Originally written in September 2016, this piece served as a reflection on National Suicide Prevention Month and an exploration of how we might keep the conversation going throughout the year.
Now, in the wake of the deaths by suicide of beloved Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, I feel called to share again what it's like to survive the death of a loved one who has ended his or her own life.
And before you read the rest of the post, please remember:
It is a myth that talking about suicide may give someone the idea.
The fact is you don't give a suicidal person morbid ideas by talking about suicide. The opposite is true—bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.
If you or someone you know is hurting, there is help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Call 1-800-273-8255. Available 24 hours everyday
"...As I type, I am flooded with the acute awareness that suicide touches absolutely everyone I know. At times, I feel completely surrounded by it.
Having survived my stepbrother's death by suicide at age 26 (I was just 27 myself, and close to him across our childhoods and young-adult years), I am intimate with the pain and various levels of healing that my family and I experienced in the following days, weeks, months, years...
Prior to his death, I stood by as a best friend coped with the suicide of her father when she was just in college. Later I learned of my husband's experience of dealing with his father's suicide and its lasting impact, which had occurred 7 years before we became a couple.
My list grows to include the recent suicides of a high school classmate who had struggled in silence and ended his life, and a military service member who'd sought treatment from a group of colleagues and tragically lost his battle with PTSD. Most recently, I have witnessed women in helping professions graciously share on social media about their own difficult life paths, and their encounters with suicidal ideation along the way. And speaking of the Internet, there are the countless friends and friends of friends on Facebook who have stood in shoes similar to those of the people I've described throughout these paragraphs; their posts are reminders, celebrations of life, and prevention-oriented.
While one aim of this blog post is to continue raising awareness of suicide and its prevention, I still struggle with the fact that I know I am not the only one who can rattle off a list like this. I believe we all know about the prevalence, and some may even know the exact the statistics... like how suicide was among the top four leading causes of death in males and females, ages 10-54 in 2014, or that national suicide rates continue to rise.
...but the why and how we talk about it remains a mystery for most of us.
Below are a few thoughts on what it's been like for me and others who've lost a loved one to suicide. The list is not exhaustive nor definitive of what it's like for everyone. Please share as you see fit.
- The first thing you should know: there is no right way to grieve, and there are definitely no timelines. Each grief response to suicide is unique to the individual and dependent on so many factors, that it's impossible to expand upon here. When in doubt, ask how the survivor is doing and how you can help. Listen. If a survivor needs his or her space, allow for that, and let them know your door is always open.
- There will be a range of emotions, attitudes, and behaviors that a survivor will experience for months, if not years, after the suicide. He or she needs to be supported in feeling ALL of them. Anger, guilt, shame, embarrassment, despair, relief, resentment, peace, and everything in between. If he or she is not given the chance to lean into these reactions and work through them, the healing process will be so much more difficult than it already is.
- Survivors run the risk of becoming a caretaker for other survivors. Keep tabs on them and make sure they're getting support, too.
- Post-traumatic growth is a beautiful thing and can give purpose to the survivor's life. Show them support if they are carrying out efforts to help others or take a new direction in their own lives. It took a lot to get to that point.
- In the process of healing and recovery, a survivor might think "If only I knew then what I know now." That is guilt talking, and it is ok. Let them feel that feeling, and then inquire if he or she might like to talk to you or a therapist about it.
- Forgiveness is a common and complicated topic of conversation amongst survivors. While it is not the ultimate goal for everyone, it can be a healthy place for many people. Whatever you do, do not judge the survivor for how they feel on this subject. His or her path of understanding and integrating the death into their life story is his or hers alone. Respect it as such.
My front line of support following my stepbrother's death was a wonderful therapist who understood all of these points, and I am forever grateful. If you have any input that you would like to share or you would like to continue the conversation offline, please don't hesitate to post or reach out. Keep the conversation going and take care of yourselves..."
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