This New Life: Turning Back Toward Life

Survivors must deal with so very much in the months and years after the suicide of a loved one, but life still calls us to return from that private world of grief and mourning. At some point, I heard that call and began to answer.

In small, almost unnoticeable steps, I instinctively found that creating a comforting atmosphere made the hours a little easier to bear. In my bedroom, I put some artificial flowers in a vase, hung a couple of paper lanterns on the windows. Anything to create beauty soothed my soul. I couldn’t listen to music with words for a long time, but I found peace in classical and alternative (zen) recordings. I played this music in the car and when I was at home.

Staying away from the news and disturbing programs on television really made a difference. I visited the Alliance of Hope Community Forum a lot. Eventually, I returned to church, where I found great comfort in prayer and in being with friends who were not grieving.

Meditation, self-hypnosis MP3s, and yoga also brought a physical structure to my days. Simple stretching before bed and in the morning let my body feel nurtured. Water aerobics and massage sessions did the same thing. At different times, when I let these lapse, my health suffered. Even a soothing cup of afternoon herbal tea can make me feel better.

All of this self-care is part of grief, healing, and the unerring journey toward life and living. Each of these things directed me away from death. Sometimes that was painful because it made me feel that I was leaving my husband further and further behind. I felt as if I were losing him over and over again. This stretch of the road fell behind me at some point though as I moved forward to a new life that would develop around me, and as I realized the love we two had shared would never die. I could take it with me.

Jostled by the pace of this new life, I encountered other problems. How would I spend the next part of my life?

Who would I turn to? Loneliness gave way to pragmatism. Faucets had to be fixed. Grass grew too swiftly. Bills continued to arrive in the mailbox.

Well after I had taken care of issues surrounding my husband’s death, I learned that my grace period was over. I could no longer shelter under a cloud of grief. I had to face the real world and all its demands.

One step at a time, I waded through the tall reeds of everyday life. I went to work, dealt with home repairs, came home at the end of the day to an empty house, and felt again a sense of normalcy. I grew stronger. I fell down. I got back up. I explored my new world, made choices, changes, and decisions.

Each type of loss brings a unique set of problems.

For those like me who lost a spouse, the pain at seeing a loving couple holding hands may turn to wonder as we consider what life is left to us. Would there be another love for me? Did I want that? How would it happen? Could the emotional past be part of a new future?

Navigating life after loss to suicide is complicated. Whom do I tell? At what point? Can I start over? These questions remain unanswered for me, and there are others yet to be discovered. At the Alliance of Hope’s community forum, there is a section for those who are asking questions like this. It is called “Turning Back Into Life.” Here, survivors can talk about the issues they are facing. Once again, we find we are not alone.

No matter where you are on your grief journey, connecting with other survivors of suicide loss will help. Reaching out to others may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but it will be the best thing you can do for yourself.

I promise.

Imagine Thriving

It’s been almost a year since my sweet, handsome, loving, giving, funny, kind, and compassionate husband took his life from depression. The shock, fright, grief, confusion, and utter disbelief have been unlike any other. I have finally gotten to the point where I no longer shake every day.

I have given great thought as to how I want my life to proceed, and have come up with my own mantra: “IMAGINE THRIVING”

I ordered a necklace with those two simple, yet profound, words on it. It has two meanings for me. One is to imagine how those with mental illness could have possibly gone on to thrive if they had been willing to get help … if the stigma of this illness no longer existed … if more help had been available. The other meaning is personal. It is my goal: To thrive – not just to “survive this”.

Surviving is simply to bear the pain and exist. Thriving means to go beyond the pain and be better. I will thrive – not in spite of what happened – but because of it. I will flourish. It may take me a very long time, but that is my goal. I will take baby steps and inch forward day-by-day. This will not define my life, but enrich it. That is hard to imagine right now but with time will come acceptance, and hopefully peace.

I hope those two words can help others on this incredibly difficult path, to move forward with grace, dignity, and kindness. I have never met any of you but love all of you. You are playing such an incredible role in my healing.

