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Second Crisis

Stumbling in the Dark

by Elizabeth Harper Neeld

In the weeks and months following our loss of someone who died by suicide, our emotional responses alternate with profound feelings of emptiness. It’s as if we are lost in some bleak, lonely landscape. We can see no direction to take, no path to select. We are living our life in a vacuum. One explanation for this sense of void is that we have lost our assumptive world. We assumed life would go on as we had been living it. We assumed things weren’t as bad as they were. We assumed we could fix things if we loved or worked or tried enough. We did not assume our loved one would end his or her life. But now our assumptions are shattered. At this point we don’t know what to think. In this interim between the shattering of our old assumptive world and the building of a new one, we often experience deep sorrow. We feel we have lost our identity. We often feel consumed by blame or guilt or anger. We may wonder if anything is ever going to be worthwhile again. Or we may just feel so very, very tired.

Second Crisis: Stumbling in the Dark

What is Normal?

  • Losing faith, purpose, direction
  • Experiencing life moving on without you
  • Experiencing emptiness
  • Obsessing with blame, shame, guilt, anger
  • Feeling despondent, sad, in despair

A mother says:

I am wearing pain like a shirt. A shirt that I never take off. I watch the movie Night, Mother with Anne Bancroft. In the movie, the mother tries to save her daughter who dies by suicide. I identify with the Bancroft character. I wish I could have saved my daughter. It’s a strange thing, this sorrow that continues. I want to paint her room. But I stand in front of the smudges on the wall by her closet, where her hand must have rested a million times, and suddenly every color imaginable fills the air. The mirror ball is still hanging in the room, casting rainbows against the blue wall. How can I change something so sacred? But how can I not?

A wife says:

I have to change my life and I don’t want to. What I want is my husband back. But that makes no difference. I feel guilty. I keep thinking there is something I should have seen and something I should have done to prevent his suicide. This house now could be anybody’s house. In the mornings when I see the light hitting the chair where he always sat, the scene evokes the deepest sorrow I’ve ever felt. My brother suggested the other day that I try every day to see something beautiful in the world, if only for two seconds. I don’t want to keep slogging through. I want to grow. But right now I feel as though I’m caught in limbo.

The Choice for Second Crisis:

To Endure with Patience

What does it mean to endure with patience? Maya Angelou says in her wonderful poem-book, Phenomenal Woman: “All of my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated.’ In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.”

When we experience a suicide, we have definitely had, to use Maya Angelou’s words, an encounter with defeat, the defeat of our hopes, expectations, and dreams. The defeat for our loved one of hope over despair. But even in this dark time we can say, “The choice of this experience of Stumbling in the Dark—to choose to endure with patience—I know is possible because I’ve seen other people do it. Other people’s ability to endure after a suicide is a point of light in my dark night. Their actions teach me that it is possible to say with every breath you take: I will have patience. I will endure.”

What helps during Second Crisis:

  • Listening to music
  • Getting a massage; getting a medical checkup
  • Exercising, taking nature walks, building a birdhouse, working in the garden
  • Talking to a wise person about issues that continue to bother you
  • Joining a suicide loss survivor support group in person or on line

© Elizabeth Harper Neeld, PhD