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Three Years After – A Message of Hope

Three years ago, today, my husband and I returned from a short vacation and found our son, George, dead by his own hand. It is the most devastating blow a person can experience, as you all know.

Those first days and weeks were filled with “Why, Why, Why!” We agonized over what we had or had not done or said. Our sleep, eating, and minds were disordered. I started keeping a journal after a week because I could not remember what had happened in the previous days. The searing raw pain was almost unbearable, but we all went on for each other. All the “firsts”- holidays and birthdays – were borne with tears, sadness, and a sense of unreality.

Georgina and her son George, at Pinetop.

In the following two years, my husband, my daughter, and I each experienced major health problems. Hypertensive crisis, cardiac problems, panic attacks, gall bladder surgery, gout, and chronic fatigue. We lost friends and gained a new appreciation for those who had the courage to stand by us and witness our grief. Triggers were everywhere – from the grocery store to the parking lot where we taught him to drive. If I had a momentary glimpse of joy, I felt terribly guilty. Slowly, the pain of our loss changed from gut-wrenching to the constant ache of a bad tooth.

I started therapy in year two because I felt that I was just marking time until I died and this relentless ache and depression ended. There was, even then, a spark in me that wanted to start living again. We talked through a lot of emotions and I worked on forgiving myself. In a therapy session late last year, I finally broke through to a place where I felt I could lay the burden of his death down.

We don’t have to carry it. We can let it walk alongside us.

I write this as a message of hope, particularly for those in the early stages of their loss. It may seem impossible to you that you will ever feel peace or joy again. I didn’t believe it was possible. This third year, on the anniversary of his death, I can say, that I feel a measure of equanimity in my life and a hope for a future where I can enjoy the simple pleasures of life without the shadow of survivors’ guilt dimming my happiness. He is always right there with me, just behind my right shoulder.

Losing My Son: Reflections Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, our 39-year old son Robert took his life. Ten years since our hearts were smashed into pieces, our world ripped apart, and we joined an exclusive club no one ever asks to join. The shock and pain that followed I do not need to describe. You who are reading this already know those emotions all too well.

Ten years later, the tidal wave of grief that ripped loose the footings of our lives has receded. The pain is still there but manageable, and the fog of fresh grief has been lightened by the clarity of time. For those of you whose grief is fresher, I write this – hopefully, to offer something that resonates and makes traveling the grief highway just a bit easier.

That first year was absolute hell. The pain was so acute at times I literally could not breathe. I managed to get through the first couple of weeks by focusing on making the funeral arrangements, cleaning out Robert’s apartment, settling his affairs. Afterward, back in our new reality, it was a different story. The warm cocoon of caring relatives and friends went back to their lives, the world moved on. We cried every day, and every night, and when we finished crying, we cried some more.

Finding a skilled grief counselor and a support group at Friends for Survival was a godsend. I needed to pour out my heart; my friends from “before” cared but could not understand what I was going through. Being with people who knew firsthand what it really is all about made all the difference. I learned that with suicide, too many of us tend to chomp down on our feelings, to squeeze off the tears. We try to bravely soldier on and tell everyone we’re fine. Don’t. Ignore your emotions, and your grief will just fester until the inevitable day of reckoning.

When things got overwhelming, which was pretty much every day, I climbed on my exercise bike, determined to ride till the pedals or I fell off, whichever came first. If that did not unbottle things enough, I would listen to the most tear-jerking, rip-my-guts out music I could find. I also started journaling like crazy when I was awake and whenever I woke in the night – which was often.

By the second year, the grief was duller but just as painful, maybe even more so as the numbness wore off. It would have been all too easy to shut down and just go through the motions, to just shout “I’m not here anymore and I’m not returning!” And like many of us, I kept trying to find out why, to recreate Robert’s life in the months leading up to his suicide. I talked with his friends, read his text messages, scoured his bills. Did it help? Perhaps, but it did not change the reality that my son was dead. And it opened way too many futile ‘what ifs and if only’s.’

Birthdays and holidays were a challenge, particularly the first ones. Holidays can be grim sentinels bearing harsh witness to all we have lost. So, we found new ways to commemorate, if not celebrate, those days.