Am I a Widow?

I have been contemplating what it means to be a widow a lot recently. Society has a very definitive idea of what that word means. We visualize a grieving woman who was married to the man who died. For me to claim that status with the government, he and I must have stood in front of someone with proper authority, signed a document and then filed it with them. But, is that what makes someone your husband? Is that truly what would define me as a widow? The more I think about it, the more I believe, “No, it doesn’t.”

Twenty-one years with the same man, does that make me a widow?

For the first few months, I didn’t use that word. I’ve used it a few times, but I’ve felt bad using it. I felt I was somehow cheating the women who were “actually” married. Then it occurred to me that a woman could be married for six months and still be considered a widow. Not that her grief would be less, but is that more important than my 21 years? Should it be, just because we didn’t sign a piece of paper?

Many, many years ago I declared my love for him first. He was young and headstrong and a bit of a misogynist…well at least he didn’t like certain types of women and most women seemed to fall under that umbrella. It took him longer to say the words. I think he felt them but was scared because he didn’t trust me. He had to be sure I wasn’t one of “those” women. I remember the first time he said those words to me. We were lying in bed talking and he said he had something he wanted to tell me and wanted to make sure I was focused on what he wanted to say. He put one hand on the side of my face and looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” In that moment my world froze. My blood pressure must have shot through the roof when my heart stopped beating for a moment because when it started again all I could hear was the blood rushing through my veins. And then he kissed me.

So when I think of that moment and every other moment since then. More “I love you’s” than I can count or remember. Arguing, laughing, making plans for the future, talking for hours even after two decades and you’d think we’d have nothing left to say, moments when we didn’t have to say anything, cooking him dinner, him taking care of me because I was sick or had surgery, him bringing me a present and looking like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning waiting for me to open it, reading the newspaper together, him saving coupons for me, him teasing me about how I use the words “actually” or “purchase,” him showing me every video he could find about Led Zeppelin, dancing, beer, motorcycles and so many other things I could never possibly fit on this page.

Am I allowed to use that word? Because I still feel guilty when I use it. I feel like I’m lying to people, but what other word describes my loss or our relationship? When I say he was my fiancé, people look at me like it’s not as important, but I feel the need to follow it up with how long we were together because I don’t think they really got it, and then their expression changes and suddenly what I’ve said seems to mean more.

Is it a lie? Am I breaking some rule when I say that I’m a widow?

I’d like to know from the other widows and widowers…does it count? Does it offend you when I say I’m a widow and technically I’m not?

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

A picture popped up on my Facebook memories today – my most commented-on photo of 2011. It was me and my oldest son, at the top of a ski run in Northstar, taken on this day eight years ago.

I decided to share it to my timeline with the simple caption: “8 years ago… crazy how time flies.”

But then I felt the urge to share a little more so that people would understand what that photo really means to me.

I added the comment: “Some may not realize that this picture was taken just days after our first Christmas without Chad. 6 months post-loss. We were in Reno visiting family and spent a day skiing at Northstar. At that time, I was doing anything and everything to prove to the kids, and to myself, that our lives were not ruined. Memories of that time are a blur, but I do vividly remember stepping off the chair lift and smiling for this photo. To see it pop up on my FB memories today, as I sit here pondering the fact that this decade is almost over…. Surreal.”

I don’t know why I am suddenly open to sharing more. I participate here on the Alliance of Hope forum, but other than that, I rarely share publicly about my grief. There are many new friends and acquaintances who may have never heard me say something so personal.

I think my desire to open up could be because I feel like I’m at a turning point. I don’t know exactly when, and I especially don’t know how, but I feel like I will be starting a new phase of my life soon.

The kids are growing up. I am actively trying to start dating. Within the next couple of years, I will likely have an empty nest. I’m closing out my 40s.

The fact that this turning point comes at the end of the biggest decade of change I have ever experienced; I guess that’s fitting.

This decade began with huge changes. I started my teaching career in 2010. Lost my husband in 2011. And have spent the better part of the entire decade learning to survive and trying to thrive. I’ve celebrated accomplishments and rallied from setbacks.

