Tag Archives: coping with grief

Grieving + Grief Support for Survivors of Suicide

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

grieving-tips-for-suicide-survivors

  1. Know you can survive. You may not think so, but you can.
  2. Struggle with “why” it happened until you no longer need to know “why” or until you are satisfied with partial answers.
  3. Know you may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your feelings, but all your feelings are normal.
  4. Anger, guilt, confusion and forgetfulness are common responses. You are not crazy – you are in mourning.
  5. Be aware you may feel appropriate anger at the person, at the world, at God, at yourself.
  6. You may feel guilty for what you think you did or did not do.
  7. Having suicidal thoughts is common. It does not mean that you will act on those thoughts.
  8. Remember to take one moment or one day at a time.
  9. Find a good listener with whom to share. Call someone.
  10. Don’t be afraid to cry. Tears are healing.
  11. Give yourself time to heal.
  12. Remember, the choice was not yours. No one is the sole influence in another’s life.
  13. Expect setbacks. Don’t panic if emotions return like a tidal wave. You may only be experiencing a remnant of grief.
  14. Try to put off making major decisions.
  15. Give yourself permission to get professional help.
  16. Be aware of the pain of your family and friends.
  17. Be patient with yourself and others.
  18. Set your own limits and learn to say no.
  19. Steer clear of people who want to tell you what or how to feel.
  20. 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.
  21. Call on your personal faith to help you through.
  22. It is common to experience physical reactions to your grief, i.e. headaches, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, etc.
  23. The willingness to laugh with others and at yourself is healing.
  24. Wear out your questions, anger, guilt or other feelings until you can let them go.
  25. 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:

Suicide Survivor Shares Her Journey Through Grief, Part One

Bereavement: A Call For Greater Support to the Grieving

IMPORTANT NOTE:

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!

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Bereavement: A Call for Greater Support to the Grieving

grieving processOne of my older brothers is going through a Master’s program in Theology currently. “Spirituality of Death and Healing” is a class he is attending, which has produced fodder for some riveting conversations. Having lost our dear Mom four years ago today, we have lived through more than I thought I would in my 30’s: Her initial Cancer diagnosis, months of treatments, remission, Cancer re-diagnosis, more treatments, Hospice, her death, and then bereavement.

In the beginning of this past December, my brother texted me something “random” (my use of quotes is due to the fact that if you know me, then you know that I don’t believe that anything is random). In the message, he thanked me for the “tremendous sacrifice” that I made four years ago to stay with my Dad in the last weeks of our Mother’s life. I share this in all humility, as it’s hard even for this writer to share something of that intimate nature into a public space, let alone unpack it’s meaning. But since I know that there are many, many others who have done the same – or will do it, I wanted to use this as means to affirm your choice of caring for and ministering to the dying. There is no other experience that I find comparable to this inexplicable time of suffering, preparation, grace, and indescribable love.

We do what we are called to do, and His grace is always sufficient; yet it can take months, actually years, to work through the aftermath. It was that unexpected text which blessed me in a way that I didn’t know I needed. It was a message to help press on amidst the intensity of what has been swirling around us.

This blessing came after four unplanned experiences of ministering to families of the dying or deceased last year, and right before two more. Without fail, these experiences always reveal new areas of my heart that need Christ’s healing – so it’s a process where I am being ministered too as well. God…He knows how to get things done!

Our own journey has revealed what I view as a deep deficiency in support during the grieving process. My brother and I discussed how the Church is often good at preparing a soul for death (i.e. Chaplains, administering Sacraments, etc), but can fall short in supporting the loved ones after the funeral. As my Mom was dying and right after she passed, many poured out their support – it was beautiful. But people had to go home, as is the case, and get back to the lives. And that’s when it gets tough, as you stumble through the “new” way of life that was not of your choosing.

Looking back, I think I resented that at the time. I was newly engaged, but did not have my Mom at such a time that we had waited and prayed for, for years. Beyond that, a girl naturally wants to plan her wedding with her Mom. Things continued to move forward for everyone else, but our family would never be the same.

I had this form of anger, that I wanted others to understand what the world had lost when my Mom died. That I was coming into a time of my life when I needed her so much, but she was gone.

But things got busy and life had to keep moving. I was sometimes surprised to receive support from the most unexpected people and didn’t know what to do when I felt support lacking from “expected” people in my life. It was a time in my life that I am glad is behind me.