Somewhere around the seven-year mark, I had pretty much forgiven everyone else, except for one person – me. Robert and I were good friends as adults, but I was not the father I should have been when he was growing up. I wondered if God was punishing me for when I had been insensitive to others, too self-centered to notice that someone I loved was hurting. I truly believe, though, that God does not hurt others to punish us for our own misdeeds, and that the first heart to be broken when my son killed himself was God’s. If I was really going to heal, I needed to forgive myself – a work still in progress. In the interim, I’ve managed to negotiate a truce with myself.

This is what I have learned ten years later: My grief was not only for my lost son but also for what I lost of myself as well. A loved one’s suicide is not something we get over, nor even get through, rather it is something we come to terms with over time. By accepting our grief and loss as part of who we now are, we gradually heal. Our ‘new normal’ does not mean that we are doomed to a lifetime of just going through the motions; we can re-engage in living fully. We discover that the hole in our heart can hold both joy and sadness, laughter, and tears at the same time.

There are no shortcuts – the only way to come to terms with grief is to grieve. Be patient with yourself – let time do the heavy lifting of healing. There is no timetable; every person’s grief is unique, so do not let anyone else tell you when grieving should be over. This Father’s Day, when we visit Robert’s grave, there will still be tears, our hearts will still ache. But there will be smiles and laughter as we remember our Robert and the light he brought into our lives. The sadness of his absence will be joined by a calm acceptance holding us tight.

Remember to be gentle on yourself, my fellow traveler, as you walk this road. Your family needs you; you need you. Sometimes it will seem you are not making any progress, just going in circles or even backwards. Be patient and stay the course. It will be the hardest work you will ever do, but I promise you with all my heart there will come a time when the road levels off, when the dark gives way to light, when laughter and joy returns, and you realize within yourself is a strength you never knew you possessed.

Yoga: Relief for Grief

It’s been eight years since my son Ian took his life. One month after his death began my introduction to how breathwork and yoga would be so integral to my healing journey and my new mission in life. In those early days, weeks, and months, I felt unable to breathe. It felt as if a cloud was sitting in my chest – a dark, grey cloud blocking all of my energy, breath, and emotion. 

When I joined the Alliance of Hope forum four weeks after Ian died, one of the first posts welcoming me read something like this: “Drink lots of water, rest as much as you can, and consider doing this breath exercise: Inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 4, repeating as many times as you need to feel better.” 

I was so thankful and amazed that something so simple could be so healing. Four months later, I started to take yoga classes at a studio close to my home. I went every day that I could. I loved the quiet and anonymity. I found myself craving the physical movements, quiet meditation, and breathing techniques and I noticed over time that the dark, grey cloud was slowly dissipating. 

Yoga and Its Impact on Grief

Yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years and started in India. The word yoga means union or yoke – bringing the mind, body, and breath together as one. Maybe you are thinking of yoga as those crazy poses shown on Instagram and Facebook but that’s not what it’s all about. Although the yoga of today in the West focuses more on the physical practice, the elements of meditation and breathing are just as important.  

Dr. Timothy McCall, a physician, author, and yoga therapist, compiled a list of 117 conditions helped by yoga, many of which are related to grief (such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and stress). I noticed right away that by practicing various breathing techniques in my yoga class or at home, I felt less anxious and more physically relaxed. 

In her book, Yoga for Grief and Loss, Karla Helbert notes, “Grief impacts every aspect of our being. It affects us physically, mentally, cognitively, emotionally, spiritually and philosophically, in every aspect of body, mind, and spirit. The practice of yoga addresses self-care, helps to integrate the experience of loss, and supports feelings of connection and relationship with loved ones who have died.” I found that the more I was able to fully breathe, the more I could relax and let go of my emotions. Yoga helped me move through my grief. The cloud near my heart slowly shrank as I continued my practice.

What Type of Yoga Works Best?

There are many styles of yoga today like Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Restorative, Laughing Yoga, and Yin, and all incorporate various aspects of meditation, physical movement, and breathwork. There is no “one size fits all.” You may be drawn to a more rigorous physical practice or maybe meditation is best for you at this time during your grief journey. My practice evolved over time. I liked the physical movements and poses because that got me out of my head and focused on breathing with each movement. Gradually I came to crave the meditative aspects which helped me go deeper into my soul. 

If you are early in your grief, you may see benefits from simple breathing techniques. Try box breath, a seemingly simple yet powerful technique to reduce stress and anxiety.   