In many ways, I feel like I am indeed stepping off the chair lift; as if I’ve been working my way up a mountain the past eight years. Except it hasn’t been an effortless ride; spent sitting in my chair, swinging my feet, admiring the views. I’ve weathered storms that would rival a blizzard. There have been times when I felt like the chair stopped and I had to pull myself, hand over hand, up the side of the mountain.

But I’m at the top now. I know it’s not the end of the journey. But, I’m ready to ski down this run and enjoy it. I’ll have to get back on the lift again. Ascend the mountain, again and again.

But for now, I’m stepping off the lift and smiling for a photo. It’s time to look at the beautiful landscape, appreciate the people around me, and enjoy the wind in my face as I glide down the slope.

Words That Trouble Me Now

Since my husband passed away, certain words are like ticking time bombs to me. There are many words that set me off.

For starters, now I hate the word “expired.” I work in a nursing home and they use it there. Expired is what eggs or milk do when they spoil and go bad. My husband was far from spoiling or going bad. 29-year old’s are not rotten food.

And the word “late.” I got a call last week regarding my late husband. What the heck was so late about him? He died way too early. There wasn’t a late thing about it. That was the 1st and so far, the only time, I’ve heard him referred to that way, but it struck me hard.

I also now hate the word “beloved.” Why is someone who has passed beloved? Like it’s past tense. Like they aren’t loved anymore. I still love my husband more than anything. I will never say that I loved him as if I no longer do. He’s still with me in some way, shape, or form. His physical body may not be here, but he will always be alive to me.

I have problems with the word “deserve.” I’m trying to move on with my young boys as best I can. When we have plans or go somewhere, we are told that we deserve it. And that I deserve to be happy. To me, you deserve credit when you work hard on a school paper or work assignment. This is not something I wanted to work on. This is not something I’m doing because I want recognition. I’m not moving on because I deserve to. I’m moving on because I have my little boys and I must.

The last word I will mention is “surprise.” The word used to have good connotations for me. Surprise parties. Surprises for my children. A happy unexpected event. But now, the word is tainted. After my husband passed, I got surprises that made me cry. Mail in his name. Mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Cards or gifts from people out of the blue. Songs on the radio that set me off. It seemed I was always getting a surprise that ruined an otherwise good day. Surprises sent me right back down to the bottom. Never thought of surprises as a bad thing. Now they are.

Survivor’s Anonymous

I have been thinking a lot about Alcoholics Anonymous. Well, that is to say, I have been watching reruns of the show “Mom” (which is a great show by the way) and that got me thinking that AA and grief support have a lot in common.

Alcoholics may come to rehab thinking, “If I just kick this habit, I’ll be o.k.” But the ones who have lasting recovery come to realize that they will never be cured. Instead, they will always be in recovery.

The same can be said for suicide loss survivors. We heal and our lives grow around our grief, but I believe we will always be in recovery.

Most grief groups are geared for the newly bereaved and in the beginning, grief is physically and emotionally overwhelming. It takes intense courage, commitment, and support to get through the initial phase of grief. Just like in rehab or detox.

As a moderator on the Alliance of Hope forum, I relate to the newly bereaved because I have been there. I remember. I offer hope that healing can and will happen. I am living proof. In AA, I would be a sponsor.

But even sponsors need support. They are still in recovery but need a different kind of support than the person in detox or the one who is receiving their 30-day chip.

Watching “Mom,” I noticed that people in the meetings talk about fighting the urge to drink for different reasons. The most common challenges mentioned involve the trials and tribulations of life – the troublesome times. And the characters on the show know they need support to make it through these times without drinking. They have a saying when life’s troubles strike: “I need a meeting.”

Life’s trials and tribulations can thrust survivors into a grief wave. For me, the most common trigger is something breaking down around the house. The toilet is running – and suddenly I am sobbing over my dead husband’s picture. I suppose an alcoholic might have the same dilemma. The toilet is running – and suddenly they have the urge to drink.