Even four years later, I haven’t gotten over the grief – I’ve just reached a different state with it. Yet the lessons I’ve learned will always stay with me. People need people to show their love and support, to be there, long after the funeral. I believe the lack of this occurrence may have something to do with our culture, and also with the awkwardness of what to say or do to family in the grieving process. Prayers are so important, but mourners need more than that, undeniably.

This became more apparent when I had something to compare it against. My brother shared the Jewish customs concerning death and mourning that he has learned about in his class. The Jews are obligated to recite what is called Kaddish, (Aramaic, lit. “holy”); brief prayer recited by a mourner or by the chazan. “It is part of the mourning observances for a parent, sibling, offspring or spouse for one month, starting immediately upon burial. For parents, the mourning continues through the rest of the year because of the obligation of ‘honor’ in addition to the mourning.” [Source: chabad.org]

The Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but rather is meant to help those who mourn.

Think about that. The community surrounds the grieving family and supports them from the funeral, through the first week, month, and year that follow. This is much more than a ritual — it is providing necessary support by bringing the community together on an ongoing basis for those who grieve.

I strongly believe that there is much that our culture can take away from these Jewish practices. I’m intrigued to learn more about “How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn As a Jew”, which can be found in the recommended book, “Saying Kaddish.” It’s on my reading list, and then from there, how to apply it will be the takeaway.

This concept is so critical: To stay, pray, and care for the grieving. Not just for the day, but the Jews stay with them for days, and have set “checkpoints” beyond that. Shloshim, the first thirty days, the Jews exempt mourners from responsibilities of social, business, and religious life. It’s not take the rest of the week off and then back to the grind.

Reaching out to grieving instead of have them find their own way – and to do that in the days, weeks, and months ahead — I believe it would profoundly impact our culture. How much dysfunction can be traced back to the loss of a loved one from which another never recovered?

Personally, I know that there are grieving groups that I could’ve joined at Church, or I could’ve gone to Counseling; but at the time when my Mom died, I just couldn’t initiate or do “one more thing”. It honestly took all my energy to try and make it day-by-day at work and get through 5 months of destination wedding planning. I felt like diving into the loss of my Mom around other people grieving would just open the wound deeper and make me cry more, and I wanted anything but that.

I think friends tried to avoid the topic . I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end of the awkwardness that comes from loss. While this should be an obvious point, I will give a bit of advice: Saying too much is often what will makes things awkward. I know that people are 100% good-intentioned when they try to console, seriously; however, when you’ve just lost someone who meant the world to you, having someone say things like, “Well, s/he’s in a better place” or “at least she’s not suffering anymore” just did not feel comforting.

This coming from someone who whole-heartedly believes in Heaven and is working out my salvation daily in “fear and trembling.” God, I prayed that she was in a better place– but when grief had a fierce grip on my heart, it just felt, well — to me, it felt something someone should say.

Honestly, death and dying are moments when words often fail. I think that PRESENCE is what really matters. Being present to the family/loved ones is what they need. I honestly can’t remember what many people said, but the people that were there, or that made gestures to show their support across the miles – that I certainly will never forget. Maybe the distance is too great, but a phone call, card, text, social media message, or email, any gesture can be a beacon amidst the darkness of grief for someone.

Sitting with someone and letting them share memories, tell stories, or just say whatever they want to in the moment is the gift of being present that means more than anything. Let someone just be, whether it’s sad, pensive, laughing or crying through memories — and believe me, the emotions will be up and down — that’s a gift to the mourner.

Reaching out to that person also means a lot, as many folks may think someone grieving will initiate contact. Sometimes they may, but many can’t remember who told them, “Call me if you need anything.” That’s so vague at any rate to someone overwhelmed by loss. I’d venture to say not to expect someone who is nursing a broken heart to readily call you, wanting to talk about it. Often times grieving brings depression, which means people want to withdraw. So it takes a friend to know when someone has gone deep into the isolation of depression and needs help reconnecting with the land of the living.

There are no hard and fast rules to grieving – it takes on a myriad of approaches. You don’t even know until you are in it how you will deal – and even then, it’s hard to determine what is best for yourself in moving forward. Sadly, many folks are just trying to survive.

I believe it simply comes down to love.

Love is what rescues the lost and brings them back to a safe place to reveal what’s in their heart.

