As I wrote in the last post, I’ve noticed  6 aspects, from my experience, that make surviving the suicide of a close loved one a wholly unique grief process, different from other kinds of losses. Those 6 aspects are 1. terrifying, mind-blowing shock. 2. darkness. 3.  confusion. 4. guilt. 5. loneliness, isolation, alienation (disconnection from the norm and from peers). 6. Suicide temptations.

We covered the first three in the last post. And I don’t want to overwhelm you with so much writing (I know I can write too much and blog posts are supposed to be short, so i hear) here we are going to explore the fourth aspect of suicide grief, the big one- GUILT. Before we go there I just wanted to say that I have been extremely touched by all your comments, be it through this blog directly or through Facebook. I am deeply grateful for all your repostings and “Likings” on Facebook and it moves me tremendously to hear from you. So thank you and please always feel welcome to comment or send me a message!

 

4. Guilt: The guilt we experience in the wake of a suicide of a loved one feels like a 100 pound boulder suffocating and clamoring down on our chest. The instant we hear of our loved one’s act, our minds snap to thousands of thoughts about what we could have done to save him/her. without a seconds hesitation, we take our loved one’s choice onto our own shoulders. “Why didn’t I do this…?” “I should have done that….” “If only I had done…..” or “If only I hadn’t done….” The inner wrestling begins immediately. Everything somehow becomes our fault. The “if onlys” can go on forever, haunting us and torturing our waking and sleeping realities. We can play out the last weeks of our loved one’s lives over and over again and each time revise and tweak something we remember having said or done that maybe, quite possibly, if done differently, could have reversed their fate, and reversed our own. This mental editing is torture. In some ways it is a form of bargaining. It’s a way of blaming ourselves, taking over-responsibility for another’s fatal choice, and it reinforces a lack of self-forgiveness, over and over again. It also subtly tells us that we are somehow more than human; that somehow we could have played god, had more control over another than in fact we had, and super-imposed our version of what we think should have happened for another person’s destiny or soul’s purpose onto their life.

 

 

We are merely human: It’s a stark and sobering lesson to unpack, and may come with time (certainly not in the early weeks after a suicide). We do not have the power to save another in such a way; our hands are tied.

Yet the guilt can fester indefinitely. It can eat us up alive; casting a shadow on our own sense of worthiness. Unfortunately, this a “normal” and common after-effect of suicide. We all feel this in some ways after the suicide of our loved one. There are many lessons to learn in resolving our sense of helplessness and guilt over the deadly choices of another. Like with an alcoholic family member; everyone around him takes responsibility for his drinking, except him. So too with suicide. It’s a hard truth to see for a long time, but the one who took his own life is the one responsible for his choice. No one else.

I wish you the eyes to see this truth and the surrendering of any anger and self-hatred at the things you innocently did or said, or didn’t do or say in the weeks that led to your loved one’s departure. May your heart be filled with kindness for yourself and for all you’ve had to endure.

Gonna get to the last two aspects on the list in the next couple of posts.

Sending strength and self-forgiveness………………xoxo

Sarah

 

 

In response to last post’s comments I’ve been wondering about why it is I feel that not all human pain can be shared and empathized. Some experiences take us to a place that’s so foreign, dark, and alone; unless you’ve visited yourself it’s hard to know what it feels like. However, people who have experienced and overcome suffering from severe traumatic loss share a similar look in their eyes – a wounded twinkle; they stand with a warrior-like presence as they’ve fought the invisible horrors of existence. There’s an unspoken camaraderie a Knowing that’s shared about what it’s like to wander through hell and return alive.

Experiencing the death of a loved one to suicide, especially a partner and beloved, is a unique kind of loss with unique features for grieving. It’s an existential nightmare that rocks our very existence to the core. While as human beings we all have a shared language of emotions from which we can empathize feelings such as love, anger, guilt, heartbreak etc., experiencing the mind-blowing, heart shattering devastation and agony of surviving a suicide is a pain that cannot be imagined or fathomed unless you’ve experienced it yourself. It is not akin to breakups or deaths of other kinds; it is a Trauma and needs to be recognized and framed as such.