I have been worrying that I am viewing life through the lens of my husband’s suicide. Actually, I’ve been kind of beating myself up over it. Telling myself that I am “stuck” in grief.

But I’m beginning to realize, I am not stuck. I’m in recovery. I will always be in recovery.

When the toilet is running, or the A/C needs repair, or one of my children is experiencing a milestone – I need a meeting. That’s when I come to the AOH forum.

The only problem is that I am afraid to go on the forum and share authentically because I don’t want to frighten new survivors. I don’t want to comment on one thread about how there is hope for going beyond surviving, and then turn around and post another thread about how I am feeling sad over anything – from the stupid running toilet to the fact that I am terrified of growing old alone.

It is hard to admit that after 8 years, I still grieve.

So, I come to the forum and support others, but I don’t really share. I am like the recovering alcoholic sponsor, who is at the meeting to be there for others but doesn’t admit when I need support.

I saw a rerun episode of “Mom” recently where the character Marjorie, who is a long-term recovering alcoholic and sponsor of many, was struggling. Her own sponsor, sober for 40 years, had relapsed and started drinking. Marjorie’s husband had a stroke. She was overwhelmed with caring for him. She felt old and invisible, had a meltdown at a grocery store and an argument with a good friend.

Marjorie stood up at a meeting and shared her frustration and heartache. She admitted that if she were new to AA, the things that were happening to her would have been a reason to call her sponsor, but she didn’t have one. She said, “Even an old-timer like me needs to remember that you can’t do this alone.”

All the other people at the meeting, most of whom had far fewer years of sobriety than Marjorie, were moved by her share. They weren’t frightened or upset to hear that a long-term recovering alcoholic was still struggling.

That is where AA has done an excellent job of getting an important message out there. Even people who are not alcoholics know that alcoholism is a life-long disease and an alcoholic will never be cured, but always will be in recovery.

Grief recovery has not evolved to that level of public awareness yet. We are still surprised that people grieve after years of survival. When I was new to the forum, in that detox stage, I would have panicked over a post from an 8-year survivor still suffering from grief.

No, grief is not a disease like alcoholism. Grief is UNIVERSAL. Not everyone on the planet will suffer from the disease of chemical dependency or alcoholism. But everyone will grieve, because no one lives forever. Every person will likely lose someone important to them at some point in their lives.

So, it is crucial that we realize that grief is a life-long recovery process. And that we are not afraid to ask for help, no matter how long we have been surviving, or how many people we have encouraged.

I need to realize that it’s OK to share. No matter how long I have survived or how many people I have “sponsored,” even an old-timer like me needs to remember that I can’t do this alone.

Triggers, from the profound to the mundane, will come along and a grief wave will wash over me. I will need to call my sponsor. I will need a meeting. I will need to raise my hand and say, “I am Shelby, and I am a survivor.”

Halloween is Coming

After my husband died, it was terribly hard to look at anything to do with Halloween. Even just driving to work I couldn’t avoid it all. We had enjoyed a mildly scary holiday with our children as they grew up, but in the aftermath of suicide, death had new meaning. I felt the decorated yards, gruesome costumes and other things were just cruel, and they caused me fresh pain. Many of you probably feel the same way right about now.

It has been eleven years, and I have two little grandsons now, ages 2 and 4. It seems easier this year. Most of what we do is related to the harvest time of year. But this weekend there were jack-o-lanterns with lopsided grins on the front steps again, fake spider webs draped along my walls, and superheroes handing out candy at “trunk or treat.” There was music and laughter and candlelight set against the first leaves changing colors. And cupcakes.

As I watched the cutest Wonder-woman and the kindest Hulk decorate their car trunk in the sunny field, a little Batman hoisted a super-size Batman balloon three times his size and carried it here and there. Spiderman climbed into the open hatchback and declared he wanted to give out the candy while his counterpart balloon settled on the grass and nodded sagely with the breeze.