There is undoubtedly a reason that comforting the afflicted is one of 7 Spiritual Works of Mercy. I know that my soul would’ve wrestled with the loss like it was falling into a black abyss without the context of my faith to place it within, and the comfort of those who love me. My experiences certainly haven’t been void of comforters, but they have caused me to issue a call for greater support to the grieving.

Paul Coakley, a young man that I went to University with, passed away this week from Cancer. A 30-something-full-of-life-and-faith man died a few weeks after his diagnosis… Lord have mercy. Even though I didn’t know Paul well, the witness that he and his wife have been profoundly moved me to the point that when I learned of his death I sobbed. Amidst the loss of a young shining light and true adventurer, it has been beautiful to see the community rally around his pregnant wife, young children, and loved ones. I pray that the support will continue to span the months and years to come, as that is when they will really need it.

That is what we are called to – comfort the afflicted. One way to do this is to be present to those who are in mourning, love them, and be attentive as to how God may want to use you to minister to the dying and their loved ones. Reach out to them. It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture, but even a small, “I’m thinking of you” could be a light to them in their time of need. Don’t be afraid to speak about the person they lost – share the good memories and things you loved about them too!

This post is the first in a short series on grieving and loss, including the next post by my first guest blogger on her experience with grief after suicide.

P.S. For a beautiful gift to those mourning as a reminder that your love remains, visit Songs of Consolation.

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The Circle of Life

“A circle is the reflection of eternity. It has no beginning and it has no end – and if you put several circles over each other, then you get a spiral.”
Maynard James Keenan

It was a restless night at my parent’s Florida home, two years ago.  My Mother was laying in her Hospice bed just beyond the room where I would attempt to sleep. Each day she continued to slip away from our world of interaction, lying on her back, saying little to no words.  She would lie waiting, still, hanging on, as she wanted to see him.

Nine months prior, Mom had been elated as any grey-haired Matron, to hear that wonderful announcement: Her oldest Son and Daughter-in-Law were pregnant! Meeting that baby was high-priority on her “Bucket List”, an important list since her second go-round with Cancer. Since the Cancer was in her bones this time, she knew the only cure was a miracle; yet, she had gracefully accepted whatever God willed very early into her diagnosis. Holding on to see that baby nine months later, I knew she was asking God for it to be in His will too.

Nine months prior, I excitedly thought that by living in the same city as one of my pregnant family members, it was my long-standing chance to be there during the birth of either a niece or nephew! My soon-to-be-husband (at the time) and I already had 8 nieces and nephews, and never had been close enough, locationally, when they were born to be able to glimpse at the wonder of their precious tiny newborness. (Yes, I know, newborness is not a word, but I liked it, so take that, spell check and grammarians.)

Those thoughts came way before everything had spiraled down too quickly with Mom’s health. We had seen what was needed at Christmas: Our hearts had desired to be there in her last days, so we decided not to return to Texas until after she passed. As Mom became more and more distant from the physical world—suffering, and slipping into a spiritual one that I’ve only dreamed about—the excitement and anticipation of baby Jacob’s coming consumed me. The few words Mom would utter during those days were incessantly asking for Jacob. Restless, we did not know then how dangerously close her time in fact was, and she needed to see him.

Jacob didn’t seem too eager about arriving, however. I’ve never gone through that time right before labor (yet), but things seemed slow-going.  Seeing how anxious Mom was getting, knowing that her Hospice Doctor had finally confessed she was in her final 2-weeks, I was anxious about when Jacob would arrive too. I called and spoke to my SIL, who I don’t think had slept in a few days, checking on what I hoped was progress.  Watching my Mother suffer was such a deep suffering for me, and with her holding on to see Jacob, my heart would continue to ache until he arrived and she could “see” him.

My SIL told me that she was doing everything possible to get the labor going, it just wasn’t happening yet. I probably broke down on the phone with her – that was quite common at that time. “Keep us updated, please,” I told her, even though they were. I began praying even harder…come on Jacob, we need you here…

It probably was about 8-hours later, when my brother called.  “Her contractions are about an hour and half apart. I’m getting her bags ready for the hospital…” he said.

Over-the-moon, I exclaimed, “You have to tell Mom the news! She’s been waiting to hear this!”

Turning on the speaker phone, hovering it over Mom in her bed, Paul gave her the long-awaited news.

She laid there, eyes closed, as she heard it. Yet I felt that there was something she wanted to say.

