But at least for a little while, I will hold on to the understanding that this can only be done looking back. There were no dots to connect, reconnect, or shuffle and reorganize all those years ago. There was a moment in time when on a whim I took a step toward something that interested me – and now, I cannot change the ending … and there’s nothing else I would change.
If no one speaks your name today, I will Kelly. Every day as long as there is breath in my body.
Hello. The second-year date of my son’s suicide is coming up next week. In light of this, I find myself more sensitized to even the smallest things. Last night, “my” dog slept at the foot of the bed my son used; he hardly ever goes in that room anymore, or not so I have seen. The most poignant incident is my son’s best friend’s mentioning that she is “beginning to forget the little things about him”.
Of course, there is beauty in remembering the “big accomplishments and the amazing generosity he showed to everyone,” for example, BUT I find myself the keeper of the little things. They are stuck to me like those hooked seed casings known as hitchhikers; they seem to pop open at a moment’s notice when a memory is evoked. There is no expectation that anyone other than myself will keep remembering all of the little and big parts of who my son was. It is just a reminder of time’s passing for everyone else and time’s slow pace for me. Maybe it’s all part of a mother’s job; if he were alive, I probably would be helping plan a wedding or other major event which would include lots of little details.
I have made progress on the journey back into life, but this month is one of accepting myself for as far as I have gone and not worrying about how far I decide I need to go. People are not as patient with me as they once were, but I put on my armor and ignore them. I think that is a huge step for me, in and of itself. This is my “Fault in Our Stars” to live through… As my garden grows in this wet and wild spring weather, I realize that once a mother has put that much love and effort into nurturing an infant to a child to young adulthood, her son or daughter is part of her forever. ALL parts. The commitment does not end with death.
So, ask me a question about something “little” and I am sure I will have a story to tell.
Like so many others, I too have felt anger at my child for not reaching out to me, for downplaying her distress and her obvious (now) lies to me. But what I see is a mixed-up young girl, who loved her mother and hated upsetting her. I think she felt she could deal with it on her own and I think the lies she told were, in her mind, to protect me. She absolutely hated being the cause of my upset. And she got it wrong, she was too young to sort it out herself, she didn’t have the mental skills, she didn’t have to protect me. And I believe she wasn’t really serious until she did it. I think in her mind it was something she thought about often but never actually got around to doing anything about it. So why tell Mum? She didn’t know that thoughts can escalate to action in just a matter of minutes. She made a terrible mistake and paid for it with her life, she couldn’t cure herself, and she certainly didn’t end up protecting me. But I forgive her, I forgive her everything. She was my little lamb and she got lost.
“The Rest of the Story” was a weekly radio program hosted by Paul Harvey. It consisted of stories presented as little-known or forgotten facts on a variety of subjects with some key element of the story held back until the end. The broadcasts always concluded with a variation on the tag line, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
A few months ago, I wrote a story for Alliance of Hope titled, “Dorothy’s Love.” The story described my first few hours after learning that my son had passed, and how my husband instinctively brought my oldest, dearest neighbor and friend, Dorothy, to my side.
Someone had pulled a chair next to where I lay in a fetal position on my kitchen floor. Dorothy sat in the chair, held my hand, and stroked my head with her wise, nearly 90-year-old hands, not letting go until my own mother and a hoard of family arrived. I cannot say it was her words, for they were not profound. I cannot say she offered words of instruction, for she did not. What Dorothy did offer, however, was her wise, comforting presence.
Now, here’s “The Rest of the Story.” Dorothy is a suicide loss survivor. Her only brother took his life some years ago. This tragic loss, this experience, has become a part of the fabric of her life. My husband was unaware that Dorothy had lost her brother to suicide when he brought her to me that day. His action came from knowing how much I deeply respect and love her as a friend and neighbor.
Dorothy and I have been neighbors for ten years. We have shared celebrations of life when my two grandchildren were born, as well as death when her husband and my sister each passed from illness. Dorothy and I have shared many, many kitchen table conversations through the years. We have shared much laughter and untold tears.