Truth be told, he and little Batman ate quite a bit of the sweet stuff as they dropped great handfuls into bags and plastic pumpkins. But there they were, an Alliance of Four. Yet another sign that life would find a way to go on. They were continuing their daily routine, creating a family, which is their strongest superpower, adding adventure, tucking in memories around the corners, building trust and love and hope brick by brick.

They wore their real identities that day. Maybe no one else knew what superheroes they really are, but I did. How much it took to finish college when all seemed lost, how many times a text or call came in “just to check” on mom, what power had to be harnessed to raise little humans and go to work without sleep when going on had so many reminders of going back.

Going on is terribly hard for a while. A long while. But there is still a good life to be lived, just like there are still good memories. And those things like candlelight and music and cupcakes will be sweet again. At the center of our lives is still the one we lost. Always present. Always loved. Always an influence for good.

How do you go on?

About the Author

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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Imperceptable Change

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

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

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

Our brains are wired to store shocking information.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When Survivors Discuss Suicide Prevention

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

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

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

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

The Original Question:

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

“It’s Too Simplistic”

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

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

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

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

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

“It Requires a Societal Effort”

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

“It’s Unsettling to Read”

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

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

“It Makes Me Angry”

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

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

In Summary … 

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

He Missed Her. I Missed Her. Nothing More to Understand.

Our cat and I were never “close” so to speak. He typically hung with “Moma” and followed her everywhere throughout the house. They were never apart. Any place she was, he was there as well. Losing her was something I’m sure was a great tragedy to him. It’s been nearly 8 weeks since she left us. He has spent most of his time in my closet, under my bed and sleeping on the patio when the evening was cool. I never really saw him cry but I’m sure he did. I’ve had that cat for over 10 years. He was never affectionate. He was never “lovey-dovey”, nor did he really want someone to pet him. My cold little watch cat.

Today, he seems different. Today he has jumped up on the couch and laid on my chest several times. His little nose drooled all over my shirt as he purred his way to sleep. I, couldn’t bring myself to move. I stayed there. Uncomfortable and wanting to turn to my side. I just couldn’t bring myself to do so. He was so at ease. Perhaps this was the first time he felt peace since she’s been gone. I’m not sure. When he would look up, I’d talk to him. “Miss her don’t you Tink? Me too.” We stared at each other as if we understood one another. He missed her. I missed her. Nothing more really to understand. We got it.

Strange but somehow, I am comforted by him. Kimmie taught me how to pet him. How not to “go against his fur” but rather brush downward towards his little tail. He liked that. Didn’t at all like my “man-handling.” I got it, Kimmie. I understand now and Tink and I are getting along just fine. Together, we sit on the couch. No TV. No radio. Just he and I — talking about and remembering you.

We miss you and wish you were here to brush his furry little coat again. His hair covers the floor in every room of the house. I know you wouldn’t care as that was your little buddy. Help me to care for him as you did Kimmie. 


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. 

About the Author

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 »

4 Comments on This New Life:  Treehouses

Tips from Survivors: Finding Your Way

It’s been 4 years, 10 months and 3 days since John left. My world imploded and exploded simultaneously. I measure the time now by season changes, years and privately important dates. No longer months, weeks, days, hours and minutes. There was a time when I did not think that was possible. There was only before John died, and after.

In that time I have been broken, devastated, despairing, anguished, shameful, guilt ridden, heart and soul broken. With each piece of time passing I’ve really struggled to understand exactly what and where I am in this remarkable and thoroughly cruddy journey. No one should have to travel this path, but in truth there are far too many souls that have no choice.

In a moment of reflection today, I realized that ultimately what I have been, for the most part, is lost. I lost my love and truest of friends, I lost a family, a future, a past, a normal, a reality and a present. I lost my innocence, I lost my naivety, I lost my ability to be carefree. I lost my real smile, I lost my mind, I lost my life, in short – I lost myself.

I am a survivor of the consequence of suicide and so are you. I have come through this despite myself and a mostly unfair world around me. I did not come through it unscathed. I did not come through it without issues and baggage; I did not come through this as the same person I remember. I did however, get to this point. I’m aware that I’m not fixed. I am a work in progress. I’m aware that there are twists and turns still to be revealed. Most importantly, I have found that in being lost, I have been finding my way all along. I just didn’t know it.

