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Experiencing the Unthinkable

by Elizabeth Harper Neeld

The terrible shock we experience when we learn that someone in our life has died by suicide is automatic. It is elemental. That shock may result in our feeling numb or it may result in our feeling intense emotions. Regardless, we are responding. Our body loses its equilibrium. The brain trauma center begins to produce a corticotropin-releasing hormone that increases anxiety. Chemical levels increase, and our central nervous system becomes highly stimulated. We feel as if we have been “hit in the gut.” Our stomach may be in “knots.” We cannot stop thinking about what has happened. We have trouble sleeping –or we want to sleep all the time. We aren’t hungry –or we are hungry all the time. We find it hard to concentrate. We can’t focus on anything except the suicide and keep asking how this could have happened. We wonder how we could have prevented this terrible death. As one wise woman reported, “We feel like a sparrow caught in a cat’s claw.”

Impact: Experiencing the Unthinkable

What is Normal?

  • Reeling from the news
  • Asking how this could have happened
  • Reliving images over and over again
  • Feeling shame, guilt, anger
  • Feeling intense emotions
  • Feeling numb and detached

A sister recalls:

My older brother and I went to Joel’s apartment. It was just as he had left it. Half a bagel on a paper towel on the countertop. A grape jelly jar open, case knife inside. The navy sweatshirt I had bought him at the Gap spread out on the back of a kitchen chair. In the bedroom, the covers were half off and on the floor. “As usual,” my brother and I said to each other. Vinyl record albums were scattered about. What were the last songs he listened to?

It wasn’t possible that our brother was not coming back. There had to be some mistake. If we waited long enough, Joel would burst through the door. When I said this to my brother, he said, “Oh, Lisa, if he only would.” But we knew the truth, even in the middle of our disbelief.

A grieving partner tells this story:

I cannot remember my own phone number. I took the wrong turn coming home from work today, and we’ve lived in the same place for four years. My mind just will not work. I start from one place to another in the office and forget where I am headed and why. I cannot make sense of reports, the same kind of reports I’ve been receiving since I came to work at this company.

Our boss asked us in a staff meeting one day this week to consider a particular business situation from a completely different point of view. But for the life of me, I could see only the obvious. I was unable to imagine a single alternative.

The Choice for Impact:

To experience and express grief fully

You might wonder: if the responses during this time are automatic, how could an individual not make the choice to experience and express grief fully? That’s the paradox. The automatic, natural responses occur, but we decide whether to fully experience these responses or to try to stifle and suppress them.

And there are many reasons we might choose to suppress our grief instead of express it. The pain might seem unbearable. We may feel ashamed that the person we lost died by suicide. People around us may encourage us “to be brave,” “to be strong,” “to pull ourselves together.”

But it is so important to choose to express grief fully. In whatever way is appropriate for each person.

What helps during IMPACT:

  • Spending as much time as you can with someone who encourages you to talk about the suicide and to express your feelings in any way you want to
  • Connecting with an online support group or a suicide loss survivor support group in your community
  • Asking for anything you need
  • Taking care of yourself

© Elizabeth Harper Neeld, PhD