It was during one of those kitchen table conversations that Dorothy told me of losing her brother to suicide. Her parents had already passed. Losing her brother left just Dorothy and her sister. She had shared about the initial shock, the sadness, and regrets. Mostly, she shared about missing her brother.
In her almost 90 years on this earth, Dorothy has endured several hardships, as you might imagine happening in that many years. But here’s the thing: Dorothy has not become who she is in spite of her hardships, but possibly because of them. I have no doubt her hardships played a part in making her the woman that I have come to know and love.
Dorothy is generous in spirit and love. She is quick to lift another up. Her love of family, friends, and life is tangible. I have never left her company without a kiss, a hug and an “I love you.” I am so blessed to have her in my life.
Since my son passed I have been keenly aware that each day I am making a choice about how I am going to survive. There were, and sometimes still are, times when I feel I do not have anything left to give, but then I think of Dorothy. She has shared with me about her despair after the loss of her brother, followed years later by the loss of her husband. Dorothy has shared with me the difficulties of putting oneself back together after experiencing great loss and emerging stronger.
I am so thankful that Dorothy was able to find her strength, and who else better, to be holding my hand as I lay on my kitchen floor.
There has been so much kindness following my son’s passing seven months ago. I’m still in awe of how much love and support we received. I’d like to share one act of kindness, in particular.
In the first hour of my son’s passing, I was curled up on the floor in a puddle, weeping – not wanting to let the words that had just been spoken penetrate my mind. EMTs and police stood above me waiting for me to “crack.”
It was then that my husband got in the car and went across the street to get our neighbor, Dorothy. Dorothy is the oldest neighbor on the street. She’s pushing 90 years old, and the dearest woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling my friend. My husband brought Dorothy to me.
I recall that somebody pulled a chair up to where I was on the floor and Dorothy sat down. She held my head and allowed me to weep. She stayed with me until shortly after my own mother arrived. I’ll always be thankful to my husband for that very insightful, loving support and of course, to Dorothy for her love.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ~ T.S. Eliot
And now here I am in the first day of another new year, walking into the second where I’m missing your big brown eyes and how they smiled so contagiously.
I won’t say I enter this new year without you because you’re always with me.
Time is a trickster though with a necessity to keep track.
The ticks turn to miles and the miles log the distance from that doorway where we hugged the last time.
I can still feel that little hump in your shoulder, that gentle curve when you’d lean down to hug me.
It used to be a reach when you were younger.
I could feel the stretch in your back as you’d reach up to hug me.
Tick-tock through time you grew taller and that stretch turned to a downward hump.
A hump and a lean-over defined by a gentle curve.
Sometimes weightless with love, sometimes heavy with worries and sorrow.
I remember the day it was so heavy I could hardly hold you.
But it’s not your job to hold me.
Your job now is to be weightless and silly.
Riding shooting stars across the moon yelling, “Look, Mom, no hands.”
That’s what I wish for you in this new year . . . lots of shooting stars and more moons than you can count.
So off you go, unbound and forever safely tethered to my heart.
That’s what holds me . . . knowing that you are forever safely tethered to my heart.
I posted the other day about a friend of mine whose sister died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition earlier this year. Her grieving in many ways is so much like mine—a sudden, unexpected loss that tilted the axis of her world.
This Christmas season was hard for my friend. Her loneliness was compounded by COVID-induced social distancing. Like me, she told me that she had “lost her words” after her sister died. So, I sent her a poem that helped me process my grief.
Her response brought me to my knees—she said that she could only imagine that the pain of a 4th Christmas without my son must be as painful as the first.
Not only was this not accurate—it was so sad that she anticipated that she would forever experience heart-wrenching grief. I explained that I will always love and miss my son, but the past few holiday seasons were not as sad or angst-ridden as those first and second years.
I love Dr. Kenneth Doka’s thoughts on grief and shared a video of one of his lectures in another post. These concepts of “Chain of Pain”, “Moving On” and “Continuing Bonds” kept bouncing around in my head.