Up until today – well about 2 hours ago, I was so quietly desperate to have a way out, I forgot I was finding my way out. I’ve been impatiently and harshly demanding answers from myself and the mostly invisible universe, for a way that ironically would not have been my own. So this I think is a path that we ignore or just don’t see within our grief and loss.

In loving, we became someone else mostly without realizing it, so without them, without the life and beliefs we knew – we spin and flounder. We lose ourselves completely. We are so focused on our loss of them and how we are to blame for it and how we wished we had known and done more, that we missed a big point. We also lost who we were, not just who we became with them. We evolved from our solitary selves into ourselves with others and now we are evolving again. It takes time, effort and will to evolve – things we feel are often in short supply.

If John were here now, he would say “Babe, so that probably wasn’t the best decision in hindsight and no, I had no idea that my decision would have such an enormous consequence for you, my family, and friends I didn’t even know I had. I can’t change it, sometimes I truly wish I could, but I can’t. I was lost. I didn’t know how to find my way out because I don’t think I really realized how lost I felt.”

I would offer, “My angel, we all get lost, we all get overwhelmed, we are all disillusioned that our dreams and hopes didn’t materialize as we had imagined, but we get there. Not always easily and not without struggle and pain of so many kinds but we get there. Step by step, knock by knock, moments of pure joy, moments of realizations, moments of different kinds of love and experience. Life is just a series of moments, they constantly change, they evolve, they retreat, they endear, and they destruct but they keep going regardless.”

John would reply, “Don’t waste more moments than you need to, in traveling this new path you did not choose, because my path is not yours. I will never leave you because you keep me with you. You have to be lost to find your way.” He had many moments of brilliance!

I share this with the new and old, the practiced and the novice. It’s okay to be lost. You are going from point A to point B, with only a partial map filled in by others and your own experience. No one can control or imagine what happens in getting to point B. You just have to keep that as the end point and keep following the route as it appears.

I think the entire point of life is to evolve and adapt to what’s in front of you – we do this with experience and learning. None of us have a life handbook – well if any of you do, please drop me a copy. I have found a lot of joy in far simpler things. I laugh. I cry with happiness. I cry with sadness. I feel. I hope. I dream. I have found a lot of peace in my heart and mind and I have found that I am strong enough to face myself and that is good enough.

I may not have found my purpose–may not have found all the solutions I am looking for–but because I now know I have been lost in this new “me”, in this new reality, that I am finding the way. We all find a way. It’s one dream to the next, one personal realization to another, one step, one day, one 10 minutes – it’s a string of small steps.

Take faith in knowing that we can and do survive ourselves and this arduous journey. At times we do it alone, at times we do it with those we love, with strangers, and with those we thought forgotten or lost to us.

Patience, time, reflection, objectivity, a little self-kindness, stamina, endurance and faith in our capability – these are the tools and skills we have to develop. We can only get those through experience.

May joy and peace find you in every dark corner fold or wrinkle, stitch your wounds and ease your pain. May these experiences make you invincible!

The Portable Ted

When my husband, Ted, died by suicide, a dear friend gave me a beautiful basket in which to keep all the things she knew I might want to keep. In that basket, among the cards and notes I received after Ted died, was the laminated ID he wore to work. The photo was a good likeness and looked just like he did when he went to work every day.

One day, after reading through the cards and notes again, I picked Ted up to take him with me. I ached to see his face again, and the little ID was the most “him” of all the recent photos I had. The ID had a clip on it, so soon Ted was clipped to the dashboard of my car – my “Portable Ted.”

He went everywhere with me, clipped to the dash, or clipped in my purse when I went to work. But clipped to the dash was where I talked to him. When it was a “good” day, a day when I missed him and wanted nothing more than to talk to him. Ted heard about how my day had gone, or how much he had meant to me and how enormous was my loss.