  • inhale to a count of 4,
  • hold the breath for a count of 4,
  • exhale to a count of 4,
  • hold the breath for a count of 4.

Another technique is this 5-minute breath awareness that you can download from my website.

Here are some other resources you may find helpful:

Yoga is just one tool to help you find relief from grief, but it is one that I use every day. As I continued to integrate my loss and grief into my life, I found new purpose and a mission as a yoga teacher helping others find the healing powers of yoga. May you find peace and comfort on your journey and may yoga be one of the tools you can use to help you heal.

Laughing at Myself

The week of my son’s death I received a summons to jury duty. I had completely forgotten about it until a few days ago and so needless to say I didn’t mail my paperwork with my request to be excused. Today was my day to report so I filled out the paperwork and typed up a letter detailing why I needed to be dismissed. My son has been gone just short of two months and so this was one of the first times I have truly had to deal with being out in public much less dealing with having to tell a judge my life story.

As I waited my turn to approach the bench and speak, I started having an anxiety attack and it took almost 20 minutes for it to be my turn. I still thought I can do this. I walked up when he called and stood before him, I handed the papers to a woman beside him when she reached for them and then I couldn’t open my mouth. I could not say a word, I froze.

He is looking at me at this point like I am crazy and with impatience and he tells me again to go ahead. I still can’t speak. I was trying so hard not to burst out crying, the tears welled up and I finally managed to croak out “I CAN’T say it out loud, I typed it” I looked at the women and she looks at me and starts fumbling through my papers. I look back at the judge who is really starting to look confused and frustrated.

Finally, the lady finds my typed letter and hands it to him and he begins to read my almost full page which began – “I, Betsy…………, request to be excused from this term of jury duty because my son, age 16, committed suicide by gunshot wound to the head on April 30, 2011……..” it proceeded to say that I have four other children at home to care for that are having a hard time dealing with their brother’s death.

He had not read far when the look on his face and his entire being read that of shock, horror and pity. He looked up at me then and simply said “You’re excused” I said, “Thank you sir” and managed to make it out to my vehicle before completely losing it.

Then I started to laugh which I don’t know is a better thing. It started out kind of hysterical but then softened as I got it all out. I can only imagine what the other 50 or so people in the court room were thinking and how we must have looked. Maybe I am crazy to have found humor in this at all, but I did so there it is.

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Finding Strength in Uncertain Times

Last week, I stopped reading the news and began to seek ways to calm and center myself. I suspect I am not alone in doing this. Things had become too scary. Too sad. Too out of control.

You may have similar feelings. Members of our forum tell me they are worried about the safety of their families and friends, their jobs, and the economy. Reports of infection and the mounting death rate seem surreal – like something we would see in a disaster movie – but certainly not in real life.

People everywhere, are dealing with issues resulting from COVID-19. Some have lost jobs and wonder how they will pay the rent or buy groceries. Some have had to forgo important medical treatments and worry about that. Some are homeless, unable to shelter in place. Some are separated from loved ones. And still others go out in the world every day to provide care – returning each night, hoping not to infect their families.

Suicide loss survivors in the Alliance of Hope community are reaching for strength right now. Many – especially those newer to loss – were already stressed, traumatized and grieving. Many have lost access to in-person support and counseling.

I along with all of you have been searching for ways to cope, steady myself, and serve in ways that comfort and empower. It was only today, when I looked back at other challenging times in my life, that I saw a way through for myself. I will share it with you and please know, I invite your insights and want to know how you are making it through.

I Am Counting Angels.

I am counting those who come forward in kindness, with love, and generosity. Those who offer to help or who extend a kind word or deed. I am focusing on how extraordinary human beings can be.

The first and only other time I have done this was 18 years ago when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I wrote about it at the time – it is very personal to me, but I am glad to share it with you now:

“As I look back now, on my mother’s illness, I have realized that it was less than four weeks from the time she was officially diagnosed with pancreatic cancer until the time of her death. 

“My mother knew that her cancer was terminal. She received hospice services at the end of her life. Those last four weeks were both the worst of times and the best of times. They were the worst of times in that we bore witness to a cancer that robbed her of her strength and independence and eventually took her life. They were the best of times in that we bore witness and were able to participate in an extraordinary outpouring of love and kindness … from family, friends, neighbors, caregivers, and strangers. We sometimes said that we were ‘counting the angels landing around my mother,’ because that is how it felt.