What is so wonderful about the Alliance of Hope (AOH) is that the entire organization encourages members to share that even suicide loss grief is not, as Dr. Doka defines, a “Chain of Pain” – that is, a future that contains a gaping hole in one’s heart forever. So many AOH members who are much further down the road on the suicide loss grief journey have shared their experiences of growth. Life may not be easy, but it is better.
The term “moving on” seems to be fixed in the western psyche. “Moving on” implies that we must forget about our loved ones and other losses, leaving them behind to “fix” our grief. Dr. Terri Daniel, a hospice chaplain and trained grief counselor, related that western psychiatric theories in the 20th century cultivated the idea that a person must “give up,” “separate,” and essentially forget a loved one after they died, or they would be “pathologically grieving.” This bias, along with a general avoidance or even acknowledgment of the “dark emotions” (grief, fear despair) created confusion and uncertainty in western society in general – and increased isolation and despair for those who are grieving.
Dr. Doka used the term “ameliorated grief” to describe the process of when an individual has worked on experiencing his or her feelings and is beginning to build a new life. I like Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s definition also:
“Reconciliation … occurs as you work to integrate the new reality of moving forward in life without the physical presence of the person who died. With reconciliation comes a renewed sense of energy and confidence, an ability to fully acknowledge the reality of the death, and a capacity to become re-involved in the activities of living…. Beyond an intellectual working through of the death, there is also an emotional and spiritual working through. What had been understood at the head level is now understood at the heart level.” ~ Understanding Your Suicide Grief, page 198.
Dr. Daniel first introduced me to the concept of “continuing bonds.” She explained that this concept was first written about in the late 1990s. The authors posited that many non-Western cultures continued to honor their loved ones through rituals and celebrations for many years after their deaths. These practices did not harm individuals psychologically, in fact, these rituals and commemorations appeared to be helpful. I find that rituals such as poems, lighting candles, an altar, music, help me to remember my son and my other departed loved ones—and have made the grief journey easier.
Dr. Doka, in ending his lecture, told a story about the grief support groups he facilitated. He always ended the series of meetings with the following exercise: “Imagine that it is a year from today, and I see you in the supermarket. I ask “How are you doing?” He then asked each participant to share their response. He said he was surprised at how optimistic people were. Most said, “I’m doing much better.”
So, what is your response? As for me, in 2022, “I’m doing much better” too.
On December 23, 2019, I wrote a story in my journal to try to give myself some peace. It was just that – my way of self-comfort – not meant as what really happened. I would like to share it now:
“Once upon a time, God spoke with an angel. He told the angel that he would go to earth as a baby to be born to a very broken mother. He told the angel his time would be short. His mission was to teach this very broken woman how to love and give of herself. The angel came into the world on March 9, 1998, at 10:16 p.m. The woman was scared. The man was filled with excitement. The mother had a rough start with her new baby. She struggled. The father was amazing and supported her and she learned she could depend on others.
As the angel grew, so did her love and adoration. They grew to know each other. They built a bond. She learned true, unconditional love.
The angel was not like others. He was picked on and bullied. This hurt the angel and he began to break down, but because he was an angel, he kept his pain hidden. When he did finally share his pain, the mother dismissed it as hormones.
The mother did not realize he was an angel, and that his time was short. The angel thought his time was up and tried to go back to Heaven. God said he still had work to do. So, the angel carried on. He taught the woman about mental illness and suicide and the woman learned compassion.
The angel moved out on his own. He became addicted to meth. This broke the mother’s heart. However, she now saw the things that had broken her as a child in a different light. She had been training for this her whole life. From this, she learned strength. The angel once again felt his time was up. God said no. The angel gave up meth and hoped to inspire friends. Eventually, he eventually seemed happy and he promised the woman he would never try to leave her again.
On August 11, 2019, he was called to return home. The angel did not understand. God told him his suffering was over. He had taught the important lessons, but he had one more to teach. That broken woman had to learn she couldn’t do it all on her own. She had to learn to prioritize. She had to learn to face a pain like no other, yet still, carry on.
