NOTE FROM LISA: In my journey through grieving and ministering to the bereaved, this God-fearing woman has taught me a great deal. I’d like to warmly welcome my old friend and oh-so-talented writer, Erin, as CDOW’s premier guest blogger!
Lisa and I go way back to our college days at Franciscan University of Steubenville. We both belong to Little Flowers Household and I have always seen her as a person filled with light and joy. Though we haven’t seen each other in probably fifteen years, we have kept in touch, and when she contacted me recently about writing a blog post on suicide and grieving I decided I would take the plunge and begin to share a little of my story and journey with this very sensitive topic…
Suicide isn’t a word we discuss in polite company. It is a word generally whispered in hushed tones, and something most of us, unless touched by it personally, know very little about. So it is natural that when we discover that a loved one has made the decision to end their lives in this manner, we find ourselves completely overwhelmed with all the details. There are the immediate funeral proceedings and burial, but also the process of grieving a death that in most circumstances is both shocking in its timing and traumatic to those left behind. I hope that by sharing a bit of my story of survival in the past two years, others who have struggled with a loss similar to mine may find hope and healing.
My mother ended her life by an intentional drug overdose on October 3, 2012. It was five days after my fifth child was born, a sweet and lovely little daughter whose diaper I was changing when I got the call late in the evening right before I was about to settle in for the night. My older brother contacted me from his home in Vancouver with the news that our mother had died that evening in Toronto.
Truth be told, this was not our mother’s first suicide attempt, and so to say we were surprised wouldn’t be accurate. I felt helpless, as I lived four hours away from her and was recovering from giving birth and caring for a new baby. My involvement in the planning of her memorial service was minimal, and all I was capable of doing was getting to the city and showing up with my husband and children.
My mother, Cynthia, was a mother of five, and a woman who struggled for many years with bipolar disorder. She fought bravely to find a way to manage her illness through medication, spiritual growth, writing and art, finding beauty in animals and nature and gave of herself at times to a fault, putting others needs above her own. She was creative, charismatic, a great conversationalist, often open to new adventures and yet she struggled daily.
I don’t know when precisely her struggles began, but I do know that her teen years were difficult and the scars she carried upon her skin of attempts to numb her pain frightened me as a child. I think her children all lived in a sort of fear of where her pain and depression might eventually take her. Her drug and alcohol addictions complicated matters as well. But the truth is, we all tried to love her for who she was, broken, like the rest of us, searching for the good in a path that most of the time we found difficult to understand.
Suicide loss is a whole different type of grief. It truly is the cruelest of deaths in a sense, because often there is no preparation and usually the trauma of the actual event is something that leaves those left behind in tremendous shock. The family and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide are called survivors of suicide. The normal stages of grief occur, but with them are the added burden of a whole slew of emotions like guilt and anger, coupled with the shame and stigma attached to this sort of rarely mentioned form of death in our culture. The grieving process is more intense because one is left with so many unanswered questions and confusion.
I remember the early days of mourning my mother’s loss. I often found myself doubled over in pain as though I had been punched in the gut literally. The pain of grief made my body ache and life became physically exhausting. As I had a newborn to care for, I had no choice but to keep going and put one foot in front of the other, but I believe my little one instinctively knew something was not right as breastfeeding brought me to tears so very often when I gazed upon my sweet baby who looked so much like me as an infant.
I thought of my mother caring for me in the way that I cared for my child and felt a strong connection to her as a woman. My older children needed answers that were age appropriate and we sought spiritual counsel in how to discuss the suicide with them. My wise spiritual direction put it to me simply, “It’s like sex,” he said. “Either you tell them the truth when they ask, or they’ll find out later that you lied and resent you for it.” We didn’t want our children learning about their grandmother, whom they loved so dearly, and her death, from anyone but us.
What makes suicide grief so different from all other forms of death? Because of the nature of the person’s passing, it becomes very difficult to talk about the person who died. Normally when someone dies, we remember him or her in photographs, mementos, and ceremony. Looking at images of a loved one who ended her life for me became a source of pain, not of comfort in the early days. When I would hear others speak of their mothers, I grieved that mine was gone. It was difficult to remember the good times. The emotional landscape was bleak for some time to come, and even now, two years later, I still struggle when the tears flow at awkward moments. I miss my Mama.