“During those final weeks, my mother received many messages of love and acknowledgment from across the country as cards, phone calls, and unexpected visitors arrived daily. My mother was weak … too weak usually to visit or return a call … but my daughters and I told her of every message and read her every card. We told her of all the friends who were reminiscing about her good deeds to us. We told her about all the people who said that she had made a difference in their lives. We told her of the family members who called daily, who wanted to fly in to be with her, who offered money for her care if it was needed. And we told her how much we loved her.

“My mother was humble and surprised by ‘the fuss.’ I explained to her several times that the outpouring reflected the love that people had for her kindness and compassion. It reflected an appreciation for her life of service to others … and for her wisdom. She didn’t say much. She was weak. But do I believe that by the time she died, she realized how fully she was loved.”

Counting angels got me though that time of incredible loss. This too is a time of incredible loss and uncertainty, yet it is also a time in which the best of human beings is visible – if we look. I am going to focus on that. I can’t go far outside, but I can go deep within myself. I can seek to strengthen my own connection to the eternal and my ability to remain kind in difficult situations.

So, this is what I am doing. I hope you will share with me what you are doing, by leaving a comment on this post. Together, as a community born of loss and anchored in kindness, we are stronger.

Just Hold On

When we are within the throes of uncertainty sometimes all we can do is hold on. 

It might mean literally holding onto someone: someone close to you, someone dear to you, someone you love. Just hold on.

It might mean holding onto something tangible, something in front of you, something to hold you up and support you. Just hold on.

It might mean holding onto a feeling, an idea, a memory that sustains you. Recall it. Feel it. Just hold on. 

It might mean holding onto a friend, a confidant, a fellow traveler through the dark. Or maybe it’s holding onto spirits you see around you, angels you feel guiding you, or the Divine Spirit that is within you. Just hold on.

Holding on means something different, for each of us, depending on where we are, or what we are going through. Maybe it changes from stage to stage or day to day. No matter what it is, regardless of when it comes, when the grief overwhelms us, the night descends upon us, and the darkness comes calling – all that matters is we just hold on. 

There is always someone or something, somewhere to hold onto. So find it. Take hold of it. And hold on to it. Night always gives way to morning. Darkness always gives way to light. Your grief, as hard as it is to believe when you are in it, will eventually diminish and become bearable. Trust. Believe. Have faith. But for now it’s enough to hold on – so hold on.

Here is a beautiful poem to help you hold on.

Hold on to what is good,
even if it’s a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe,
even if it’s a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do,
even if it’s a long way from here.
Hold on to your life,
even if it’s easier to let go.
Hold on to my hand,
even if I’ve gone away from you.

–A Pueblo Indian Prayer

Rabbi B

About the Author

Rabbi B

Rabbi B

Rabbi Dr. Baruch HaLevi is Executive Director of Soul Centered, a center for loss, grief and healing, and author of, “Spark Seekers: Mourning with Meaning; Living with Light.” Spark Seekers details his journey in surviving the suicides of both his grandmother and father and having guided thousands of people from all religions, backgrounds, and beliefs through death’s darkness, back to life’s light.Read More »

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Meeting the Challenge Together in the Spirit of Compassion

I see the media as an institution that often thrives on creating fear. What sells newspapers? Bad news!! When was the last time you have watched the news or read a paper that was mostly about feel-good stories?

For this reason, I listen to the media with half an ear only. And I’ve long-gone learned to not be so much invested in the world and its beliefs. There are a whole lot of other things that we should be worried about but are never spoken of. This is the circle of life and we don’t have a whole lot of control over it.

Hopefully, these headlines will ease within a couple of months or so. In the meantime, take care of yourself, do what you need to do to be healthy, focus on the good because focusing on the fear will make you more inclined to get sick too.

I’d like to share with you something I read on Facebook this morning by Abdu Sharkawy. He wrote:

“I’m a doctor and an Infectious Diseases Specialist. I’ve been at this for more than 20 years seeing sick patients on a daily basis. I have worked in inner city hospitals and in the poorest slums of Africa. HIV-AIDS, Hepatitis, SARS, Measles, Shingles, Whooping cough, Diphtheria – there is little I haven’t been exposed to in my profession. And with notable exception of SARS, very little has left me feeling vulnerable, overwhelmed or downright scared.

