Hard To Believe, but Possible
If you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide, you may not believe you ever will heal. — I’m here to tell you that it will take all the will you can muster, along with fake-it-till-you-make-it faith. But the other members of what my support group calls “The Club No One Wants to Belong to” have muddled through, and you can, too. Please–give it a chance–and read on for what you can try that has authentically worked for real survivors.
5 Ways to Begin
The best advice anyone gave me after my son Jacob died was when my pastor told me to take a break from life. As much as possible around the busyness of planning their memorial and sorting out their things, as well as going back to work, take small breaks.
When you first learn the news of your loved one’s death, you feel pain in every cell of your body. It feels physical as well as emotional … and it is.
During the initial period of shock and for months or even years afterward, allow yourself to curl up in bed, nest on the couch, and just BE. Take a “microbreak” with three deep breaths. Watch something that makes you cry, or laugh. Eat that bowl of pasta or ice cream. Be as kind to yourself as you wish you could be to the one you lost.
Perhaps you’ve always been the strong one in your circle of family and friends, but now it’s time to ask for what you need. People rarely intuit how to help, so tell them that you need them to walk with you, sit and be numb with you, sleep over to stand watch during your sleepless night, bring comforting food, help you face clearing our their room … The list goes on.
Your needs are as legitimate as they are unique, and they will change over time.
My friend Lucy, whose darling daughter managed to hang herself with a bedsheet inside a dual therapeutic/addiction medical program, was divorced and living alone. She asked friends to keep watch with her for the first weeks, and they thronged to her side to help while she cried and cried, looking through her daughter’s photographs and memorabilia. Lucy had always been known for her spine of steel, and she could have toughed it out, but instead, she allowed herself to express a huge range of emotions and graced her friends with the ability to be there for her this time around.
Try this in two ways: One, live for the sake of your loved one. Take all the affection you wish to shower on them and treat yourself that way. When Jacob died–particularly because of the way he died, by drowning–I felt guilty for each breath I took, because he could no longer do so. But if I tried turning my fervent desire for him to survive and thrive back around toward myself (which I believe he would wish me to do), I could put that love to good use. Two, stand up for yourself as you would your best friend. When we feel depressed and discouraged, when self-loathing and guilt wash over us, we can sort of trick ourselves into a bit of self-care by reversing the Golden Rule: Treat yourself as you would have someone treat others.
4: Immerse …
yourself in nature. You may have to ask for help prying yourself out of bed or the office. You probably should take a pocketful of tissues. But your inner self will release a huge sigh of relief if you can get your body to the park, forest, lake, or mountains near you. The ions in ocean air, the fragrance of pine trees, or the scent of fresh earth after rainfall, will seep into your skin like balm for the bitterest heartbreak. Do you have a spot where you used to go with your loved one? Maybe that’s the place, unless it’s just too hard. But even if it takes a forklift to get you out of your rut and into fresh air, trust me–nature heals. The same Mother Earth that received the ashes or bones of your loved one in death, also contains a powerful instinct to recover and renew. You don’t have to meditate or think about the cycle of life, or do anything; it works magically on its own.
Brace yourself–you knew this one was coming–anything you can do to honor your loved one not only feels right, it propels you forward into your future in a new way.
Sarah, who runs my suicide-loss support group, shows up for others in grief every month. It’s been over twenty years since her husband shot himself in the head to end his deep depression and physical disability, and Sarah has worked very hard to keep herself and her daughter alive. She’s even married again and has many moments of happiness. However, the love and loss of her Henry are not a flu from which she will recover but a lifelong wound, and she proves to the rest of us that we all can build scar tissue by taking action to honor the one we’ve lost.
For me, I toast Jacob when I drink his favorite type of tea. I talk to him in my head when I’m out walking. I dare to write this blog with the hope of connecting with people in pain, a talent Jacob shared with so many in his brief twenty-one years.