As that angel ascended back to heaven, he sent one last message, “I love you, mom! You can do this! Share my story. Share what you know. Reach others. Honor my memory.”
Not a day goes by that her heart doesn’t ache. But that angel? He is with her always.”
Today, for the first time since June, my mother braved driving herself to my house to see the gifts Santa brought the boys. She has been fighting cancer like the warrior she is, but chemo and radiation has left her exhausted. She is beginning to feel like herself again. She was afraid to drive, but she did. She was just what I needed.
She played games with the boys for a while, then mentioned how itchy the wig felt. She didn’t bring her wrap she usually uses. I have not been brave enough to see her head. I just couldn’t have that reality “in my face” along with my reality of losing David. However, I didn’t want her uncomfortable. She was brave. I could be brave. Her hair is growing back! She asked if I wanted to feel how soft it is. I did. In that hair, I had an epiphany of sorts.
When I lost David back in August, I was stripped of everything I thought I was and what was true. In those early days, I had no idea how I would ever move forward. Over the last four months, there has been small regrowth. It’s not much, but it’s enough to bring me hope. I am softer, just like her hair, exception being dealing with certain people.
She and I talked for quite some time. She’s scared. We don’t know how surgery is going to pan out for her because of her many past surgeries. However, we will be brave together, all of us.
She shared the reactions of the ornaments I gave to everyone. (Only my sister opened hers in front of me). Everyone teared up, but felt David was perfectly honored according to his relationship with each person. I am grateful I was brave and faced that day.
I really wish that cancer and suicide didn’t have to be the cause, but these devastating days in our lives is what brought my family back together as a United front.
So thank you, momma, for taking off your wig and giving me hope in your hair.
As a mother who lost her son to suicide, I am astonished by the questions people ask me about Tom’s death and their incomprehension of the impact on me when they inquire about the details. Below are some of the questions people have asked me and how they made me feel. I acknowledge everyone’s experience may be different, but perhaps some of these will ring true to you. I have been asked all of these questions at least once, and some of them many times. I do understand there is a natural curiosity around suicides, but I stand firm in my conviction that curiosity is not a justification for me to be asked to share the information.
When someone asks. “How did he do it?” I hear, “The details of Tom’s death are more important than the impact of his life.” Tom was a sensitive, loving, service-oriented, witty, and intelligent young man. I would much rather he be remembered for how he lived than for how he died. In addition, this question opens the door for me to relive seeing his lifeless body as well as the intensely emotional time after his suicide. And even though I received counseling after my loss, I continue to experience PTSD symptoms when I return to that time.
Also, research indicates discussing methods of suicide can lead to copycat suicide attempts when people feel emotionally connected to the person who died or the means they used. While it is important to normalize talking about suicide, methods should not be a topic of discussion. All that being said, when a classmate of Tom’s died by suicide a few months after he did, my first thought was, “How did she do it?” so I understand the desire to know. Ultimately, how she died did not matter. She was gone, and another family in our community was forever changed.
I have been surprised by the number of people who push back against this point and say that knowing how Tom died helps bring understanding and closure for them. If someone feels it is imperative they know that information, they may be able to find it in different ways including the newspaper, talking to people other than close family members, and searching public records. Someone’s desire to know the means Tom used to kill himself does not outweigh my feelings or others’ safety.
When someone asks, “Didn’t you see the signs?” I hear, “You failed as a parent because you were not aware.” It took almost a year after Tom died for me to recognize the signs of his depression and suicide ideation, and that was only because I chose to become a suicide prevention advocate and learned to identify them through my research. That then led to a whole new set of issues for me in counseling because I had to come to terms with the idea that had there been an intervention, Tom might be alive today.
When someone asks, “Why did he do it?” I hear, “You should be able to explain his actions.” Survivors of suicide loss often feel stigma and may be questioning their own failures to address potential risk factors. Asking why the person attempted suicide reinforces the idea that their loved ones should know the reason or should have known there was an issue. In addition, suicides and suicide attempts are often presented as plot devices in television shows, movies, books, and plays as having one cause, when in reality there are often a number of risk factors associated with suicide attempts. Searching for one reason or risk factor or looking for one cause may perpetuate the falsehood of only one reason for an attempt.
