Very few people know how to connect with or talk to someone who has lost someone very close to them to suicide. In the last ten years, I’ve lost two loved ones to suicide.
My father died on October 2nd approximately ten years ago. I could look up the year but it’s painful enough to deal with the date each year; it won’t help me to also have five and ten-year anniversaries on my mind. He suffocated himself to death with a helium tank. To this day I feel a sting when I see party balloons.
My first husband, David, whom I loved very much, died June 6th 2017. David talked about suicide often. He frequently talked about outrageous schemes he’d concocted to ‘fix his life.’ All of his plans were scary and dangerous. There was never a specific plan and there was never enough information to report to the authorities. I was with him for sixteen years and I left seven years ago when his mental illness became life-threatening to us both. He refused treatment and didn’t benefit from the help I tried to offer for years. We were close right up until his death. I spent each day in fear that he would hurt himself or someone else. I checked in on him every day. I tried to save him. He ultimately died anyway.
The purpose of sharing these two losses I’ve endured is to illustrate that no two experiences with suicide are the same but as survivors we often experience many of the same things: most of us lived in fear for a long time before the suicide occurred. We saw signs that scared us but often we never had any real options to help our loved one. We tried. We lived in fear. We knew we couldn’t call 911 or a suicide line every single day and say, ‘I think he tried’, or ‘s/he might try to kill him/herself but he denies it and I’m afraid he may try again’, or ‘s/he is saying they might do something.’ Some people who lose a loved one to suicide didn’t know there was a threat of suicide but they saw their loved ones struggling and they didn’t know what to do; they couldn’t reach the person on any real emotional level. They knew the person they loved was hurting but none of their attempts to help made a difference. Very occasionally, someone will kill themselves and totally blindside everyone in their lives but that is highly unusual.
Prior to the loss of their loved one to suicide, most survivors do everything they can to cope with their daily fear and they try to be there for their loved one in any way they think may save them. We try to give them options. We may give them suicide hotline numbers; we scramble around trying to find some way to save them. When our loved one dies, we very often blame ourselves. Many of us struggle with guilt, overwhelming pain, self-hatred, shame, confusion, anger (at ourselves, others, the person who died and the world in general), brain fog, depression, anxiety, deep grief … and on and on.
My father’s death was much harder for me than was my first husband’s death. I believe that is because in the years between the two deaths I gained an understanding that it hadn’t been my fault. I worked through the flawed logic that plagues most people who lose someone close to them to suicide. When my first husband died, I didn’t have to start at the beginning on the path to healing—not completely anyway.
Even in my case, where I was able to work through the second suicide more easily, there was a significant amount of pain associated with his death. In fact, I’m still dealing with it.
Many of us ride a wave of painful emotion that doesn’t follow the five stages of grief. We are like ping-pong balls bouncing between pain, denial, depression, guilt, anger and bargaining. We live in a world that wildly vacillates between feeling tolerable and feeling devastatingly hopeless.
I’m writing this blog in the hopes of helping sufferers and the people in their lives who don’t know what to do or say to them after a suicide.
Please don’t ask someone who has recently suffered the loss of a loved one to suicide (in the last year or so) how they’re doing. We know you mean well—we really do. We appreciate your struggle and the fact that you don’t know what else to say. But when you ask, “How are you doing?” with concern and a forced, empathetic smile on your face, we are put in a horrible position. We know that we are supposed to smile and say, “I’m okay. I’m better each day.” The question of how we’re doing makes us feel like we need to comfort the person who is asking. We don’t feel comfortable saying, “I’m a shell of my former self. I feel dead inside. I can’t think. I’m either in pain or I’m numb. I feel alienated from the world.” We can’t say that we are relieved because we no longer have to live each moment in fear, wondering if the person we love is safe every minute of every day. We can’t say we’re relieved because with that feeling comes guilt. And because we fear that you will think we are awful (after all, what kind of person feels ‘relief’?).
Assume that we are suffering until we come to you and tell you that we’re feeling better. If you are an acquaintance, please don’t say anything. Or if you must, please simply give your condolences but don’t force us to fake-happy. If you’re a friend, it’s fine if you want to say that you’re thinking about us or you love us or you hope it’s getting a tiny bit better. If you’re very close to us, you probably don’t need to ask. You might just tell us you love us and ask what you can do to help. Please use our deceased loved one’s name. It is comforting to many of us to know that other people haven’t forgotten our loved one—or that at least they know his or her name and aren’t afraid to say it.
If you’ve lost someone to suicide, what can you say when people ask you how you’re doing? You don’t have to lie. You can thank them for asking and let them know that you’re in terrible pain and you’ll let them know when you feel better. As one of my clients says, “Crappy until further notice.” Or, you can say, “Awful.” You can say anything. You can feel anything. This is a time for you to take care of yourself, not a time for you to take care of the emotional needs of others who didn’t suffer the loss you have. When you lose someone to suicide you don’t want to alienate people around you—you likely feel isolated enough already—but you also don’t have the emotional strength to put on a happy face in an attempt to make other people feel better.
If you are on facebook or other social media, you might consider posting something like this:
As many of you know, I recently lost my (brother, sister, mother, father, son, daughter …) to suicide. I appreciate your condolences, any words of kindness, and any thoughts or prayers you might offer.
Please don’t ask me how I’m doing. I’m suffering terribly. When you ask, I feel like I have to smile and say I’m okay.
I’m getting support and help. If you would like to bring a meal by the house and leave it on the porch, or send a card, that would be nice, but please don’t expect anything from me in return; I have nothing to give right now.
Thank you so much.
To those who haven’t lost a close loved one to suicide, this may seem like a non-issue. This whole blog may seem off-putting to you. Please just trust me; trust the countless people I’ve talked to who have experienced this kind of pain. Every survivor I’ve spoken with has shared a similar point of view around this issue.
If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, allow yourself whatever time you need to grieve. Then allow yourself some more time. Go to counseling if you need to, don’t go to counseling if you don’t want to. Be kind to yourself. Keep a journal. Cry. Scream. Treat yourself with absolute kindness. Time will gradually dull the edges of the pain until it becomes manageable, but it is my experience that the pain never totally goes away – and I’ve come to believe that maybe it shouldn’t. The pain I feel around my father’s death has become mild background noise. It doesn’t interfere with my ability to feel happiness and even joy. It is simply there, as a softly felt reminder of my love for him. It has also become a scar that serves to acknowledge the love I felt for him when he was alive, and that I will always feel.