My intention is not to minimize anyone else’s pain, heartbreak or loss. As we meander through the trip of life, we each have our fair share of suffering; no one can determine whose pain or loss is the gravest, most painful, or most “special.” Ultimately, it’s how we handle and overcome our suffering and life challenges that makes us who we are and creates a life full of beauty, strength, and character. However, since this is a blog about suicide and I have experienced sudden loss of a beloved to suicide, I’ve come to know that surviving my beloved’s death was the hardest, most painful thing I have ever experienced and will ever experience. I am asserting, both on a personal and professional level, on behalf of myself, my readers, and my clients, that surviving a suicide of a close loved one, and the grief that ensues, is unique, different from other types of grief, death, and loss.  And here’s why:

Based on my own experience and reflection (these are not clinically researched findings), I’ve identified 6 aspects of survivor grief that make this type of loss specific and different and color the experience with a unique intensity that unless experienced firsthand, the magnitude of the pain and intensity is quite unimaginable.

These  6 aspects are 1. terrifying, mind-blowing shock. 2. darkness. 3.  confusion. 4. guilt. 5. loneliness, isolation, alienation (disconnection from the norm and from peers). 6. Suicide temptations.

I’ll explain the first three here and elaborate on the rest in the next post.

1. Terrifying Mind-Blowing Shock: The death of anyone or any traumatic life changing event causes shock. The actuality of the disappearance of someone you just saw, spoke to, touched or hugged does not make sense. One day they are here and the next day they are not; they have vanished into the ethers never to be seen or return again. While this concept can be understood conceptually and intellectually, it has a very different effect when it happens, in real life, to you.  That alone is unfathomable and mind-blowing. With a suicide, however, the fact that your loved one conspired behind your back, presumably for quite some time, to take his/her own life and murdered his/her own body is a terrifying reality (and betrayal) that challenges the very biological/physiological, moral, social, intellectual, psychological fiber of our being. We are hard-wired to survive and the fact that a person over-rid this programming a) speaks to the amount of pain he was in, and b) is horrifying in the unnaturalness of this act. And even if you have an open mind about suicide and can understand on an intellectual or empathic level why someone would choose to take their life; even if you understand that being here is a choice and so too leaving here is a choice, it does not take away, minimize, or soothe the shock and terror of the reality that someone you knew and loved succeeded at crossing the huge invisible boundary between life and death. All the constructs we’ve held onto in order to make sense of the world come crashing down into darkness. All we thought we knew about life is over. Nothing is stable. Our minds are blown out as we try to make sense of a reality we no longer recognize.

2. The Darkness: There is nothing light about suicide. The act of suicide speaks to the amount of pain, darkness, and suffering our loved one felt. People who love life and who feel good simply do not kill themselves. Unfortunately, when our loved ones take their lives, they leave behind a legacy of their pain and suffering. We inherit their darkness. And it’s like a never-ending night with no dawn, no twilight; like a vortex of pain that swallows us up. And each time we try to understand the whys and the hows of what they did we get sucked into the vortex of pain that instigated their attempt and remains to haunts their act. Every time I imagined John walking to the train tracks and laying down beside them wearing his sleep mask, I was wracked with waves of terror and agony that plunged me deeper into the dark, deeper down into hell. In my quest to understand why he took his life I couldn’t help but review his death march in my mind over and over again. I must have relived the morning of his death thousands of times. This is a kind of darkness, existential and cutting, that knows no other. I’ve mentioned before in other posts, the darkness we experience is proportionate to the light and brighter sense of aliveness and joy we will feel when we come out of the darkness.

3. Confusion: The confusion following a suicide is tremendous. What happened? How did this happen? How could he really do it? Why didn’t he tell me about any of this? Why did he choose that method of all the ways to kill yourself? How much pain and suffering was he in? Why didn’t anything I/we did or said help? Why wasn’t I enough? What more could I have done to help him? How could I have saved him? How could he do this? How could he really do this? How could he actually f*ing doing this? How did he do this? The stream of unanswered questions is endless. And will be, forever. Even if our loved ones leave a note, it barely answers our questions; questions that will never have answers. The confusion and terrifying mind-blowing shock reinforce one another until our minds become complete blanks and nothing is known anymore.