When someone asks, “Did he leave a note? or, “What did his note say?” I hear, “The details of Tom’s last thoughts are more important than your feelings.” Suicide is a traumatic loss and discussing the existence of a note is intrusive. According to healthtalk.org, only 25-30% of suicides are accompanied by a note. If there is not a note, discussing its absence may be difficult because the family is left with many questions about their loved one’s death, and a note’s absence is just one more point of pain for them. If there is a suicide note, its contents may be highly distressing for survivors and will likely never answer all the questions of those left behind. I can personally attest to this point. It is preferable not to bring it up with survivors.
I want to believe most people do not mean to be hurtful when they ask these kinds of questions, and that they do not understand their painful impact. Wouldn’t it be preferable if people asked us about our loves one’s life, rather than their death?
Here are some examples of questions I would welcome about Tom:
What are some of your favorite things about Tom?
Tell me a story about Tom which would help me get to know him better.
What are some adjectives which describe Tom?
What do you miss most about Tom?
When people have asked me questions like these, I have shared stories about Tom’s life, and in some cases, his death, because I get to control the conversation’s content and audience. There is a natural curiosity around suicide, informed at least partly by how it is portrayed so often in the entertainment we digest. As a culture, we are speaking more openly about mental illness and suicide ideation which is wonderful! However, speaking about it in a larger sense is vastly different than talking about our lost loved ones. I wish those who are curious about our losses could be more sensitive to our feelings.
We are headed into the holiday season, which is often a tough time for those grieving the death of a loved one. You may be feeling little call to celebrate, decorate, or buy gifts. Or you may be growing increasingly anxious and sad as the holidays approach. Family holiday traditions, as well as the festivities and expectations of the outside world, are hard to navigate with a broken heart.
This year, I imagine that most everyone will be doing things a bit differently – whether they have lost someone or not. The pandemic, unemployment, and economic anxieties have altered so many things for all of us. And you may be rethinking or revising the traditions of previous years in order to satisfy social distancing guidelines. I know I am.
For eight months now, I have been talking to new loss survivors who are grappling with the pandemic in addition to the death of their loved one. They have needed to social distance while managing funerals, memorials, and tending to all the collateral tasks resulting from loved ones’ deaths. Many have postponed memorials or held very small gatherings. They have been isolated, without the close, in-person support of friends, family, and counselors, which is so important. It has been heartbreaking to me, to know they are going through this.
New loss survivors are often very concerned about upcoming holidays and special occasions. If this is true for you, I’d like to suggest something that helped me immensely 25 years ago, when my grief was new. Find a way to “own” your own holiday. Take it back from the culture and make it personal. Make it just big enough and just small enough to fit what is happening for you and your family right now.
Do what you need to do to get through it
I still recall the emptiness I felt the first year after my stepson’s death when previous traditions no longer fit. I could not shop. I certainly could not put up elaborate decorations. I could barely get through each day. At some point, I decided to put an angel figure in every room of the house. That seemed appropriate. I recall that my daughter Heather gave me a pair of angel earrings with a note: “If you wear these Mom, there will be an angel in every room you enter.”
So, if I can give you one tip, as the holidays approach, I urge you to go within and honor your feelings. Seek the wisdom of your own higher self. There is no right or wrong. Our culture dictates so much, but it is possible to take things back. Think about what you want to do – what is meaningful for you – and trust your instincts.
During that first holiday 25 years ago, I felt such deep despair I could not envision a future of anything but loneliness and pain. With the help of others, I survived and eventually begin to thrive. It was a journey of many years, but during that time, I grew stronger. I believe you will too. I grew wiser. I believe you will too. I chose to live, and then live in a way that makes a difference. I believe you can too.