I found myself especially sad on the third day of each passing month in the first year. As we reached six months and then a year and so forth, I found myself torn between being grateful for the passing of time and the slight lessening of the intensity of emotional pain. Yet in another sense I struggled with wanting to keep her memory alive, not to forget her voice and face and smell and presence in my life.
I believe many of us have an illusion that grief is a linear journey; but the truth I have found is that suicide loss brings waves of grief like the tide flowing in and out. All sorts of experiences can trigger memories that bring tears and unprepared for emotions. In the early days I found myself unable to go out in public except for rare occasions.
Because of my mother’s sudden death, people would often ask how she died. I didn’t feel comfortable answering those questions with those who were not close friends. And yet I know many people were aware of the circumstances, but didn’t want to mention it to me because, let’s face it, talking about suicide isn’t something we know how to broach with a survivor. People don’t want to upset you, and even if they know that you are likely thinking about the loss on daily basis, it is uncomfortable.
I remember once having a friend call on my mother’s six-month anniversary of death. She wasn’t aware of the date and when I told her that I was having a difficult day she said, “Oh, I’m sorry! I hope things get better as the day goes on.”
I told her frankly that it was unlikely, and that it was okay that the day would be difficult. I learned to let people know that they didn’t have to make things better or avoid talking about the suicide. All they had to do was listen and sometimes commiserate with a simple, “Man, death sucks!” Or to say, “I’m so sorry you are suffering like this!”
I have a dear friend who lost her mother to ovarian cancer almost a year later than my mother, and even though losing our mothers took on such different forms, we still have been able to share together in the journey of loss. We’ve seen how there aren’t really any words at times to say, but just to be there, to comfort with our presence and to let others know with a simple phone call or visit, that it is okay to not be okay. That it is what it is and that grief is simply a part of life and of being human. We all will go through it at some point or another.
I am grateful for my husband and the circle of close family and friends I have who were open to me speaking freely when I needed to; but, as a survivor of suicide, you do reach a point where you feel like “Debbie Downer” talking about your grief too often and tend to isolate yourself so as not to burden others. Grief drains so much of your physical energy and many days I would find it difficult to accomplish my daily tasks. Inviting others into my home or going out socially was something I only did when I felt strong enough, and always with an escape clause if you will if things got difficult.
There is a fine line between knowing that the only way to end the stigma of suicide is to open the discussion up with others about mental health and suicide, and yet at the same time one has to find the inner strength to be able to have those discussions without being sent into an emotional tailspin.
I have come to discover that the best strategy is to choose to share my story with those who have earned the right to hear it, a quote I love from Dr. Brene Brown, author and shame and vulnerability researcher.
Now that it has been more than two years since losing my mother, this journey of grieving has shaped the person I now am. I believe that loss by suicide is an event that is truly transformative. Things I used to take for granted I cannot anymore. Even though my relationship with my family is far from perfect, there is a desire for closeness and connection that we had perhaps neglected, especially since I come from a broken marriage from my early childhood. And yet for me there is also a sense on a general level that living on a superficial plane cannot endure. That is something I learned from my mother during her life.
So I do speak of her suicide frankly now when I share my story with others, I do not apologize for it, or whisper it in darkened corners. I tell my story because I believe that others may find freedom from the stigma that mental health struggles are something of which to be ashamed. Depression and all other illnesses of the mind deserve the same recognition in our culture as cancer and other physical ailments. When one continually feels so isolated and a burden to others in their sadness, suicide appears to them as their only solution.
Sadness is epidemic in our culture, and unfortunately suicide does nothing to alleviate the pain felt collectively. It leaves in its wake so many who are burdened by the loss of one who, even in their struggles, brought value and purpose and joy to so many other’s lives. I invite others to find a place to share their story too because in weakness—when our hands are empty—is truly when we are able to receive the comfort that others can bring.
Join us for a continuation of Erin’s personal journey as a survivor of suicide tomorrow. The next post will contain valuable practical advice for grieving someone’s suicide based on her personal experience and what she gained from her bereavement group.
If you or a loved one is battling through grief as a suicide survivor, and have questions/thoughts that you’d rather not share in a public forum, please send me an email directly –> Send Email. I can get all questions directly to Erin, the survivor and author of this guest post, for personal follow up with you. You are not alone – God’s peace be with you!