Anything you do–write their name in the sand, play their favorite music, cook their best dishes on their birthday, light a candle for them, take a class in a topic they loved–the list goes on and on, and it keeps them alive in your memory and in the world.
8 More Options, Tried and True
The longer you survive your loss, the more skills you will pick up to cope.
I vividly recall that for the first long while, I raged against any “tips” people offered me on “recovery” from grief.
I think that’s because so much of it rang fake and forced to me … When we are deep in the pit of despair we do not need lectures on how we should meditate or get over it. We need genuine communication and pragmatic tools. The five methods listed above have served me and real people in my life.
Additionally, other ways I have read about, heard about, or experienced myself, include:
- Find meaning: in their life, their death, and your life hereafter. According to David Kessler in Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, we all seek to ascribe meaning in these three ways and only then can we truly begin to emerge from the pain into possibility.
- Volunteer: anywhere–a soup kitchen, animal shelter, or a suicide-prevention organization. Whether it’s a cause they valued or one that inspires you now, it will prove that YOU matter, now, in this life that has completely transformed in ways you never chose.
- Sleep. Although sleep eludes almost everyone I’ve met who has experienced suicide loss, we all can attest to the curative properties of sleep. Why? because you can forget for a little while. Because your brain and body both reset and regenerate. Because sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can dream about your loved one either still being alive or offering you messages from the beyond, and those dreams become precious gifts to cling to whether you believe them or not.
- Write. Begin with a letter to your loved one. You can bemoan their death, purge all your anger and guilt, put down all the words you might not wish to speak aloud. You can doodle, curse, and reminisce. No editing required. The process of putting your feelings and memories into words will be a lot like my next suggestion.
- Try therapy. There is something different about venting with a person who will hold everything in confidence, take nothing personally, and be a safe space where you can say absolutely anything. My sister Anne went to therapy after our parents died, because she realized she had never really allowed herself to grieve for Jacob and was experiencing the same blockage with them. She spent her sessions mostly sobbing, and she felt much better for it. Therapy is NOT magic (as is nature, above); its value lies in the ability to get thoughts and feelings out into the open so you can examine them and maybe even accept them.
- Celebrate. The first Christmas after Jacob died, we traveled with several family members to a snowy wonderland, because we could not bear being at home. I’ll never forget that once we got there, we were trying so hard to make it merry that we did nothing to bring Jacob into that holiday. His brother and I decided–never again. Now we put his framed picture on the mantel, light a candle, or add an empty chair, to commemorate Jacob’s place at the center of his family, long after his physical presence cannot join us.
- Break the silence. One woman I met in a support group told the story of how her high-school-senior son, an honors student on the football team beloved by all, jumped off the roof of their home one night. They had no idea he felt tormented. And then, perhaps worse for her, her husband and extended family refused to discuss the boy’s death or even utter his name. Their culture forbade it. All this grieving mother needed was to say his name, and to talk about her pain. She found a community in which she felt safe to do so. I think that if and when you can, you should also insist that your own friends and family talk about the life, death, and legacy of your loved one.
- Say their name. Another grieving mother I met visits the beach whenever possible, and she writes her son’s name in the sand. She’s done this a hundred times, on the same and new beaches, and despite the fleeting quality of this act, there is a deep sense of devotion she takes away. And for me, if you read my entries you will notice my son’s name brought up quite often: That’s because, every time I write his name, I revere him, and perhaps even perpetuate him.
Scrap the “Should”s
If you do nothing else, blast this word out of your vocabulary and your mind. No amount of “should dos” will bring them back, and there is no arbitrary timeline for when you “should” begin to have moments of new normalcy or even happiness.
Respect yourself. Give yourself time and space to grieve and adjust, have horrid days and catch yourself smiling, ponder your memories and discover how to have a future. The dear one you lost may have wanted this even more than you do.
Thanks to william-farlow-IevaZPwq0mw-unsplash for the cover photograph.