Be sure to check out our website if you are looking for additional articles and holiday tips, and please know that others understand and will be there for you on the Alliance of Hope Forum. You are not alone. As always, my thoughts and prayers are with each and every member of the Alliance of Hope community.
A Conversation Between Survivors on the Alliance of Hope Forum
MadTobey: “Coronavirus. Job loss. And now inconceivably, the suicide of my beautiful boy. Give me a reason to go on!”
Ano: “Sadly, I wish I could give you a good reason, other than you matter to somebody, and that your life isn’t over until it is over. Or that there is much more to life than this pain, even if you cannot see or understand it right now.
All I can say is that I’ve been where you are. I understand your struggle and fight within yourself. Soon after my son died, I fell into a deep depression, hitting rock bottom for the first time at three months and came close to ending my life. Those were really difficult months, and the grief counselor didn’t help by saying that I wasn’t depressed, I was only grieving. I wanted to explode. Then my sister-in-law called and told me to be grateful for everything in my life and that there are some parents who lost two children. She basically said that my loss wasn’t as big as those other parents.
And then the anger about all of this came. I was ****ed at everything and everybody. You would just look in my direction and bat your eyelashes twice instead of once and I would burn down the world. Not proud of myself for acting in such a crazy way, yet that anger saved my life. I learned to use it as fuel to get through one more day. It dragged me by the hair through bouts of depression. As time went on, I learned to get back on my feet, to deal with this grief instead of grief dealing with me.
So, what can I say to you to make you angry enough to get up every day, cursing a little (or a lot) just enough to put your one foot in front of the other while you are working through this pain?”
Ibis1110: “I am so sorry – it seems like everything in the world is topsy-turvy right now. What do you feel up to doing? If you aren’t feeling like you can read, there are many podcasts on the internet right now, on so many subjects. Be kind to yourself. Basics help. Take a shower. Make sure to eat something. Drink some water. If you are up to it take a walk.”
Lost in the Dark: “I am so sorry for the loss of your beautiful boy. Six months ago, I lost my beautiful girl. I understand completely not having a reason to go on. Early on I considered following her as a viable option. I found this forum early after the loss. There are others who can give much better advice than I can. Just know you are not alone on this dark journey. Peace and God bless you.”
Vin2018: MadToby, life has many flaws … and suddenly way too many of them. Jobless, COVID-19, Losing your son — all at the same time make you crazy. Take your time, be stable, you need both mental and physical help to get through this.”
MissingHim: “Our beautiful forum manager, @hazel, often says “The future is unwritten.” Four powerful words that mean so much. I have often thought about them over the years. I’ve been here a long time and have seen so many survivors – including me – go from the darkest devastation to amazing transitions in which their strength grows into ways to keep, share, and honor the love and lives they shared with ones they lost too soon. — Every single time I see that it is like a miracle. You matter. What impact you will have in the world matters so much. I am so sorry you are hurting so much. All of this is too much. But somehow, we help each other carry it.
Sending hugs and hope, Jan
PS: 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.”
It feels so strange to say this. I really hope I don’t change my mind. I will no longer take the blame for the loss of my son. I have searched and searched. I’ve blamed and blamed. It was my fault for not reaching out more. It was my fault for whispering that if he needed to go, I understood. I knew he was in a lot of pain when I saw him in the hospital. It was my fault for distancing myself when he came forward about his addiction. It was my fault because as a mother, it is my job to keep my children safe. I’ve blamed myself for ever getting involved with the man I’m with now. Recent happenings have left me saying, “All this just so my son dies?!”
When I looked through his phone, for some reason, all of his texts start on July 7. He and I exchanged 440 messages from July 7 through August 11. None of his other text threads came close. I reached out enough.
When I gave him permission to go, it wasn’t that I wanted him to die. I wanted peace for him. I love him enough to let him go.
I distanced myself from his addiction – but I never turned my back. I was always there for him, even if he needed to lash out.
As a mother, I still feel keeping my children safe is my responsibility. However, he was 21 and living out on his own. There was only so much I could do. While I could always sense when he was in trouble and swoop in just in time, I was sound asleep when he did this. It is not my fault for sleeping.
He did not leave a note in his phone, but just as I suspected, he expressed his thoughts in his phone’s notepad. He claims I left him out in the cold to raise his brothers. I felt guilty until his father reminded me that I didn’t. He was always welcome to be here, too. He knew that. He declined every offer I made. I did not leave him out in the cold. He chose to live his life.
It is also not my fault for meeting a man who made me happy and falling in love. Things sure are icky right now, but it isn’t his fault either that David is gone.
The event that opened my eyes to the possibility of life after death was something that happened about four years after my son left this world. It was late summer, and I was on my way to work. It was foggy that morning. The visibility was only about 20 feet, and I was traveling on a country road. I was nervous but not terrified. I was more afraid of a deer jumping out of the fog than anything else. Unfortunately, that was not the case for the driver of the pick-up truck that came barreling out of the fog – on my side of the road, driving way too fast for the weather conditions.
I had a split second to decide to move off the road and take my chance that the ditch wasn’t as deep as it looked, or let the other driver hit me head-on. I chose the ditch, and it was even deeper than I thought. I remember looking out the side window – seeing only grass and mud in the bottom of the ditch – thinking “I’m going to roll over,” and praying for help. Then I heard my son’s voice say, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll help you.”
A feeling of utter peace came over me and the next thing I knew I was back on the road and stopped. I got out of my car, knees shaking so badly I could hardly stand, and walked around it to see how much damage had been done. I was amazed. Not a scratch! In fact, it didn’t look like it had ever been off the road. I remember getting back into the car, thanking Josh for helping me, and thanking God for answering my prayer for help. I still had about 20 miles to go to get to work, and the rest of the drive was uneventful. Or at least, I guess it was. I don’t remember it.
When I got to work and parked, one of my co-workers came over and asked me what had happened. I told him about my accident but couldn’t help but wonder how he knew something had happened. He pointed out that both my front tires were completely flat! Not only did my son keep me from being injured, he helped me get my car to where I could get the tires fixed.
This was a major turning point for me. I began reading everything I could find about life after death because, in that moment of panic, I became a believer. Could it have been my imagination? Feel free to believe that if you wish … but I know better.
Our loved ones watch over us and know when we need them the most.
My 26-year-old son, Rob, died by suicide in December 2016. He was smart, successful and kind, and suffered from a depression that was deeper than I could have fathomed. I miss him every day.
Last summer I was asked to recommend an organization to be the recipient of an annual fundraising event by the Heughans Heughligans Facebook Group. Until recently, I had been one of several admins for the group which began as fans of Diana Gabaldon’s book, “Outlander.” Outlander is the first of eight novels and various novellas in the series.
Alliance of Hope immediately came to mind; I was so impressed by the support provided to myself and other suicide loss survivors. I forwarded the contact information for Alliance of Hope to Heughans Heughligans.
Afterward, I wondered if perhaps I should’ve recommended a suicide prevention, rather than a suicide loss survivor group. But as soon as I had that thought, I was struck by the notion that my son wanted me to heal. He wanted me to be happy again one day. He knew his death would cause me indescribably pain, and yet his pain was so vast, so overwhelming, he could no longer hold onto this life. His struggle ended at last and I believe he is at peace. However, while my pain has eased with the years, it will endure as long as I’m living.
I’ve heard the following analogy. Picture a bookcase with a solitary book on the shelf labeled “Grief.” Your bookcase has only that one book for quite some time, but eventually, other books are added. One day the shelves of your bookcase are full. You may exchange one book for another over the years but that volume, labeled “Grief,” is the constant that will remain on the shelf forever.
That forever grief is the reason Alliance of Hope provides such a valuable service to suicide loss survivors and the reason I’m grateful to have been able to help by giving back to this community. I know deep in my heart it’s what my son would have wanted. It’s what all the loved ones we’ve lost to suicide would want for us. They would want us to survive -and also to see us thrive. They would want to see our bookcase overflowing. Alliance of Hope offers the help we need to begin.