Then I reached the stage in my grief when I was angry. And the Portable Ted heard about that, too. There were the days when I asked him endless “whys.” And the days I swore at him like a sailor for leaving me, his son, and my daughter so bereft. Some days the anger was so great I threw him in the back seat and yelled at him. Some days it was beyond anger. It was rage. And he was locked in the glove box – me yelling at him from outside. There was even a period of months when he was locked in the trunk, a veritable Siberia of my rage and pain.

I can smile about this now, almost ten years later. But that little laminated photo helped me express all the overwhelming feelings I had after Ted’s suicide. It was a positive way to let go of the anger and pain, and a way to feel connected when talking to him on the “good” days. We all need to talk out those feelings and the Portable Ted gave me a way to do that.”

I Don’t Know Why

I don’t know why…

I’ll never know why…

I don’t have to know why…

I don’t like it…

I don’t have to like it…

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

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

The choice is mine.

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

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

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

That tragedy happened only to others…

But I know now that life is tenuous and valuable.

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

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

Another Season – Before Suicide Or After Suicide

This is the first day of Spring. I want to enjoy it. I want to feel again that life is good and that soft cuddly bunny rabbits do exist. I want to believe again that flowers are beautiful and smell wonderful. I want to feel and see that somehow, at least most of the time, life is good too.

I used to think of the calendar like everyone else, but now life is either B.S or A.S. I find myself caught between 2 worlds: Before Suicide or After Suicide — and ahead. an unknown frightening future where previous dreams and hopes were laid waste.

As the seasons change it reminds me that life has seasons also. That there is a time for everything under the sun. I was thinking of the poem Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:

“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
A time to search and
A time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.”

Somehow I cling to the hope that I can have courage to live through the seasons of life and with your help, I can.

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

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

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

What Helps: Photography

I have always been involved in photography (in fact, that’s how I met my husband). It takes you outside of yourself, helps you express yourself when you are at a loss for the words, and is good therapy, in my opinion. It also helps me see beauty where I otherwise would not. I recently read a bunch of articles about how it is good for the mentally ill as well, for some of the same reasons. I wondered if I were the only one that thought it was good for the grieving process and found this article: Coping with Death: Grief and Photography  

I’m sure it’s not for everyone but it sure works for me. Plus on my photo site I have garnered many friends and caring souls, much like I have at AOH – although of course, they don’t really “Get It” like everyone here – but it is a good social network for me because I don’t have a lot of support otherwise.

I take a photo a day and have been doing it mostly every day with some exceptions for the last ten years. It was very difficult immediately following my husband’s death when I didn’t feel like taking photos at all, but the desire gradually returned. Some days now, I take a shot that conveys hopelessness, despair. Some days I look for beauty. Some days I write about the past. Some days I concentrate on hope. I usually write my feelings about the photo or the moment along with the photo. It always makes me feel better. Maybe it would make someone out there feel a bit better, too, to try it.

Today I went to the cemetery for the first time in two months because of the weather and my car accident. It was very emotional to be there after such a long time (for me, anyway) and to be there in the snow. On the way out, through my tears, I saw this and was able to get off a quick snap. It seemed a small blessing. I will look at it down the road and remember the sorrow of today, but I will also remember God’s tender mercies in giving me something beautiful to concentrate on before the ride home. Maybe it was even a sign from my husband … as we used to take so many photos of deer together when we lived down south.

A Destination in My Story

My husband’s death has made me face some harsh and painful truths.

I’ve always been a very resilient person. Probably more than most. That’s a truth I never wanted to learn about myself. I can deal with really traumatic situations in other people’s lives and help them through it. My own tragedies I’m not as good with. Until now. Because I must be. 

I feel like in life, you have two choices. The first is the choice to let what happens to you define you and break you. The second is to keep going even when every part of you feels broken.

Sometimes your whole life flips upside down and you just have deal with it. You have to pick up the pieces of a mess you didn’t create. You have to put one foot in front of the other when you don’t know how. You have to be strong because you have no other choice. You have to overcome things no one should ever experience. You have to ask for help with things that you never expected to have to do.

