Ten years ago my dad killed himself and changed my life and the lives of everyone who loved him. When he died, I felt isolated in my grief. I wasn’t the only person who loved him, but my relationship with him was different than the relationships he had with other people. Every person he left behind felt differently about him. While we could comfort each other to some extent, it felt like we were all alone, each of us in our own private world of pain.
To make matters more complicated, friends, distant relatives, and acquaintances struggled to talk to me about my dad’s death. Most people haven’t lost a loved one to suicide and they just don’t know what to say or not say.
Many years after his death, when I felt like I had worked through my grief and might be able to help other people who had lost a loved one to suicide, I contacted a suicide bereavement support network with the intention of offering my services as a volunteer suicide group therapist.
While talking with one of the therapists involved with the program about potentially volunteering, I mentioned that my father had killed himself and that I wanted to be a resource to help other people who were struggling with this unique kind of loss.
You’d have thought I said I wanted to murder babies. She sternly replied, “WE don’t say ‘committed suicide’ or ‘killed himself’. WE say, ‘our loved one died by suicide’.” She then lectured me about why it is sacrilege to talk about suicide in any other way. Her argument was that when we say, ‘he killed himself’ or ‘committed suicide’, we are implying that the person committed a crime. We are demonizing the loved one instead of recognizing, with our words, that they died because of mental illness. The conversation ended abruptly—once I had committed this word-sin, it was clear that she didn’t want me working with her organization.
While I agree that language matters, I had and still have strong feelings about the rights of people who have lost a loved one to suicide. One of those is the right to talk about the loss however we want to talk about it. We all grieve differently and our grief changes over time. One day I might feel angry at my dad and think, “I hate you for killing yourself”. Another day I might feel love and forgiveness for the pain he left me in, or compassion for the pain that drove him to choose to die. I might think, “I love you. Why did you do kill yourself?”
How I think about or describe his death is my decision. Nobody gets to tell me or any other survivor how to talk about it, how to think about it, how to grieve the loss, or how or when to move on.
Group therapy helps some people, but not all people. The same can be said for individual grief counseling. Talking about the death helps most people; but it’s up to you as the survivor to decide who you want or don’t want to talk to about it and what you do and don’t want to share. You might want to lie in bed and drink vodka for a week or subsist on ice cream and potato chips for a few months after losing your loved one and while these might not be the healthiest of coping mechanisms, so what? Nobody else has the right to dictate how to speak, think, feel, or cope with such a profound loss.
My goal as your therapist is to help you grieve—not to tell you how to grieve. My hope is that our work together, whether in group or individual therapy, eases your pain over time. As a survivor, you have the absolute right to your own thoughts, words and feelings.
Therapy isn’t meant to ease the pain of the person who died; it is meant to ease the pain of the survivor.