“I am not scared of COVID-19. I am concerned about the implications of a novel infectious agent that has spread the world over and continues to find new footholds in different soil. I am rightly concerned for the welfare of those who are elderly, in frail health or disenfranchised who stand to suffer mostly, and disproportionately, at the hands of this new scourge. But I am not scared of COVID-19.

“What I am scared about is the loss of reason and wave of fear that has induced the masses of society into a spellbinding spiral of panic, stockpiling obscene quantities of anything that could fill a bomb shelter adequately in a post-apocalyptic world. I am scared of the N95 masks that are stolen from hospitals and urgent care clinics where they are actually needed for front line healthcare providers and instead are being donned in airports, malls, and coffee lounges, perpetuating even more fear and suspicion of others. I am scared that our hospitals will be overwhelmed with anyone who thinks they “probably don’t have it but may as well get checked out no matter what because you just never know…” and those with heart failure, emphysema, pneumonia and strokes will pay the price for overfilled ER waiting rooms with only so many doctors and nurses to assess.

“But mostly, I’m scared about what message we are telling our kids when faced with a threat. Instead of reason, rationality, open-mindedness and altruism, we are telling them to panic, be fearful, suspicious, reactionary and self-interested.

“COVID-19 is nowhere near over. It will be coming to a city, a hospital, a friend, even a family member near you at some point. Expect it. Stop waiting to be surprised further. The fact is the virus itself will not likely do much harm when it arrives. But our own behaviors and “fight for yourself above all else” attitude could prove disastrous.

“I implore you all. Temper fear with reason, panic with patience and uncertainty with education. We have an opportunity to learn a great deal about health hygiene and limiting the spread of innumerable transmissible diseases in our society. Let’s meet this challenge together in the best spirit of compassion for others, patience, and above all, an unfailing effort to seek truth, facts and knowledge as opposed to conjecture, speculation and catastrophizing.

“Facts not fear. Clean hands. Open hearts.”

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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A Conversation About Suicide Loss

Alliance of Hope founder Ronnie Walker had the pleasure of speaking with Sherrie Dunlevy, host of The Grief Anonymous Podcast, and author of the book: “How Can I Help – Your Go-to Guide for Helping Loved Ones through Life’s Difficulties.” Following the loss of her son in 1999, Sherrie developed a profound commitment to those who are grieving.

Sherrie wanted to know what led Ronnie to launch the Alliance of Hope in 2008. They discussed common, as well lesser-known, aspects of the suicide grief experience, and resources for suicide loss survivors. We hope you will find some comfort and value in watching or listening to their conversation.

You can watch the video below, or listen to the podcast.

A Crow Flew Down

I had a dream the other night of a crow that flew down out of the trees and landed in my arms like a baby. I cradled it and passed it around. It was my spirit returning to me, this was the feel. When I awoke, I had a different feeling, like a corner had been turned.

I love my son. The pain of his leaving was so incredibly painful and gut-wrenching, I thought this time would never come. A clear blue open spot for me to breathe for a moment. 

Today while speaking to my father on the phone, feeling good, I looked up and a single pitch-black crow was flying low among the trees. It circled, and just for a moment I thought it was going to do exactly what my dream crow did. Maybe it will land one day, but it pulled up and made my heart flutter. And as I got back into the conversation with Dad, a nervous grin, a cautious joy visited. I listened and he did something he never does, he told me a story from when he and Mom had been on their third date. 

I still cannot watch home videos of my son, but things are getting better. A corner has been turned. The sky is back to looking blue, and my face smiles before I have the chance to stop it. You, yeah, the person a few days or a few months into this nightmare – my heart is with you. Do whatever you can, do as little or as much as you can, but stay with us. A part of me is reserved to be with you. It is no trouble, this peace is incomplete unless it is for you too.

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Dorothy’s Love

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. 

Turtle

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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After the Interview — Did I Say the Right Things?

I was recently invited to speak with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who was writing an article on suicide loss survivors and what we did to help us cope with our grief. She was talking to other survivors who were further along and wanted to speak with someone who was fairly new to the journey.