This reality is not what I want. But I’m here. This is a destination in my story – but I won’t let it be the end of my story.

A Veterans Day Remembrance

On Veterans Day we remember all those brave men and woman who proudly served their country. It’s a day of pageantry, parades, American flags, and celebrations of battles won and bravery exhibited.

For families of the fallen—especially those who have lost a loved one to suicide—it can be a day filled with complex emotions.
We are proud that our family member was one of the less than 1% who volunteered to put their life on the line for our country. We hold close that picture of them standing tall in their uniform, and will forever remember the day they joined. We look back on their service and wish they could have received the care they needed when the many stressors of military life became too much.

On Veterans Day, military survivors of suicide loss often worry about our veterans. We wonder if they are suffering like our loved one did, and we wish that we could make changes.

My husband joined the Marine Corp because he loved his country and wanted to do something important. He was patriotic, loyal, and passionate. He prided himself on being able to push through adversity and lived by military mottos such as: “Pain is weakness leaving your body” – “Death before dishonor” and “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” In boot camp he sprained his ankle very badly but didn’t want to be seen as weak so he duct-taped it up and pushed through. He graduated top of his class and was offered a flight school spot. He excelled in flight school and we were stationed in North Carolina where he would fly Cobra, attack helicopters.

He loved his job, but it was highly competitive and very stressful. During our time there John deployed twice, we had two children, a new mortgage, and were hit by a hurricane twice. More difficult than any of these things was the fact that the squadron suffered multiple aviation accidents. John lost many of his peers and began to fear that he would make a mistake that would cost someone their life. He started having anxiety about flying his aircraft and unresolved trauma and loss from an accident in high school started to haunt him.
As a military spouse, I was very worried about him but knew that if I told anyone it might end his career as a pilot. I feared asking for help would make things worse. My husband would see it as a betrayal.

Finally, we talked to a senior officer who advised us to take time off and push through the depression and anxiety. He warned us not to seek professional care or take meds because it would look bad in his record. John was able to push through his pain and return to duty, but the lessons learned would prove to be deadly. John thought depression was a weakness in him. Something to be ashamed of and hide from. I learned that John could pull himself out of a depression and became even more resistant to seeking outside help.

My husband served ten more years, and was a respected leader in his field, promoted several times. He worked successfully, with some emotional and physical pain, up until he experienced combat. In 2004, John deployed to Iraq and flew over 75 combat missions. He was, by all accounts, a fearless leader and skilled pilot, but when he returned home, the demons returned as well. John had trouble sleeping and he didn’t enjoy the things he used to love. He was impatient with our children and withdrew from his family and friends. We talked about getting help but once again John worried that it would change the way people viewed him and negatively affect his career.

Three months after returning from Iraq, my husband died by suicide. I have spent the last ten years trying to understand my own loss and gathering information from other families in hopes of preventing suicides. Suicide is a very complex event with multiple contributing factors. In hindsight, everything is so much clearer. We have new information and a fuller picture of what our loved one was facing. I wish I would have done more, but I did the best I could with the information and pressures I had at the time.

I have forgiven myself for not knowing how much pain my husband was in, and I have forgiven my husband for being too proud to get help.
I now work for an organization called TAPS or the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. We are a national non-profit that provides comprehensive, peer-based support to all those who are grieving a death in the military. I have built programming specifically for survivors of military suicide. After my own loss, I was desperate to talk to some else who had been through this. Studies show that peer-based support is one of the top things that help survivors heal.

The Alliance of Hope and TAPS join together this Veterans Day to honor all those service members and veterans who have lost their life to depression, PTSD, TBI, moral injuries, and anxiety disorders. We honor all those military families who served and sacrificed too. You are not alone. Together we will get through this, and together we will continue to raise awareness about veteran suicide. On this Veterans Day I encourage you to remember the love, celebrate the life, and share the journey.


Kim Ruocco is Vice President of Suicide Prevention and Postvention: Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS)