TRIGGER WARNING: This is the second of two posts discussing the personal journey of a dear friend through loss and grieving as a suicide survivor.
NOTE FROM LISA: We continue our short series on grieving and ministering to the bereaved, delving deeper into the journey of guest blogger, Erin…
After a year of intense grief from my mother’s suicide, when I finally found myself able to seek out others like myself who had been through this sort of loss, I took part in a closed Loss by Suicide group offered by the Bereaved Families of Ontario. I truly found in that circle of friends some kindred spirits who “got me” if you will. After 10 weeks of attending, I told them that I had found my tribe.
Some practical advice I would give to those grieving someone’s suicide, as shared by my bereavement group would be as follows
- Know you can survive. You may not think so, but you can.
- Struggle with “why” it happened until you no longer need to know “why” or until you are satisfied with partial answers.
- Know you may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your feelings, but all your feelings are normal.
- Anger, guilt, confusion and forgetfulness are common responses. You are not crazy – you are in mourning.
- Be aware you may feel appropriate anger at the person, at the world, at God, at yourself.
- You may feel guilty for what you think you did or did not do.
- Having suicidal thoughts is common. It does not mean that you will act on those thoughts.
- Remember to take one moment or one day at a time.
- Find a good listener with whom to share. Call someone.
- Don’t be afraid to cry. Tears are healing.
- Give yourself time to heal.
- Remember, the choice was not yours. No one is the sole influence in another’s life.
- Expect setbacks. Don’t panic if emotions return like a tidal wave. You may only be experiencing a remnant of grief.
- Try to put off making major decisions.
- Give yourself permission to get professional help.
- Be aware of the pain of your family and friends.
- Be patient with yourself and others.
- Set your own limits and learn to say no.
- Steer clear of people who want to tell you what or how to feel.
- Know that there are support groups that can be helpful, such as Bereaved Families or Survivors of Suicide Groups. If not, ask a professional to help start one.
- Call on your personal faith to help you through.
- It is common to experience physical reactions to your grief, i.e. headaches, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, etc.
- The willingness to laugh with others and at yourself is healing.
- Wear out your questions, anger, guilt or other feelings until you can let them go.
- Know that you will never be the same again, but you can survive and go beyond surviving.
All of this advice was truly what saved me especially during the first few years of my grieving process. Counseling and spiritual direction were an incredible support as well. Recognizing the magnitude of the loss that my family and I individually had suffered was so important.
Some advice that I would also give to people who are trying to support someone who had lost a loved one to suicide would be:
- Please be gentle with your friend in mourning. Know that their emotions will likely be more intense than may seem “reasonable” due to the stress of the grief they are undergoing.
- Try to let them know that you are here for them, even if you do not understand what it is like to be in their shoes.
- Don’t wait for them to call you or tell them to “call if you need anything.” The truth is that while in this type of grief you have no clue what you need. Some days it may be an accomplishment to simply get out of bed. As a mother I had no choice but to care for my young children, but I would have been so grateful for offers of grocery delivery or more childcare help so that I could nap with my new baby. I personally could not brave the grocery store for months and months after losing my mother (my husband did the shopping).
- Grief is exhausting. Offer help in tangible ways to those who are grieving. Bring food and leave it on the doorstep, or offer to come over and tidy up the house a bit, put on a load of laundry, or do some dishes.
- Offer prayers, but do not stop there. The Mass cards and prayer offerings are appreciated, but so is the offer to lay hands upon the grieving and pray together in person. Avoid saying, “You know, your ______ was mentally ill. God doesn’t hold it against them.” Catholics, please don’t bring up condemnation – that God doesn’t condemn their beloved to hell. I would like to think that this is generally understood not to be Catholic teaching, though practices in the past have confused people into believing so.
- Beyond the above mentioned, do not shy away from this out of fear of what to say. Trust in the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Let your grieving friend speak of their dead. Let them share their story if you are comfortable.
- Offer to watch their children so they can go to counseling appointments, or offer to go with them.
- Bring flowers on an anniversary or for no reason at all.
- Offer to go to the cemetery with them. Know that even the simplest act of kindness means a tremendous amount to one in mourning. This is truly a spiritual work of mercy to comfort the sorrowful.
- Try to avoid simplistic explanations and clichés. Telling your friend that, “They look so well” or seem to be doing great when they are seen out in public can inadvertently be very hurtful. Those grieving will certainly pull themselves together to go to work, church etc. Just because someone is groomed and dressed nicely doesn’t mean that emotionally they are fine. It is so important to look past externals.
- Offer compassion without trying to explain away the suicide. Be aware that holidays are also likely to be difficult now with the absence of the person who has died. Offer friendship during this time.
Finally, I invite others to change the language we use around suicide from saying that someone “committed suicide” to simply saying that they “died by suicide” or “completed suicide”.
These are the phrases now used in bereavement groups and by those who study suicide and work in the mental health field. It does not negate the fact that the individual who died carried out the act of suicide, but it changes the way we look at the intentions of the person.
When Robin Williams died in 2014 suddenly everyone became an expert on suicide. I was grateful to see the topic being discussed so openly in the press and in the blogosphere, but I resented the fact that so many tried to project their own understanding of suicide onto his decision. One blogger wrote something along the lines of, “Robin Williams didn’t die because of depression, he died because of his choice.”
It is true that he did ultimately make the decision to take his life, but we must always understand with suicide that we do not and will never be able to understand the depth of one’s pain at the moment they choose to end their life. To say they committed suicide is to imply that they did something almost criminal. From a moral standpoint, we know that it is objectively a completely rejection of all that is good, even life itself, to end one’s life, but we cannot see into someone’s heart to see a rejection of goodness. We have to trust that the sickness that brought such mental and emotional turmoil into their life was never something that God intended.
For those who are suicidal, all they know is pain and darkness. If losing a loved one to suicide can have any redeeming qualities, perhaps it might be in helping us as survivors to grow in compassion for those who suffer. Rather than passing judgment, perhaps we can expand our hearts to seek to be more authentic with others in our daily walk. To survivors of suicide, telling them to trust in God’s mercy for their loved one’s soul is a beautiful gift, but please know that just as much they need to hear that you are sorry for their pain and that it is real. Even Jesus wept in the Garden of Gethsemane and we too embrace our humanity when we walk through the valley of tears with our Father during times of grief.
I am amazed at how others have opened up to me in this past few years, sharing their own stories with me and trusting me with their pain. It has been an honour to know that despite this horrible grief that I have endured, somehow God can use even this for His glory. It is a mystery to me that it is possible, but somehow He brings it all to good in His merciful plan.
The other blogs in this series are:
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!