I hesitated before responding – wondering if I was really ready to take this step. I have been open about how my son Jared died from day one. I have tried to honor him by speaking out about depression and suicide since he could never acknowledge his own pain and suffering. I was scared about being featured in a national paper, but I took a deep breath and said yes, I would talk with her.

Andrea Peterson, who writes about health and travel for the Wall Street Journal, contacted me 5 days later. We talked for over an hour. She asked me questions and I cried as I relived the day Jared died, the early months after his death and why I joined the Alliance of Hope forum. Andrea was so kind, compassionate and grateful for my contribution. She called me several times to check facts and read me parts of the article before it was published.

I worried about how the article would come across. Did I say the right things? Did I say enough? What would she choose to include from our conversation? How would she portray Jared?

I was at work on the day the article appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Andrea sent me the link. She was anxious for me to read the article and give her feedback. She told me many people were commenting positively. I read the article on my coffee break and cried all over again. It was a wonderful article, illustrated with the last photo ever taken of Jared and me together. It brought back all the happy memories of the week we spent together. I remember how calm and at peace he was and how we laughed as we roasted marshmallows over the campfire.

Needless to say, it has been more difficult to deal with emotions than I thought it would be. I thought I was stronger. I have cried daily and started having dreams about Jared’s death again. There are things I had shoved way down inside, things that I had thought I had adequately dealt with. My therapist is helping me work through these new/old feelings.

As hard as this has been for me, I am glad I did it. I think I am headed in the right direction. My friends and family have read the article and are proud of me for finding the strength to carry through with my desire to be Jared’s voice and the voice of survivors of suicide loss. Changing the conversation surrounding suicide is my passion now. I want to advocate for survivors and offer comfort where I can.

Traveling this journey is so hard. Doing it alone makes it even worse. Having others to turn to gives us the strength to carry on each day.

The Day We Came Together

Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.” ~Eugene Ionesco

I thought about the New Year and realized I, and probably most of us, don’t measure time on a standard calendar. Our reference date is the day of our loved one’s suicide. We also think of life as “before” and “after” that most horrific day.

It was, for each of us, a day of inconceivable anguish and the likely end of future dreams as we knew them. It was a day we replay over and over in our minds as though each piercing detail were etched onto our brains.

Whatever we believed before, we question. Whatever kind of life we had imagined, we ache, physically and emotionally, once wrenched away.

Many survivors begin to question their faith, for example. “How could a loving God do this?” Some question our mental health system regarding a perceived inadequacy for truly understanding and helping suicidal people. We question whether we were “good enough” mothers or fathers or husbands or wives or siblings or relatives or friends.

The day the dreams were brutally shattered was the day we came together in anguish, regardless of exactly when each of us found the Alliance of Hope Forum. Grief does not exist in a vacuum. We are and will remain travelers together on a most difficult path.

In time, however, the words of one can begin to sound exactly like another is feeling. A post about something funny or touching brings a small, but meaningful smile. Holding the anguish of someone else for even a few minutes lightens his or her burden and strengthens our own fragile sense of humanity. We learn to allow ourselves to let in the light of others who have been on the journey longer and who may have a strategy to temper the anguish with triumphs. Different dreams are born out of renewed hope.

It is perfectly fine if a person simply wants to read the posts and not respond until he or she is ready, or ever. Empathy knows no constraints nor does it incur a debt.

The Alliance of Hope is a place of miracles where personal ideologies are put aside temporarily for the greater good. It is a place where the deepest longings of the soul are revealed. It is a place of anguish, but it is equally a place where someone will respond to the loudest and also, the faintest pleas for an understanding ear. Survivors are united by anguish and dreams as well as by overwhelming human kindness offered every day and nearly every moment to friends and strangers alike.

That is an incredible ideology, perhaps a little separate in a way from the mainstream, but somehow making us stronger as one hand holds the next and one heart reaches out to another.

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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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.

Imperceptible 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?

About the Author

From Our Forum

From Our Forum

The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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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 oversimplify 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

About the Author

From Our Forum

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The Alliance of Hope online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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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. 

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Jan McDaniel

Jan McDaniel volunteers as an Alliance of Hope forum moderator, manager, and blog content provider. She is also a regular contributor to Psych Central’s World of Psychology blog and writes about survival, connection, and hope on her website.Read More »

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