“Mom, what is it? What did you want to say?”

Eyes still closed, “Hurry up,” she said.

The room erupted in laughter. I had expected something profound, but it was funny as usual, even on her deathbed.

I never slept well during that time. The door to my room was always left open, just in case. I had drifted off to sleep for not too long, when I heard my mother’s voice amidst the darkness.

I jumped out of bed to go directly to hers. She laid there, with her eyes closed.

“Seven. Seven. Seven. Seven…” she continually repeated.

I tried to ask her if she was ok. She just kept repeating, “Seven.”

I lingered near her for awhile longer, and after a time, she was quiet. I eventually returned to bed.

A few hours later, very early in the morning, another call came from my brother.

“She’s having a tough time…exhausted…it will be awhile…contractions still not progressing close enough…”was the gist of the update.

“Yes, we will continue to pray,” I promised.

I proceeded to write a prayer request—here on my blog, and on Facebook—asking friends to join me in the quick and safe delivery petition. My amazing friends, as always, responded and prayed. I then went into my Sweetheart’s room, and asked him to pray with me. We both felt inclined to lift our arms, hands pointing towards heaven. A gutsy prayer began to form deep down inside, and forcefully came out of my mouth. In my mind’s eye, I had a vision of Jacob fighting with the Angel, from the Bible. I saw a tug-of-war happening in our prayers for his birth, my Mom as the Angel trying to wrestle him out while he struggled to stay safe and warm in his dear Momma’s belly.

I can’t remember the exact words of that commanding prayer, as things said from the soul are meant to be prayed and not remembered verbatim, but it was something like:

“Jacob! Be kind, and stop fighting with your Mother. Come out!! God, you are the author of life, make it so!”

We laid there, waiting, praying.  And about one and half hours later, not long after SEVEN in the morning, another update from my brother.  After our earlier conversation, some things had rapidly changed. The contractions quickly became so close together that apparently the Doctor could barely get there in time to deliver the long-awaited baby boy. A text came shortly after, with this precious photo. Jacob was here!! This is who we had all been waiting for, but most of all Mom.

Newborn Jacob w Daddy

Crossing the birth of her newest Grandson off of her Bucket List, Mom’s decline now was speeding like a bullet train. Her eyes were no longer opening, her voice could no longer be heard…her soul was still in her body, but that body was breaking down quickly. All I could do was be near her, trying to make her as comfortable as possible, giving my Mother Morphine. It was killing me.

My brother and SIL wanted Mom to see the Baby too. They Skyped with her and Dad, introducing Mom to her Grandson. Her eyes, that had turned inward, struggled to open and see. I couldn’t even stay in the room, it was too much for me.

Everything was happening too quickly. Jacob arrived on January 19th. We celebrated Mom’s 64th birthday on January 21st. The morning of January 23rd, shortly after a middle-of-the-night “Festival of Praise” over her (Dad, my other brother, Mike and I) she was called home.  “For both in life and death, we belong to God…”

There it was, before my own eyes, the circle of life.

After the funeral, Mike and I stayed with Dad a bit more, to help in those first couple painful weeks of the aftermath.

When we did leave what had now become only “Dad’s house”, it was another separation that caused me much suffering and grief. Leaving my Father to his grief, alone in the house that they had built together, the place where my Mother had lived and died. It was the second most tearful goodbye I had ever had, aside from that of my Mother two weeks prior.

I felt like a shell of a human being. Exhausted. Grief-stricken. I was returning home, after over a month, but I didn’t want to be there. I was finally engaged to the love of my life after years of waiting and praying—had wedding planning to do—but even that did not excite me.

On the last leg of that painful 2-day drive back to Texas, we decided to stop by to meet little Jacob. Arriving in their home, hugging, trying to come up with some words, I just wanted to hold that tiny, sweet boy.

Meeting my newest nephew, Jacob Richard, upon our return to Dallas. Holding him was what my heart needed...

A friend called this “Baby Therapy” when I posted this picture, nearly two years ago. Precisely. No Grief Group, book, journal entry, etc…could touch what my heart experienced in this moment. As I held him in my arms, love began to creep back into my broken heart. The feeling was so supernatural, even for this writer, there are no words to adequately describe it.

It’s the circle of life at work, with life well-lived going back to their Creator and new life springing forth to begin living.

A mystery.

A sorrow.

A joy.

In truth, there is no beginning, no end, as the circle continues.

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