Added to the confusion about the motivation and execution of the suicide is a deeper layer of existential confusion. Who are we now that the limits of our own mortality have violently been challenged, erasing our minds into nothing? How do we actually have the capability to stop our hearts from beating? And what the f*ck does this mean? How important is our life, actually? Is it precious or expendable? How do we go on living without our beloved? How do we make it through the day knowing there is a way out, a pathway our loved one forged, and if we just follow it we can be with our partner/loved one again? Why do we bother going through the motions of life? Why do we bother trying to help ourselves, trying to function, or maybe one day healing and living a so-called “happy healthy life?” What’s the point? What’s the use? Why bother getting back to the world of the living when no one understands? Why get involved in another relationship when it won’t compare to the one you lost, no one can compare to the person you are permanently and involuntarily separated from? Why get attached to people when at any moment your beloved can disappear into thin air? How do we make meaning of this kind of loss, this kind of abandonment, and the irreversible permanency of what has been done? How do we assuage the gaping wound of missing someone we can never see again?

If you are a survivor, I’d love to hear about your experience and if what I’ve written rings true for you. I hope this helps give you a context for some of what you are experiencing. I hope you know you are not the only one in your own existential hell. If you are a therapist, healer, or friend of someone who has lost a close loved one to suicide, I hope reading about the experience offers you ways of being supportive and understanding that perhaps you hadn’t considered before.

In the next post I’ll expand on the other aspects of suicide grief, so check back.

Sending strength……………………………xoxox

Sarah

(P.S. Thanks to blog reader John’s comments for prompting me to think about these things in-depth )

Here’s an excerpt I’ve been editing and I feel moved to post it. As always, I welcome comments and feedback! (*just a note – it’s brutally honest and might be triggering. So please read with self-care*)

Date: November 28th, 2009

Subject: in between worlds

Dear John,

I don’t know if being in New York right now is good for me. I’m falling back into that in between state, not wanting to be here anymore, searching for you, longing for you. It’s dark and cold again. I can’t type, I’m going to write by hand. I miss you.

I don’t feel well. I don’t look well. I look pale, dark circles under my eyes. My eyelids are puffy. My muscles feel weak and slack. I feel I am losing my strength, losing my grip again, losing the joy and the drive that I found recently to go on. Life just doesn’t feel worth living without you in it, and what am I supposed to do. I can’t go to where you are. I couldn’t deliberately take my life and yet I don’t want to be here. Don’t want to go on. I suck smoke into my body, slowly poisoning myself with a hard edged glee. And I don’t care.

What would it feel like to be with you again? To run into your arms and race into your chest and feel you alive in my arms? For you to be real again. I would squeeze you so tightly the air would evacuate. You might not be able to withstand my ferociousness. The tears stream and fall down out of my eyes every day. Love and kindness are what bring me to tears. When I see it in life or in the movies I feel you and my heart aches with pain and with love. It fills me with emotions that I can’t describe but they take the form of tears. Grieving is a form of loving.

As time passes it can sometimes seem as if you never existed at all, like I made you up and you are a figment of my imagination. You came and went and the evidence of your life now lives only in my memories. But as time moves on, will I be able to remember you anymore? Some of it has faded. Like I can’t remember exactly what you sounded like and I can’t remember exactly the kind of words you used when you spoke. You were real though right? Too good for this world. And I was lucky enough to have known you like I did, to have shared a piece of your body with you, and to have taken care of you as best as I could.

You haven’t been in my dreams for a while now. I remember when you had first passed, the electricity in my kitchen would go out and a candle exploded mysteriously. I had dreams of you often. Dreams where you were still alive but also dead at the same time and you were going to kill yourself. But this time you were going to kill yourself in different ways, with needles or with a gun. And I wanted to save you. I tried to save you in my dreams but I got there to late, too damn late, and I couldn’t save you. Ah the frustration and rage burns me up. I want to rage the world in a howling lightning storm and smash it all to pieces, smash myself to pieces for getting there too late. My heart is shattered and oozes out love in fragmented ways. It will never be whole again and I don’t know if I can ever love anyone again. I’m growing old and haggard. I see it clearly in the mirror. And it’s ok. The older I get the closer I get to death and the closer I get to you. My smoking helps. I can’t wait to be old. I’m jealous of old people I see walking in the street or wheeling around in wheelchairs. I’m envious of how much closer to death they are than me. I have a good eight to ten grey hairs now in the front. I’m sure they have sprung up in this year of mourning. So be it. I welcome them. I have a feeling though that I’m going to live a long life, like into my eighties. That’s at least fifty years from now- more than what I’ve already lived so far. I can’t fathom it. I don’t know if I can bear all that time ahead of me without you, waiting to see you again. In heaven I want to see you play football. I’ve never seen you play. I want to hear you singing in a concert hall. That would be my version of heaven right now. I never knew you in high school as a football star but I feel like I did. Like somehow I did know you when we were teenagers and I can feel it in a weird way that I can’t describe. I would have loved you and recognized you anywhere, anytime, in any place in history.

I dream of us being kindergarten sweethearts. You chase me around the playground trying to peck my cheek with kisses. I savor each one. I tell all my friends, my teachers, and my parents that one day when I grow up I’m going to marry you.

Oh, I’m not well. I’m really not doing so well right now. But who is there to tell. What is there to say even? My sister Eden is in the next room, pregnant and asleep. I know I should be happy about the things that I have to live for, but deep down, I’m not.

I have to keep believing, keep trusting that things will work out for the best- that everything happens for a reason, that there is some reason for this loss in my life, some reason that you are not here anymore. Its got to work out better than this. It’s got to have a good ending some way, some how. What kind of good ending could possibly make up for the loss of you? I doubt it could be anything that could make up for your death. If there was a way to bring you back, I’d trade all of this, my lot in life, my purpose in life to be together with you again. If only I could.

Sad eyes. You had sad eyes. Sad eyes and a big heart that was so beautiful to me.

I would do anything to be with you again.  Ha. Anything but suicide. Have I said that enough? How nice to be like Romeo and Juliet and have the freedom to die for each other. I don’t have that freedom, I’m trapped in this body and trapped here on this Earth to serve out the rest of my days until I can be with you and die my natural or accidental death. Oh my god. How I wait for the day where I can be back with you and never ever leave your side again.

Everybody has somebody it seems. Loving someone who isn’t actually here is a strange thing. It moves forces in me that I never knew I had. It’s sickly and melancholy and challenges my faith every day when I wake up and I renew it anew. I feel you everywhere. I want to believe it’s you. No. I know it’s you. Am I getting weirder to people because I’m still holding on to you. You the love of my life that abandoned me to suicide. Why does she even still care about him? What is she so hung up on? I can hear them say in their minds. How can I explain all that you mean to me? I can hardly explain it to myself. All I know is that it is love. A love that makes me whimper in the dark with the pain of missing for you and the knowledge that you will never be found.

It’s a year after your death. I have tried to move on. I make a commitment to be happy every day. I am in New York, in bed, writing this to you in the dark. I am in the room that I slept in every night as a child. I am in the room where I lay on my turquoise carpet in despair from my own frustration of not being able to live up to my own potential. I am back in my own familiar darkness and loneliness. The bare trees, sepia sunlight, abstract city lights, cozy interiors, family I feel separate from, and the old familiar ache of something missing. Always looking for love. It’s sixteen years later. Most people’s lives have changed. And somehow mine still feels the same. Almost everyone I know is married, engaged, pregnant, successful, or famous. I am neither of those things. I still lie here alone crying privately with a broken heart. Waiting for you my dear. Waiting right here because there is nowhere else to go.

Nothing compares to your likeness and nothing ever will. Football and wheat fields, the forever golden boy who dies by train. Farm boy superman. The weight of the world on your shoulders. Bitter beauty and sadness everywhere. Down the first road to your farm, down the dirt road to your pond, under the thunderclouds in the rain. The sky is so big I could lose my mind with love. Love that has nowhere to go.

I get sucked down over and over again in endless cycles and waves of grief. I go up for air and I feel I’m starting to reemerge into the world of the living – feeling some joy, vitality, appreciation for life’s gifts and miracles. Finding myself enjoying commercials, consumerism, romantic comedies, trivial conversations, and celebrity gossip. I feel driven to work, to finish this book,  get the PhD and serve others who feel suicidal, help them find the will to live; the will to love. Things seem to be going well and then I get sucked under by a wave of grief that seems to come out of nowhere and the riptide pulls me back into that place where death is near. I am pulled back into hell. Things that might have brought me brief joy are no longer interesting, no longer happy. I don’t care. My pain is too great and all I want is you.  There is nothing in the world that will bring you back and so there is nothing that can help me.

I pray to see you in my dreams tonight. Give me some relief.

Sarah